In many ways, Pakistan’s battle against polio is a reflection of the nation’s struggle with itself; only its existential fight is more crippling. Pakistan had reduced the number of new polio cases to 30 in 2005 before it multiplied to 198 in 2011. The campaign suffered a severe setback after the discovery that it was a doctor in the anti-polio programme who had tracked down Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout for the CIA. Earlier this year, the Taliban sent out the cynical warning that there would be a ban on the anti-polio drive in North Waziristan until such time as the U.S. did not stop its drone attacks in the region. Even with all this, Pakistan managed to register an impressive 65 per cent drop in new cases this year. But last week’s killing of nine health workers involved in the national polio immunisation programme has delivered a body blow: it forced an early suspension of the campaign, leaving 3.5 million children dangerously uncovered. No coincidence, these killings were part of a series of attacks on the Pakistani state last week. First came the rocket attack on the airport-cum-military airbase at Peshawar, followed by the grenade attack on a Pakistan Air Force academy in Nowshera. The terrorists signed off the week by killing one of the most unrelenting voices against them, the Awami National Party’s Bashir Bilour. Each attack came with the threat of more but there is no pulling Pakistani decision-makers back from their ostrich-like behaviour. The terrorists know this and are pressing home their advantage.
The terrorists-as-strategic-assets policy remains in the ‘recycle bin’ of the security establishment, waiting to be ‘restored’. The political class has never been sure-footed in Pakistan and cannot be expected to summon the courage to take the decision to clean up the mess, especially ahead of elections and at a time when the security establishment-scripted narrative has created a warped mindscape. The liberal use of religion to ‘sanctify’ acts of terror has created a situation where even murder is easily justified. Worse, the solution is no longer as simple as targeting jihadi havens in frontier areas because, as the attacks on health workers have made clear, the Taliban are in the cities. That the conspiratorial canard against something as essential as the polio drop has spread so wide despite the government roping in clerics and ‘brotherly’ Saudi Arabia to sanctify it is instructive. The counter-offensive has to be multi-faceted because the enemy is no longer peripheral and has developed an ability to reincarnate itself in various forms and at places least expected. Tilting at the windmills is not an option.