February 6, 2023
ISLAMABAD – Pakistan achieved significant success in its post-2014 counterterrorism drive against religiously motivated terrorist groups. With terrorist networks either eliminated or relocated in Afghanistan, Pakistan was about to win the war. However, the drive lost its thrust a few years back when the state rescinded its policy, foreseeing the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan.
The state had taken more than a decade to construct and enact a rational, effective argument against terrorism. The tricky part was convincing ourselves that terrorism has no good or bad shades; it is destructive in all its forms. But it appears we failed to fully integrate the argument into our policy discourse, and the desire to play ‘good’ and ‘bad’ remained hidden in our hearts. When the Taliban reached Kabul, this distinction suddenly emerged. Pakistan did not take much time to reach out to the ‘defeated’ enemy, ie, the TTP. It was conceived that the Taliban victory was the ultimate achievement for all militant groups, and they would together construct Afghanistan. This was a flawed approach.
The state institutions, while taking the then civilian government on board, started negotiating with the terrorists, without realising that the narrative which was built against terrorism would become scattered. They failed to realise that society had moved forward and would not buy the idea of talking to the terrorists who had been weakened. Even the sentiments of the victims of terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were not considered; no one thought they would resist any move of bringing back and resettling the terrorists among them. When families of the victims of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School Peshawar protested, they were maligned by the pro-establishment media. Only when the recent uptick in terrorism revealed the TTP’s agenda and real intentions, did state institutions once again start to appreciate the counterterrorism consensus of the days following the APS attack.
State and society had together constructed a counterterrorism narrative that also involved a section of religious scholars. Recently, the state invited the latter again, and they endorsed their previous decrees against the attacks in Pakistan. Many of the scholars had visited Afghanistan in a bid to convince the TTP leadership to lay down their arms. However, the TTP leadership had turned down their counsel respectfully and reminded them they had learned the lesson of ‘jihad’ in their institutions.
State institutions failed to realise that society would not buy the idea of talking to the terrorists.
This is an old debate about the validity of the armed uprising against a Muslim ruler, and religious scholars had taken more than a decade to issue an unambiguous decree against terrorism. Their efforts aside, the resolve of the nation also built pressure on the religious scholars to denounce the TTP uprising. They had remained sympathisers of the Afghan Taliban and continued providing moral and ideological aid to them. The TTP argues on the same grounds that their struggle cannot be declared un-Islamic.
Apart from this context, clear policies only help to evolve consensus within society, as had happened after the APS attack. Any ambiguous approach sends a confused message at all levels. It affects the will of the counterterrorism apparatuses, and the powerful among them find an easy solution to shift the burden onto the weaker components, as is happening right now. Political parties also resort to bickering as the government and opposition blame each other for the upsurge in terrorist incidents in the country. Interestingly, they start off by stressing the need for national unity against terrorism. However, they finish by blaming their political opponents, as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif did lately while addressing the apex committee meeting in Peshawar. For his part, PTI head Imran Khan often accuses the current regime in Islamabad.
It is also important that combat with the terrorists has never seen a lull, even during the years when victory had been declared against them. According to data compiled by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, compared to 63 in the year before, security forces and law-enforcement agencies conducted 87 anti-militant strikes in 2022 in 25 districts and regions of Pakistan. These actions caused 327 fatalities (302 militants, 22 soldiers, one FC man, one policeman and one civilian), compared to 197 in 2021, besides injuring 51 others. Out of the total 87 operational strikes recorded in 2022, as many as 57 took place in KP, 28 in Balochistan, and two in Sindh’s provincial capital Karachi.
Overall, compared to 186 in the previous year, as many as 315 suspected militants were killed in security forces’ and law-enforcement agencies’ kinetic actions, as well as in clashes and encounters between security forces and militants in 2022. Security forces also foiled at least five major terror bids or plots, either independently or in collaboration with the bomb disposal squads, mainly by recovering and defusing IEDs planted by the militants. Separately, in 2022, security and law-enforcement agencies arrested 129 suspected terrorists and members of militant groups in as many as 66 search-and-comb operations conducted all over the country as part of Operation Raddul Fasaad. These arrests did not include those detained and then released after preliminary investigations.
These operations are helping to confine the impact of terrorism. However, when political parties, the media and state institutions demand an operation against terrorists, they contextualise major military operations like Rah-i-Nijat and Zarb-i-Azb, which were launched to dislodge the terrorist networks from the former Fata region. Now the terrorists are sitting in Afghanistan, and state institutions need an altogether new approach. Few contours of such an approach have already been discussed on these pages, but the most important is that society upholds a strong resolve against the terrorists. However, the government and opposition are not on one page. The security institutions have shown a commitment against terrorism in their recent press releases, but they have to devise a strategy. Evolving a strategy reflecting national resolve and backed by parliament and civil society is a real challenge.
Constructing a clear counterterrorism plan will be more potent this time than manufacturing or repairing a narrative.
The writer is a security analyst.