John McTernan: Pakistan is not alone

In the aftermath of the primary school bombing, we should remember Britain has a special responsibility to the country and its people, writes John McTernan

Women take part in a protest in Karachi over the Taleban school bombing. Picture: Getty

The death of children is the worst thing in the world. The pain is unbearable and to most of us, mercifully, unimaginable. The pictures this week of the Pakistani primary school which was the site of a Taleban massacre were too distressing to look at. In all, 132 children were killed.

It was apparently revenge on the Pakistani Army – some reports said children were asked if their parents were in the army and shot if they answered yes. Of course, this was not vengeance – it was the savage slaughter of innocents with a disgusting wrapper of crude propaganda.

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What, though, is the right response to this terrorism? On the one hand, Pakistan declared three days of national mourning. On the other, all the main political parties agreed on a tough new anti-terrorism strategy, the first step in which was the bombing of the Pakistani Taleban. That seems about right to me. Compassion for the children and their parents, no quarter for the terrorists. Of course, there has been some agonised soul-searching – is it time to “talk to the Taleban”?

One of the easiest headlines in the world to get is to argue that we should do just that. It also incredibly intellectually lazy. In the end we will talk to them, after all you never have to make peace with your friends – it is only your enemies you have to negotiate with. The only question is on what terms – and surely the best answer is start talks when the Pakistan Taleban are as weak and demoralised as possible.


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Don’t let them negotiate from strength or from a sense that the country’s will has been broken by terrorism. Let them be beaten before they come to the table – or at least persuaded that their violence can never win the day.

Britain has a special responsibility to Pakistan. We, after all, created it at the time of Partition. And there are 1.2 million British Pakistanis, nearly 2 per cent of the UK’s population. But I suspect that, until the most recent series of Homeland, most British people will have had scant knowledge of modern Pakistan (though, in the way of television, it was actually filmed in Cape Town.)

Certainly, until the CIA chief character brusquely dismissed Pakistan – saying that it wasn’t even a country, it was just an acronym – I didn’t know the history of the country’s name which was invented in 1933 as Pakstan. The name derived from the five northern regions of British India: Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afgania Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan. The added ‘i’ makes the name more pronounceable and is an Urdu and Persian word meaning “Land of the Pure”.

The TV series just adds to the general stereotype that Pakistan is a chaotic country where the Taleban is inextricably intertwined with the state security services. The implication being that the complicity of the authorities makes it too hard a place to help with problems too intractable to solve. That’s just a counsel of despair. For not only did Pakistan give us a significant part of our population, we in turn left a legacy there – the English language and the rule of law. These are soft and hard advantages of Empire. The former has given a string of well-off and well-connected Pakistanis well-known in Britain – think of the late Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan. The latter has led to the strikingly unusual occurrence of a military dictator – General Musharraf – being driven out of office by the threat of impeachment. It is far from ideal – three military coups since independence – but it is equally something to build on.

We should be doing more to assist Pakistan to tackle its problems with the Taleban. It is not just the horrendous consequences that we saw this week. It is also for reasons similar to those which took us into Afghanistan. Where the Taleban holds sway it creates an ungovernable space into which jihadist terrorists like al-Qaeda can move and then use it as a base to operate from. Those terrorists are not just a problem for Afghanistan and Pakistan – globalisation means that brands and goods are available round world but the same forces take bombers and their actions round the world too. It is not just common humanity that calls on us to respond to the slaughter of Pakistani school children – it is self-interest too.

The paradox is that though we have so many British Pakistanis – including many successful business figures – they have never fully punched their weight. Former Glasgow Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar is massively more successful politically now he is living in Pakistan – he is governor of Punjab. And Baroness Warsi, who is a trenchant, witty and charismatic politician, never got her due from the Tory Party. Perhaps it was too much that she was a woman, Northern, Asian and Muslim – to paraphrase stand-up comedian Arnold Brown “four stereotypes for the price of one”. Only with the rise of Sajid David are we seeing a British MP of Pakistani descent rise to the top table, so this may when British Pakistanis start to punch their weight politically.

This is devoutly to be hoped for. It is one of the central aims of terrorism not just to spread fear and alarm but also to generate a sense of utter impotence, a feeling that nothing can be done. That, above all, is to be resisted. Sure, it’s hard to fight terror in Pakistan, and yes, the government, the political system and the security services make it even harder. Yet this is a moment of such pure evil that it has encouraged a welcome political unity. If this task is to big for Pakistan alone then we should not leave them alone. An injury to one is an injury to all is a good slogan. They were not our children who were killed, but on their behalf – and on behalf of our own kids – we must act.


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