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Malala and the ‘terrorist mindset’

By: Asif Ezdi

The attack on Malala Yousafzai was an act of primitive barbarism and is utterly reprehensible. Equally condemnable is the “justification” offered by the Taliban for the gruesome deed and their threat to repeat it. They have now claimed that she was targeted not for her advocacy of girls’ education but because she was supporting Taliban’s enemies. Even if that were true, nothing whatsoever can extenuate the gravity of an attempt to take the life of a minor unarmed girl who was determined only to pursue her education.

Malala is an extraordinary person, courageous, bright, and intelligent beyond her years, engaged, cheerful and full of idealism. She has become a model for other girls who want to pursue their education in the face of age-old prejudices and of obscurantist interpretations of religion. The whole country has condemned her shooting with one voice and prays for her full recovery. But neither the sheer repugnance of the deed, nor our tremendous admiration for Malala, should be allowed to obscure the responsibility of those who pushed her into battle against the Taliban, nor should we allow anyone, within the country or abroad, to exploit the shooting to advance their own political agenda. That, regrettably, is what is happening.

Malala first decided to stand up for her right to education when she was barely 11. That was a time when the Taliban were effectively in control of Swat and were threatening to close girls’ schools. A girl of her tender age cannot possibly have understood the risks she was assuming in defying the Taliban. But those responsible for her security, including the Pakistan Government and the Pakistan Army, knew – or ought to have known – of the dangers to which she was exposed.

They were also aware that the protection that they were in a position to provide to her was far from perfect. And yet, the government did not stop her from openly campaigning against the Taliban, even after it knew that she had received warnings and threats that she would come to harm if she did not stop. True, governments and armies cannot knuckle under such threats, nor should grown-up individuals. But a different yardstick applies when minors are in danger from armed fanatics. Here the old adage, which says that discretion is the better part of valour, should have been the guideline.

Malala was also encouraged by some western governments, sections of the media and NGOs to confront the Taliban, largely because it generated pressure on a then reluctant Pakistan government and army to take military action against the Taliban. The BBC asked her to write a blog about life under the Taliban under a pen-name but her true identity did not remain hidden for long. The New York Times commissioned a video documentary about Malala in which she appeared openly. It is difficult to believe that those who produced the film were unaware of the dangers to which she would be exposed for speaking out against the Taliban. The Taliban were provoked further by a meeting in July 2009 between her and the late Richard Holbrooke, then the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which she asked for US intervention and by the visits of several Islamabad-based diplomats to her in Swat.

It is very unlikely that in the west, the identity of a pre-teen girl – as Malala then was – who had been placed on a hit list and who faced the kind of threat to her life that she did, would have been made public. A day after she was shot, the New York Times quoted a teenage girl student from Peshawar criticising the Taliban. She said she would be happy to be named but the newspaper did not do so out of concern for her safety. But in Malala’s case, caution was thrown to the wind because she had become a useful pawn in a far bigger war.

Now, her shooting is also being used to serve the same ends. In an editorial, the New York Times called upon the army chief to back up his words of condemnation of the attack with action. It is no secret that the “action” that Washington has been demanding is that the army should launch a military offensive in North Waziristan against extremists who are entrenched there.

Also several Pakistani commentators have urged the government to use the public outrage at the shooting of Malala as a window of opportunity to start army action in North Waziristan. This argument might have had some merit if lack of public support had been the main argument against the operation, or if those who tried to kill Malala had come from that region. But neither is true.

A military operation in North Waziristan would be ill-advised for three other, very different and very weighty, reasons. First, the Pakistan Army is already overstretched fighting the TTP in other border areas and would be unable to deploy forces in North Waziristan in strength sufficient to guarantee success. Second, the army presently lacks the equipment and training for a counter-insurgency operation against an entrenched body of battle-hardened fighters in a difficult terrain which is ideally suited for guerrilla action. Third, the political and other fallout of such an operation (like IDPs and a popular wave of anger) would burden the Pakistani state beyond the limit of its capacities.

Besides, those who attacked Malala were sent not from North Waziristan but from the other side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There is good reason to believe that they are being harboured there by the Afghan intelligence, with the knowledge, if not also the complicity, of the US military.

True to his erratic ways, Rehman Malik first signalled, and then denied, that the government was considering a military operation in North Waziristan. The confused statements from the government show that it has no coherent and comprehensive policy to meet the terrorist threat. The government’s main effort has been to score some political points, as in the aborted National Assembly resolution calling for action against the militants. Moves such as this one have fed speculation that the government is trying to create a situation in which elections could be postponed in order to get Zardari re-elected as president for another five-year term by the present assemblies.

In a speech in the Senate, the prime minister called for battling the “mindset” behind the attack on Malala. What he should know is that the breeding ground of extremism is to be found in the policies of successive governments in Pakistan which have resulted in growing income disparities, rampant corruption and a denial of opportunities to the common man for education and socio-economic advancement. Unless these problems are addressed, that “mindset” against which he warns will continue to gain ground and any military operation will not just be futile but counterproductive.

Malala Yousafzai was a child soldier who was sent unarmed and alone into battle against the Taliban on the propaganda front of what used to be called the “global war on terror”. She was placed in a role similar to that of the teenage suicide bombers of the Taliban and her chances of survival were a little better. It is nothing short of a miracle that she is still with us.

Malala was too young to understand what she was up against and what the consequences of her actions might be for her. The responsibility for what befell her lies squarely with those who cynically exploited her idealism to advance their strategic goals and their political ambitions. While we pray for her return to a normal life, we should not allow them to cover up their guilt through ringing statements of condemnation or to exploit the tragic shooting to plunge our country deeper into bloodshed and conflict.

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