Peshawar in state of permanent war

A rescue worker waves to make way for an ambulance as it speeded away form a school that was attacked by Taliban gunmen.— Reuters/File


PESHAWAR was a muted, unfamiliar version of itself yesterday. The dusty, wintry provincial capital is a chaotic sight to behold most weekdays, even hours after some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in recent years. Life in Peshawar always goes on.

But yesterday was different. The winding Mall was deserted, as was the storied Qissa Khwani bazaar area. In the heart of the old city, stores were closed and the thin traffic navigated quietly past the small protests held at various intersections.

Where does Peshawar – and Pakistan itself – go from here? In Peshawar, few appeared to have answers, or at least answers with a glimmer of hope. There were tears aplenty and long, reflective silences. Most officials and politicians Dawn spoke to offered substantive comments only anonymously.

“What happened in Warsak (Road) was a conversation, an extreme conversation,” said a civilian official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss security policy. “They are saying, ‘You pick up our people, you oust them from their homes, we’ll kill your people.’ We are militarising our problems, not solving them. This is a permanent war,” the official added.

After the multi-party conference, a Peshawar politician belonging to a major political party offered a similarly downcast assessment of the political class: “Nothing will come of this. They are all terrified. Nawaz Sharif never wanted this, not even Zarb-i-Azb. Imran Khan wanted only dialogue. And what’s Khursheed Shah going to do other than make statements?”

About Gen Raheel’s dash to Kabul, a security official said: “Afghans are going to demand a quid pro quo. We’ll show them one (intercepted militant) conversation, they’ll show us another. We’ll ask them for one thing, they’ll ask us for another. Are we ready to offer them something?”

With the problem of cross-border militancy having become bi-directional – elements of the TTP leadership are alleged to have found sanctuary along the Pak-Afghan border in eastern Afghanistan – the question appears to be whether the Pakistani state will use its influence over the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to bring them to the negotiating table with the Afghan government.

At least one security official offered a mildly optimistic outlook. “Look, it will take a while for the new Afghan government to find its feet and for its policies to filter down through the system. In the meantime, have you heard the Afghan Taliban reject the very idea of talks with the new government? With Karzai they did, but so far there is silence,” the official claimed. That silence was offered as tacit evidence of an emerging Pakistani policy shift.

Curbing cross-border militancy into Pakistan though would still leave a massive militancy problem domestically. And few officials believe the state, either military or civilian wings, is resourced to eliminate even the militants it is fighting.

“The ISI is like a Mercedes. It can do things like play king’s games,” a civilian official said, citing the alleged establishment support for recent anti-government protests. “But out in the villages, on the ground, that’s where it struggles and just doesn’t have the resources to do these things.”

Meanwhile, in Peshawar, both officials and politicians cited problems with the leadership style of Inspector General Police Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Nasir Durrani that has limited the police’s efficacy.

“Durrani has demoralised the (Peshawar police) force. He is constantly shuffling SHOs, every couple of months, nobody knows why or what basis. That drains localised knowledge from the force,” a civilian official claimed.

Another official suggested that while the media savvy Durrani had burnished his reputation nationally with his anti-corruption crusade, the effects on the ground are more mixed. “Because of the complex disciplinary rules, the suspended or sacked officers are quickly reinstated. Sometimes, the sacked or disciplined officer is promoted or gets a better posting.”

More damagingly, Durrani is described as unable to adapt peacetime policing to what is effectively the frontline of a war zone. “When the planes (landing at Peshawar airport) were attacked, he made the police gather a profile of every resident in the take-off and landing zones. But the militants aren’t living there. They turn up suddenly at the periphery, fire their weapons and melt away. That’s where the focus was needed,” a Peshawar administrator said.

Peshawar will limp on from the Warsak Road carnage. But along with the cold a sense of resignation too appeared to have gripped the city last night. Peshawar knows it is caught in a war that may have no end.

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