Nothing goes off suddenly; even the earthquakes set in motion from the depth of the earth to the rooftops of villages." This line from a poem written two decades ago by a renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was quoted in the American media two years ago to explain the long-brewing frustration over the political morbidity of Western-supported authoritarian culture in the Arab world and eruption of violent reaction to this phenomenon in many Arab countries that came to be known as Arab Spring.

Barghouti’s line is no less reflective of the grotesque scenario that we are witnessing today in our own ill-fated region, as a cumulative result of the wrong policies and military campaigns played out by major powers for their own self-serving ends. First, it was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and then the US-led “war on terror” that has kept this region in turmoil with vast array of social, cultural, political and economic problems unleashing unparalleled scale of human tragedies and humanitarian catastrophes in this part of the world. Pakistan, in particular, is the worst victim of extremism and terrorism ever since its geopolitics made it the pivotal frontline of the two protracted Afghan wars.

There is a cumulative historic perspective to this crisis, which in our own domestic context is the legacy of two long spells of military rule, 11 years of General Ziaul Haq and nine years of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. Both ruined our social fabric by fuelling religion-based militant extremism as a tool of their statecraft. And both were the blue-eyed boys of the West. In recent years, thanks to Musharraf’s self-serving and opportunistic policies, Pakistan came to be known as the breeding ground of religious extremism and violence. We never had extremism in our country. General Musharraf allowed this monster to grow only to remain relevant to the war on terror and thus prolong his military rule.

We also did not have this scale or intensity of violence before he took over. The only violence we knew was sectarian in nature. We are today the "ground zero" of the "war on terror" with a full-fledged military conflict going on within our tribal areas. We have been the main target in an al-Qaeda-led war in our country with almost 50,000 Pakistani civilian and security personnel having lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years. It is paying a heavy price in terms of huge military expenses and collateral damages. Pakistan continues to suffer protracted violence, massive displacement, trade and production slowdown, export stagnation, investor hesitation, and worsening law and order situation.

We have staked everything in this war and are constantly paying a heavy price in terms of huge military expenses and collateral damages. And yet, one is bewildered at Pakistan’s demonisation by its friends and allies. The problem is that the world does not even know how to define terrorism. Other than varied descriptions of violence in all its manifestations, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, which is today generally viewed as "politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents." A short legal definition used in the UN for an act of terrorism is the "peacetime equivalent of a war crime."

Terrorism is, indeed, a universal phenomenon and an evil that transcends all boundaries, and in recent years has deeply impacted the political, economic and security environment of all regions, countries and societies. It has no faith or creed. It is only an ugly and violent manifestation of growing anger, despair, hatred and frustration over injustice, oppression and denial of fundamental freedoms and rights.

Globally, terrorism occurs most often when a state’s overwhelming military power is used to occupy a weaker people or country, or where it is applied to suppress the legitimate right of a people to self-determination, liberty and freedom. In such situations, terrorism becomes a tactical tool of asymmetric warfare by the weak and the desperate.

Also, as admitted by UN Secretary General in his May 2006 report on ‘counter-terrorism strategy’, violent internal as well as interstate conflicts invariably witness terrorism, both state and non-state terrorism. According to him, terrorism is the product of "a broader mix of problems" caused by bad governments, opportunistic politicians and militant leaders, who exploit grievances. When there are no legitimate means of addressing the massive and systemic political, economic and social inequalities, an environment is created in which peaceful solutions often lose out against extreme and violent alternatives, including terrorism.

No strategy or roadmap in the war on terror would be comprehensive without focusing on the underlying political and socio-economic problems. There can be no two opinions on the need to combat terrorism. But to eliminate this evil, we must address its root causes. To address the root causes is not to justify terrorism, but to understand it and then to overcome it. Only a steady, measured and comprehensive approach encompassing both short-term and long-term political, developmental, humanitarian and human rights strategies that focus on the underlying disease, rather than the symptoms would bring an enduring solution to this problem. This mindset will not disappear through military operations.

Unfortunately, the war on terror has not gone beyond retribution and retaliation. What is being ignored is that terrorism is not all about individuals or organisations, or even about a neglected country or its countryside wilderness. Nabbing or killing of a few hundred individuals or changing the leadership in one or two countries will not bring an end to terrorism, which in its deeper sense is a violent manifestation of growing sense of injustice and resultant despair and despondency.  The world community must find ways and means of promoting peace and stability, and addressing the current situations of foreign military occupation and the denial of the legitimate right of peoples to self-determination.

A special remedial effort is needed to address the causes of "injustice and instability" in Pakistan and to purge its society of extremism and militancy, which have crept into its ranks due to frequent political breakdowns, military takeovers, bad governance, institutional paralysis and aversion to the rule of law. The ultimate responsibility to deal with the twin-challenges of extremism and terrorism lies with the government, which must ensure good governance and rule of law, promote tolerance and communal harmony, reinforce popular resilience and mutual respect in the country.

We also need reordering of national priorities with greater focus on human development needs and people-centred socio-economic infrastructures. Terrorism will neither flourish nor survive in a democratic, progressive, moderate, educated and prosperous Pakistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.