Thirteen years ago, ‘Newsweek’ controversially named Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world. Even today, the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs states on a cautionary message on their website about the country, saying “reconsider travel to Pakistan due to terrorism”. Interestingly, this trend seems to have been changing in recent years with the Conde Nast Traveller naming Pakistan the Best Travel Destination for 2020.
What many don’t know is that Pakistan is an incredibly scenic country. Pakistan contains part of the Himalayas, and therefore also contains some of the tallest peaks in the world and hilly mountainous regions. The cities further contain old Hindu temples, mosques, and bazaars all of which add to the unique beauty and culture of the country. Sadly, political rifts have left a permanent stain on the country’s reputation.
The late 00’s and early 2010’s were some of the politically turbulent times for the nation. Tribal militants and terrorist organisation such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were successful in placing themselves in the country during the midst of growing resentment towards the central government and American influence. It was easy for these organisations to garner support due to the central government’s inability to provide basic services for it’s people, particularly people living in rural areas. By filling the social and economic vacuums the government left open, terrorist organisations were able to strive.
As the influence of these organisations grew, so did violence. Insurgencies, tribal wars and terrorist plots meant that they were not only killing themselves and security forces, but thousands of civilians too. The government seemed powerless to do anything and for a while, it seemed as though Pakistan was doomed to follow the footsteps of Afghanistan, where the Taliban were controlling large parts of the country for decades.
The severity of the political situation worsened in 2007 when then President Pervez Musharraf ordered a siege of the Taliban’s nerve centre in Islamabad, Lal Masjid. Analysts believe that this move enraged many Islamic factions and gave them the impetus to align with the Taliban in Afghanistan, essentially forming the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to get revenge against the Pakistani state.
During this time, daily life in Pakistan was at a standstill. There were little to no activities taking place in public spaces which was an anomaly in a country where public concerts, bazaars and cricket matches were common occurrences.
Many believe that the government was unable to put a hold on terrorism due to the then ruling Pakistan People Party’s moratorium on imposing the death penalty. This supposedly encouraged terrorists, helping them believe that regardless of what they did the punishment would not be too harsh.
In 2014, Pakistan’s military launched two campaigns that changed this. These were the Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber Operations. They were aimed at dismantling extremist activity in Pakistan’s federally administered areas (FATA). Thanks to these operations, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan was completed wiped out by the Pakistan Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies.
2014 was also the year that Pakistani mentality towards terrorism shifted. In December of that year, six gunmen affiliated with the Taliban slaughtered 149 people, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in the city of Peshawar. Critics believe that this event served as the tipping point in Pakistani mentality towards terrorism in that it shifted from being indifferent towards terrorist acts to intense rage and anger at terrorist factions.
The attack led to a surge in public and political support for the military, then led by General Raheel Sharif, which amped up all its operations that year. This would eventually result in the deaths of more than 4,000 terrorists between 2014 and 2016.
As a result of this, deaths caused by terrorism in the country dramatically reduced. From 12,000 deaths in 2009 (32 per day), the number declined by 87 percent by 2017 and continues to do so. In 2019, fewer than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks nationwide.
Once peace had been reestablished in the vast majority of the nation, the government was able to seize the opportunity to rebrand the country’s image based on it’s diverse nature and rich cultural heritage which were always around but scarcely explored.
The new security situation was a massive help in attracting foreign tourists, not only because it made the idea of travelling to Pakistan far less terrifying, but also because the visa process became significantly easier.
Tourists are now also allowed to travel freely in many rural areas, which previously required special permits and military escorts. This has been crucial to Pakistan’s brand as a tourist destination because those same areas are some of the country’s best attractions.
Between 2013 to 2018, the number of tourists visiting Pakistan increased threefold, from about 550,000 to more than 1.8 million.
Social media has played a big role in rehabilitating Pakistan’s reputation. For many years, YouTube was banned in Pakistan, which meant that very few first-hand experiences flowed out of the country. When the ban was lifted in 2016, it allowed for local and foreign influencers to drastically enhance the country’s image.
Pop culture depicts Pakistan in one way: a desert with lots of sand, shacks, and camels. A place where men have long beards and wear turbans, while the women are completely covered up. The reality, however, is much more complex and not as bleak. It’s high time more people start to see this.
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