Nawaz Sharif took his oath of office as Pakistan’s first three-term prime minister six months ago. For the next five years, his job might be one of the hardest there is. And so, for the past six months, as his government has faced a mountain of problems it inherited — a bad economy, the energy crisis, and most prominently, escalating violence and an increasingly emboldened militancy — I chose largely to give the new leadership the benefit of the doubt and the time and space to deal with the mess Pakistan is in. No more. The honeymoon is over, the grace period up. Not only have things not improved significantly on even one critical front, the government has shown that it has absolutely no vision when it comes to Pakistan’s existential militant threat.
In a candid, mostly off-the-cuff, hour-long speech at a Pakistan embassy event in Washington this October, Mr Sharif mentioned his two-word counter-terrorism strategy: economic growth. Growth — done the grand old-fashioned way, with investments in industry, technology and infrastructure — is Mr Sharif’s magic bullet. I did my doctorate in Economics, so I realise the value of economic growth, but also know its limits. Motorways and metrobuses, bullet trains and investment zones, laptops and tablets are all very well (though some are more useful than others), but they will not make militancy disappear. The prime minister is assuming that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. That is, being poor and destitute makes people resort to terrorism. So, his thinking goes something like this (I presume): our government will focus on growth. Growth will, in turn, reduce poverty (which, by the way, is not always true). Fewer poor people will mean fewer terrorists and less terrorism. Problem solved. Right? Wrong.
It should not be news to you, Mr Prime Minister, that terrorism in Pakistan has very little to do with economic circumstances. In fact, this is true the world over and a wealth of empirical research shows that terrorists are not especially economically deprived and neither are those who support or sympathise with terrorists. The simple-minded thinking for Pakistan’s case is that the poorest of the poor send their kids to madrassas, where they are brainwashed and then these poor, brainwashed kids go on to become terrorists. There is some truth there. But the root of the problem is not these poor children — it is the radical ideas they are taught. Militancy in Pakistan is essentially a war of ideas and narratives, and it is completely naive to think that you can ‘buy’ your way out of it through growth. What needs tackling is the radical narrative.
Militancy in Pakistan is essentially a war of ideas and narratives, and it is completely naive to think that you can ‘buy’ your way out of it through growth. What needs tackling is the radical narrative.
How is the radical narrative countered? Not by the usual half-hearted, play-it-safe condemnations of attacks which fail to name the perpetrators, nor by proposing peace talks with militants. It is countered with both hard power (yes, some sort of an offensive) and soft power, by offering up a peaceful, powerful counter-narrative that rebuts the radical narrative point-by-point and promotes tolerance. Long-term, the soft power must necessarily include a deep education sector and curriculum reform.
Countering the radical narrative also means that the interior minister does not lament the death of those responsible for killing thousands of innocent Pakistanis. It means that the political leadership spells out that the biggest menace to Pakistan is homegrown terror, and that this is Pakistan’s war — no one else’s. It means that banned organisations are not allowed to hold rallies in the light of day (or night). It means that the government shows true solidarity with religious minorities by joining the human chain with their Christian brothers and sisters at St Anthony’s Church in Lahore one week after the Peshawar church bombing.
So Mr Prime Minister, simply lamenting your problems and wishing them away, with great sincerity and good intentions, will not make them disappear. It is time for you to remove your blindfold, to widen your vision and realise that you run more than Pakistan’s economy, to acknowledge the real root of the terrorism problem and to tackle it head on. I dearly hope that you are up to the task.