x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Senseless killings in Pakistan require a robust response

It's time for Pakistan to assert itself in the ill-governed tribal areas. This won't be easy, but it is necessary.

Before I began writing this article I consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus to see if I could find a superlative adjective for "stupidity". I was surprised to discover that "stupid" is actually as stupid as a human can get. However, when used as a noun, "crass stupidity" is greater; virtually infinite.

The world is full of stupid people who are guilty of acts of crass stupidity, from presidents and kings down to the lowliest. And yet for some reason we expect that even the stupidest people will be endowed with a sense of self preservation. But not everyone possesses the foresight to avoid their own demise; some are prepared even to endanger their own children as a result.

Stupidity is the only explanation I can come up with for the recent decision by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ban a polio vaccination drive - a ban that received the support of local jirgas in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Anger against drone strikes is an understandable frustration for Pakistanis. The Pakistani government and military have proven unable to stop these aerial bombardments and protect their citizens. But to campaign against a programme as critical to health and well-being as polio vaccinations for children is ultimately self-destructive. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Pakistanis are no fans of US policy, although most have the sense to realise that they oppose US political decisions, not Americans as people. Some in Pakistan are even increasingly aware that Americans themselves are opposed to their government's policies and, therefore, sooner or later these policies will change.

All the while, drones are killing innocent Pakistanis, and anti-Americanism inside Pakistan is swelling the ranks of insurgents. Hence the Taliban's anti-polio campaign.

There was a time when Pakistan's government was more willing and able to counter such sentiment. When jihadists claimed in 2006 that a polio vaccination drive had been poisoned by the US to render the children of the tribal areas infertile, the Pakistani government ingeniously announced the arrival of a fresh batch of vaccine - from China.

Today, however, the government's ability to challenge anti-American and anti-western opinion in Pakistan's tribal areas seems to be diminishing.

Take the recent case of Fareeda Afridi, a Pakistani working with a foreign NGO who was gunned down on July 3 in Jamrud, a part of the Khyber tribal agency. She had received threats prior to her slaying but did not make them public. And since she didn't make them public many have speculated on who her assailants were. Did they relate to her work? Most foreigners and many Pakistanis believe that to be the case.

There are circumstances that may make this conclusion moot. Foremost is the surprising fact that no one has claimed responsibility for her killing. The TTP usually wastes no time in accepting responsibility for the most dastardly inhuman acts; but not this time.

Then, there is the fact that she was an Afridi, working in the Khyber agency, which is dominated by her own tribe, the Afridis. The threats, if there were any, and her death, could well have been an outcome of a family feud or a tribal decision for her to stop working - not necessarily because she was working for women's rights, but because of tribal suspicion against her.

And let's not forget that the famous (or infamous, depending on the perspective) Shakil Afridi, an Afridi doctor working for the CIA pretending to be running a hepatitis prevention programme on behalf of a foreign-funded NGO. His efforts in Abbottabad helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden.

Whatever the reason for her killing, Fareeda Afridi is dead, her murder unforgivable. The unofficial rumour is that under pressure of massive retaliation from the army, Afridi elders apprehended and quietly disposed of her two murderers.

And yet, even if the TTP weren't involved, the conclusion one must draw is the same: it is time for the federal government's writ to extend to the tribal areas.

This will take time, to be sure, and will not be very popular. In the interim, it might be best to return to the traditional system of appointing a malik who is answerable to the political agent (a bureaucrat), who in turn is answerable to the government. Elements of the Frontier Corps, Constabulary and the Levies, with an army unit in support, should be available to the political agent for ensuring his writ.

Apologists for the government's current approach to stability in the tribal areas quote statistics of the crime rate in New York, and assure me that our rate of targeted killings pales in comparison. But it's safe to assume that targeted killings in Manhattan are investigated fully, with complete government backing. So it should be in Pakistan.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer