Have we comprehended the various facets of our war against terrorism to their fullest extent? Or, are we just groping in the dark with half-baked conceptions and even fewer mature response options to fight this persisting menace?
Only this week, there have been repeated incidents of terror which have manifested in loss of life and property across Pakistan, bringing into question both our resolve and claims to have almost ‘broken the backs’ of those who mean ill.
The threat of terror remains existential. Existential is the operational term; persisting and continually evolving – as must be the resolve and the means to fight it. Declaring victory is not the right strategy in this war. It can easily lull you to sleep.
The war against the Pakistani state by terror groups was always a mix of insurgency and terror. When Sufi Mohammad raised the flag of rebellion against the state in Swat and wanted to march to Islamabad, he sought control of a larger physical space beyond the Shangla and Swat valleys through an insurgent effort. The military fought him and ultimately evicted him and his insurgents out of Swat. Out of those ashes rose the TTP – a terror group.
They then found havens in various agencies of Fata, but mostly in South and North Waziristan. The two operations which followed – principally Zarb-e-Azb – and many sub-operations, were then launched as counter-insurgency efforts to reclaim the geographical areas from the control of these groups. Numerous terror actions by these groups against the state and its innocent people continued alongside to scare them into submission and dilute state resources in the war. A counter-terror war also began through the length and breadth of Pakistan. This combination of counter-insurgency and counter-terror formed the kinetic components of this war to eliminate terrorism.
The army fought insurgency while a combination of police and paramilitary forces fought terror. The counterterrorism department of the police in each province was created to meet the needs of fighting terror. While fighting insurgency meant an incremental advance along a physical line and clearing spaces and reclaiming them, fighting terror in our cities meant its heavy dependence on intelligence and timely action. Where it was needed, the army assisted its special operations troops against larger and stronger groups – as was the case with the Army Public School attack in Peshawar which required a sustained operation to eliminate the terrorists who had successfully insurrected the safety of the provincial capital.
After the APS attack emerged the third facet of the complete response action – the non-kinetic part – which was translated as the National Action Plan. It consisted of 20 points of both kinetic and non-kinetic actions which were essential to eradicate terrorism from its roots. The non-kinetic actions were vastly more intricate with longer gestation periods for results. They needed a committed engagement of the political leadership to enact them over time with all the intensity to accrue favourable sustenance of the gains made through counter-insurgent and counter-terror efforts.
If and when enacted in full, it would, over time, help fight extremism and radicalism in a society which exploits latent religious sentiments to its own purpose. These steps were as varied as closing the financial loop supporting the extremists to reforming the syllabi in madressahs to their registration, and the involvement of religious scholars and the clergy in interpreting Islam in its more moderate and inclusive form. A lack of attention in this regard has meant that the misuse of religion has gone on unabated, continuing the slide towards a more radicalised society.
While Operation Zarb-e-Azb culminated the counter-insurgency phase of this war, more rounds may still be needed if we slide back into the complacency of a mission achieved. It is the counter-terror and the non-kinetic set of NAP actions which lag significantly.
Politicians have been seized with a plethora of legal cases. Half of them are petitioning while the other half are defending themselves, sparing little time to fight terror or implement NAP. In the absence of central ownership of the entire effort, what gapes instead is a vacuum. This leaves the chance for the maleficent to dominate perceptions in a relative space. One incident, and there is that overpowering sense of whether the bad old days of terror are back. The need for a centrally-coordinated leadership for this entire effort remains absolutely essential to dominate perceptions and convey the purpose that the war against terror continues to be won. This sense hasn’t been apparent for some time now.
The military leadership, since General Raheel Sharif retired, has been rather staid but reserved. In the aftermath of how the former chief was unfortunately treated in an attempt to cut him to size, the apparent effort of the new team at the GHQ has been to not tread on the toes of the civilian structures – whether it is the government or the civil society. As a consequence, the state and the nation seem to have entered a period of drift. This is when those across the border from foreign soils have found the opportune moment to re-impose their agenda of terror. This has been the consequence of an absent leadership from the country.
A few things should stand out. As the Afghan and Indian supported TTP launches sporadic raids on Pakistani troops at the border in a weak attempt at resurrecting insurgency, effort should be made to nip them in the bud right away. The focus on fighting terror in our midst must again be razor-sharp – with the possibility that Pakistan itself may need to neutralise the source of such malfeasance if Afghanistan is unable to stop the menace. Where the political leadership seems shorn of sufficient commitment to implement the elements of NAP, the military should also begin assisting the government in achieving what is essential to sustain the gains made on the battlefield. Now is not the time to sit on past laurels or be deterred by apprehensions of stepping on touchy toes.
This nation has done remarkably well by fighting a terrible war with groups that imposed terror for their heinous objectives by engendering chaos and fear – some of which was on foreign bidding. The country has stood the test well and come out successfully on the other end – something which more noted nations of the world have failed to achieve wherever they have undertaken such wars. This is not the time to slide back the gains made on the blood of the thousands who have died in this cause.
This is a generational effort and will remain so for some time to come. Only holding the baton of responsibility and staid resilience against all ulterior attempts at derailing this nation can help us realise ultimate success. Leadership at all levels must rise to the occasion. It remains a combined responsibility without differentiation of domain or antecedence.