Can Azhar be Pakistan’s Mladic?
The Pathankot attack, like any terrorist incident, was a deplorable act of savagery committed by a band of glory seeking fanatics. Unlike many other tragic incidents it, however, has brought the promise of peace to the region. Clothed in Dickens’ duality, it unfurls before the people of South Asia both the summer of hope and winter of despair. While all stakeholders are waiting for the final outcome of reported high-level investigations in Pakistan, I deem it pertinent to draw a parallel with the situation that existed in Serbia at the beginning of the new millennium.
Five years ago, I made a clarion call to decision makers to learn from the Serbian example of effecting a paradigm change in state level policy. While the case of Germany and France already serves as a good example of how to reorient policies, Serbia is of particular significance for Pakistan because of many common contextual factors. I can count at least six such factors. First, just as a strong sense of narcissism runs deep in Pakistan, Serbians, owing to forces of history, got embroiled in genocidal wars against other communities and a strong sense of national pride became necessary to preserve their identity. If we have gory stories of mass murders as refugees crossed borders in 1947, the period of political turmoil after breaking up of communist Yugoslavia exacerbated ethnic tensions, which resulted in the notorious bloodbath of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Second, just as we saw the rise of jihadi characters as our officially certified national heroes, Serbians found their military commanders with bloodstained hands as their heroes. Mladic, serving as a general of Bosnia’s Serbian army, rose to prominence as a war hero in the1990s. The military commander earned notoriety as he was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) of being responsible for the illegal siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.As a parallel, we have Maulana Masood Azhar who is accused by India in particular, and the international community in general, of masterminding terrorist attacks. Third, just as there is a strong perception that Masood Azhar, when in trouble, was given protection by the deep state, Mladic could not be apprehended for a trial on war crimes charges. In 1997, when NATO troops were searching for war criminals, Mladic slipped into Serbia where the then dictator, Milosevic, and the Serbian military establishment provided refuge to the general on the run. Despite a huge bounty on his head, the general eluded capture for 14 years. Four, in addition to official protection by the military establishment, both Mladic and Azhar also used the threat of terror to keep potential informers silent and hence remain in a safe haven like a mafia boss.
Five, when military dictator Milosevic fell from power in 2000, the protective shield around the general also began cracking. Milosevic was arrested and sent to the Hague tribunal for a trial by the new democratic Serbian government. Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in urging the need for redefining our relations with India and Afghanistan, and hence one can expect that the official heroes of the past will be deprived of their patronage in the same way as has happened in Serbia. Arguably, the most important parallel is the sixth one: the socio-economic objective. Serbia officially applied for EU membership in December 2009 and cooperated with the EU in arresting and handing over all accused war criminals, including Mladic. Even though the public opinion in Serbia, as reported by various surveys, favoured Mladic, the new government showed courage and worked towards changing the public’s opinion. The security state decided to transform itself in favour of a welfare state driven by economic argument. It, therefore, made a conscious break with its jingoistic past in order to gain EU membership.
Pathankot, though tragic in terms of loss of lives, is a golden opportunity for the two South Asian countries to begin a new era of cooperation in dealing with terrorists and their handlers as a common cause. When in Paris terrorists caused mayhem, France and Belgium worked jointly to nab the ringleaders by sharing information and conducting raids. For terrorists there are no borders. States should also work in the same spirit when it comes to cross-border terrorism. India, despite the media furore, has responded maturely and honourably. Now the ball is in Pakistan’s court. Nawaz’s sincerity on this issue can hardly be questioned. Whether the security establishment will prove a spoiler or a supportive partner for change is yet to be seen. The future of South Asia hangs in the balance, as we wait to see what Pakistan does after India shares actionable intelligence and evidence. The early indicators are no doubt encouraging and the emerging perception is that Pakistan might have finally decided to go the Serbian way. When it is busy finalising the economic contours of its future along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and repairing its relations with the international community, it must be realising that jihadi characters such as Azhar do not fit in the new paradigm. Just as Serbia traded its generals for economic prosperity, Pakistan can also trade the jihadis that have outlived their utility for its economic development