So ‘the’ operation in North Waziristan has begun. We all knew it would be done one day, but none was the wiser as to when. The timing remains a complete mystery, at least to me. Was there a formula, a threshold of the number of deaths or kinds of facilities that will finally be attacked before any attempt at flushing out militants from their tribal sanctuaries would be undertaken? During the past six months, the end of March was billed as the best time to do sobecause of operational reasons, with militants snowed in and not able to melt into neighbouring areas with ease. By now, many militants are said to have left the area and God alone knows where all they are snuggling. Clearly “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly” is not something Prime Minister Sharif puts much store by. Still, better late than never – everyone, save PTI and JI, seems to be breathing a sigh of relief.

It goes without saying that the entire nation must support their army and all those law enforcement personnel on the front line, and desist from demoralizing or belittling the sacrifices of those putting their lives on the line for our sakes. For those who still have any ‘reservations’ should look to Syria and Iraq and understand what might be in store for them should they continue to harbor confusions about Islamist militancy.

The media will have a critical role to play to support this effort to chart a new path for Pakistan. Its role in the past has left much to be desired, with many within it creating confusion among the masses by propagating sympathy for terrorist causes and providing prime time slots to militants to air their views and positions as if they were legitimate political actors. This must change, and channel and newspaper owners must take cognizance of this important responsibility on their shoulders. This war must not be reduced to a game of profits and ratings anymore. Media owners must stop cutting the branch they are sitting on like the fabled Sheikh Chilli. Unfortunately, they are not the only occupants of the branch they were cutting by aiding the spread of Talibani ideology or sympathy for it. If the country goes down, we will all go down. Anchors, editors, reporters with extremist views and sympathies must either be reined in or purged. Certain media groups are heavily infiltrated by Taliban/ Islamist sympathisers, and these groups know who they are. They now need to play their part in this struggle and rid themselves of infiltrators.

One of the most important things to recognize is that this operation alone will not magically rid the country of terrorism, since sleeper cells and large groupings of different affiliates of the Taliban exist all over Pakistan, in almost all big cities. The numbers may be so dispersed that this operation may just become equivalent of a symbolic show of force by the state, with the real battles being fought in the cities. And this is what the public has to face, understand and accept. There is no other way. Indeed, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid’s statement from yesterday threatens exactly that, with promises to burn Islamabad and Lahore down.

We can only hope that the time the militants gained while the operation was delayed by the ill-conceived and ill-fated ‘peace talks’, was also time used by the state to prepare for this very eventuality – and that the state’s preparation is better than that of the TTP and its affiliates. But whatever the case, we can neither run nor hide; we cannot turn back and go towards surrender. And we must be very, very clear in our minds why we must remain steadfast: the Taliban are superbly clear in their goal of grabbing power extra-politically to enforce ‘Sharia’ on the rest of us. And that alone should be sufficient reason for us to be willing to die to live freely. While our brave soldiers fight with their lives, we must fight alongside with our convictions, with our pens and our words, exercising our freedom of speech to condemn and reject them, continuing with our way of life to show them, holding fast to our belief in a civilized and democratic way of life.

But this is not all. The people and the state must now develop a common vision, and look to carve out a future that benefits both. The state must dismantle Jihad Inc. that Pakistan has become with madrassas that churn out jihadis to be used as tools of foreign and now domestic policy as well. “Honestly we’ve seen this before,” said a senior journalist friend of operation Zarb-e-Azb, “this won’t help until the state de-links itself from the ideology of jihad…or any gains will not be sustainable. That is a generations’ long project. You need only look at how LeT operates with state backing, LeJ has impunity if not backing, Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Hekmetyar and cohorts are given sanctuary to see that is not happening. Let alone how thousands of madrassas are openly training youngsters to be mujahids, school texts teach supremacy of Islam beyond all else… which goes back to the founding ideology of Pakistan. Military offensives here and there will not reduce terrorism or religious extremism.”

In the long term, Pakistan’s only salvation will be in redefining it. And yes, that will take a couple of generations if we actually work earnestly at it. Zarb-e-Azb could be the first tiny step and the huge leap, depending on whether we sincerely want to become a peaceful people at peace with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

 The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist.