OVER A COFFEE : They came, they saw, they conquered — Dr Haider Shah
The recent jail break in Dera Ismail Khan had all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller except one striking difference. It was not a piece of fiction. They came, they saw, and they conquered. One can’t help appreciating the ‘professional excellence’ of these terrorists in planning and executing their attacks. They perhaps performed better than the SEAL commandos that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad because while the US commandos left a damaged chopper behind, reportedly, the jail attackers had Rooh Afza when they were inside the jail they broke into.
The statements issued by the leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) only reinforce the state of cluelessness among those who are supposed to clear the mess. The architects of a ‘New Pakistan’ have swiftly shifted the buck to the police, accusing the policemen of being cowards for not getting killed by the attackers who were armed with deadly military weapons. While the statements issued by the chief minister and minister of jails of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are long on condemning the poorly equipped jail police, one fails to spot a single word of condemnation of the attackers. So brave are they themselves. There is a ‘big hand’ behind this attack. This was all the chief executive of the KP could offer as his analysis of the attack.
As usual the naive detectives are out with their magnifying glasses fixed on the Dera Ismail Khan jail. Officers have been suspended and a useless exercise of fixing the situation by posting new officers has also been carried out. The fact that the Bannu jail break, Dera Ismail Khan jail break, carnage in Kurram Agency and other similar terrorist incidents are all linked is conveniently ignored. The state has foregone its monopoly over the use of force and by appearing weak, confused and apologetic, it is increasingly becoming vulnerable to the emboldened and highly organised militant groups. Administrative measures, no doubt, need to be taken after every militant attack. But it is more important to learn some strategic level lessons from the Dera Ismail Khan jail attack that are listed next.
First, the incident again underscores the point I have been regularly mentioning that there is a lack of strategic clarity on the part of the state. While the attackers are motivated, organised and highly focused, those who are running the state are clueless and divided and are treating the situation as ‘business as usual’. Second, the state has miserably failed to differentiate between extraordinary and normal matters. The same red tape guides anti-terrorism preparation that is the hallmark of daily official business. It takes years to approve budgets and complete procurement of anti-terrorism gadgets and weaponry. On the other hand, the militants plan and execute their actions within no time. Third, our official planners are often long on words and short on finances when it comes to planning for imminent dangers. While we are being mercilessly humiliated by the militants on a regular basis, the fiasco of the Dera Ismail Khan jail break has revealed that all jails are without any surveillance cameras and mobile jamming equipment. What else can better demonstrate our official priorities and the level of preparedness against an existential threat? When you have to house hardened and indoctrinated terrorists, compare the nature of defensive facilities at the Guantanamo Bay prison with those of the Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu jails. Fourth, the attack once again proved that there exists a strategic alliance between various types of sectarian outfits, Kashmiri jihadists and al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. This was also one of the notable conclusions of late Saleem Shahzad’s investigative work-based book Inside Al Qaeda. The attackers took with them the mastermind of a bloody sectarian attack in Dera Ismail Khan besides other Taliban commanders. Fifth, the historical continuity of certain problems should not be overlooked. We did not give any serious consideration to regularising the tribal areas and extending the law of the land to these ungoverned areas as FATA proved a goldmine for avaricious local elders and the political administration. If history is used as a guide, we find that the problem of attacks by militants from ungoverned tribal areas has a long history. For instance a report referring to Fakir of Ipi in the London Gazette, August 18, 1939 states on page 566: “A gang, under Mehr Dil, an outlaw, based on the precipitous Junighar Hills in the Ahmadzai Wazir Salient, to the north of Bannu, made attacks on villages in the Bannu and Kohat Districts and on traffic on the Bannu-Kohat road…On the night of the 23rd-24th July, Mehr Dil’s gang, reinforced by local sympathisers and bad characters, raided Bannu City. Property was looted and houses and shops were burnt…The gang dispersed over a wide area rendering pursuit during hours of darkness difficult.” A detailed enquiry report by an investigator on behalf of the Congress Party had then prophetically warned: “To regard ‘the Bannu Raid’ of the 23rd July, 1938, as an isolated calamity would be to miss the true perspective of the picture. It is but one conspicuous detail of a vast panorama which must be viewed against the entire background.”
The Dera Ismail Khan jail attack has once again underscored the need for a clear anti-terrorism strategy at the national level. The solution lies in launching a carefully planned operation against the miscreants and ending the ungoverned status of the tribal areas. Like energy and Balochistan, terrorism and FATA also need the urgent attention of the prime minister of Pakistan.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org