Monday, March 6, 2017

Business Recorder Column March 6, 2017

After cricket final, no room for complacency Rashed Rahman Pakistan, the Cricket Board (PCB), the government and the security forces are to be congratulated on managing to stage the Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket final successfully and without incident in Lahore on March 5. Pakistani cricket-starved fans showed courage, joy and unremitting enthusiasm in attending and making the match successful. Now that the excitement has worn off, it is time to reflect on what was achieved, how, and its implications for the future. First and foremost, the terrorist threat that had rocked the country last month by bomb blasts and the ensuing fear and panic in Lahore and elsewhere in the country was nullified by locking down the whole area around the venue of the match in Gaddafi Stadium and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Cricket fans had to park their vehicles far from the stadium in designated parking blots and were shuttled through a free bus service to Gaddafi. The arrangements at the parking lots and the shuttle service were excellently organised, helped in no small measure by the enthusiastic but unusually disciplined and well behaved crowds of fans who patiently and without a murmur of complaint put up with these inconveniences for the sake of safety and security. It was as though there existed an unwritten compact between the fans and the authorities to partner in ensuring the best outcome. The public and the authorities deserve a pat on the back for exemplary organisation and behaviour. The successful event proved that if sufficient force and resources were concentrated in a relatively small area, this would discourage the terrorists from attempting any adventurism. The overwhelming show of force, in which 10-20,000 security personnel were deployed and helicopters provided aerial surveillance all day, persuaded the terrorists, if at all they contemplated disrupting the festivities, that it would prove a fool’s errand. Terrorism and asymmetrical warfare rely on surprise and attacking weak links in the security architecture, preferably where large numbers of people are concentrated in the public space. Although the approach to and crowd in the 25,000-seat Gaddafi Stadium may have seemed a mouth-watering prospect for the terrorists, the five-tier security cordon put in place proved a dampener for them. However, the successful and incident-free staging of the cricket final through the concentration of overwhelming force in a relatively small area is obviously not a template or model that can sustainably be used all over the country continuously. The statements of deserved self-congratulation by the government should not blind us to the dangers of slipping into complacency once again. One swallow does not a spring make. Nor does one successful public event. Without wishing it, one can reasonably expect a riposte sooner or later by the terrorism brigade. As to the match itself, it proved a disappointingly one-sided, low scoring victory for Peshawar Zalmi over the Quetta Gladiators, depleted by the staying away of their star foreign players, especially match-winning batsman Kevin Pietersen. Not that the determined to enjoy themselves to the full fans let you know this. Their enthusiasm and joy to be witnessing a cricket match in Gaddafi after a hiatus of eight years overrode all other considerations. While the PCB and cricket fans must be appreciated for pulling off what many feared may prove a mistake if any terrorist incident took place, the intended and oft repeated message of the PCB that staging a safe and successful final in Lahore would pave the way for international cricket to return to Pakistani soil may have inadvertently ended up sending the exact opposite message. If a cricket match can only be staged by enormous mobilisation of the security forces, this will merely reinforce the perception that Pakistan is still not safe for foreign teams to visit and play. The Zimbabwe team’s visit last year, while appreciable, did not dent this perception. And the security steps employed to ensure the March 5 match went off peacefully are likely to deepen concerns amongst foreign teams and the International Cricket Council (ICC) that Pakistan does not as yet offer a conducive environment for international cricket. The terrorists achieved Pakistan’s international cricket (and other sports) isolation by audaciously attacking the Sri Lankan team near Liberty roundabout in 2009 as it was on its way to Gaddafi. That put paid to international cricket in Pakistan ever since, with the PCB forced to conduct all its ‘home’ series offshore in the UAE. Terrorism seeks to bring normal life to a grinding halt and ensuring the state’s credibility is eroded over time if it is unable to wrest the public space back for citizens and society. That means the public space remains a ‘battleground’ between the sowers of the seeds of mayhem on the one hand and state and society on the other. The battle for the public space and ‘normalcy’ therefore is an ongoing one. This contention needs addressing by the authorities. One way would be the encouragement of festivals and public events while ensuring their security needs. The more this can be achieved, the more the objective of the terrorists to paralyse normal functioning and deny the public space to society will be incrementally defeated. The risks, of course, cannot be minimised or ignored. But in one sense this is as important as the military/police operations against the terrorists. It is a battle for hearts and minds, in which the indiscriminate violence of the terrorists will eventually erode their standing and appeal, and the continuing activism of citizens and society (with the help of the state authorities) will eventually pave the way for the victory over the bloodthirsty fanatics. Last bit not least, the template or model of the successful cricket final in Lahore implies the critical necessity for coordination in the counterterrorism drive. This coordination is required between the civil and military sides (as demonstrated in Lahore), the Centre and the provinces (Punjab of course is in the happy position of ‘brother’ to the Centre), and all intelligence agencies, preferably under a centralised umbrella organisation. Cricket won, Pakistan and its people won on March 5 in Lahore. But the victory over the terrorists would be wasted if we lapse into complacency instead of pressing home the psychological edge provided by the success in Lahore to eliminate the terrorists physically, ideologically, and from the hearts and minds of our citizens and society.

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