Pakistan’s war on terror has been traumatic and challenging. That Pakistan was pressurised to fight this war is also passé. For some time it was felt that this was America’s war. But slowly this war moved into Pakistan, from the border areas into the cities.
The attack on APS Peshawar in December 2014 was a watershed moment that jolted the nation and brought it together to fight terrorism. Operation Zarb-e-Azb was a well-crafted response of going after the terrorists in the border areas. With the successes of the operation, many believed that terrorism was over. The government claimed credit for breaking the back of the terrorists. But time proved this wrong.
This month (February) has become a bloody spectacle of terrorist attacks, with the Lahore and Sehwan Sharif attacks being the worst. The former attack targeted senior police officers, and the latter targeted devotees at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. What followed was the same ritual: live TV coverage, condemnation, and resolve to address and uproot terrorism. For terrorism, there are no anodyne solutions.
While it is true that tracking terrorists and preventing such attacks is a difficult enterprise, there is still a need to understand the nature of these attacks, the timing, the modus operandi, and such other aspects that could perhaps lead to prevention. Like many other such attacks, there appear to be serious security lapses in these attacks. For example, why was the protest allowed in Lahore when there was a security alert? Why weren’t security measures in place at Sehwan when a shrine was targeted in Balochistan a few months back?
With so many terrorist attacks, and insights from numerous arrests of would-be terrorists, authorities and agencies ought to be better prepared to prevent such attacks. This might involve reading the terrorists mind, even after the attack. After APS, millions and millions were spent on building walls of schools and colleges, but how much was spent on security apparatus and training of security personnel? Similarly, the shrine in Balochistan was a soft target – a virtually ‘security free’ target. Apart from ritual condemnation, was anything done to secure the shrines, where devotees throng at regular times?
One cannot but notice a bizarre but discernible pattern in such attacks. The case of the recent spate of attacks – eight attacks in less than a week and over a 100 lives lost – offers a good illustration: here in quick succession all four provinces have seen terrorist attacks. While all terrorist targets are symbolic in some way, police officers in Lahore and judges in Peshawar had a clear message. The spell is over, hopefully.
The attacks have been linked to various organisations, some of them working from across the border. While the terrorists could be taking instructions from across the border, the attacks are not carried out by remote control. It is these human elements that escape the scrutiny of law-enforcement agencies, which are otherwise doing a good job.
Following this attack there were widespread combing operations all over the country, leading to the killing of a large number of terrorists. Pakistani forces have attacked Jamaatul Ahrar camps on the Afghan border as well. But why did such operations have to wait for this particular shrine attack? These operations should not slow down as the memory of the attack fades.
If anything, these attacks highlight a few stark realities: that the fight against terror is far from over; that this is our war; that our counterterrorism strategy needs more homework; and that the security apparatuses/mechanisms need to be upgraded to pre-empt such attacks.
The terrorist attacks in provincial metropolises and rural sites underline the harsh reality of terrorism that the country has been living with for the last decade and a half. Despite the Swat operation and Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Nacta, terrorists remain entrenched in sleeper cells, in the tribal areas, in settled areas and in provincial metropolises. They have the will and the resources to hit their chosen targets. Unfortunately, their networks are sustained through foreign support and local facilitators.
The nation has shown resolve to address this scourge. The recent terrorist events lend credence to the comment of a scholar on the war on terror –, that it is going to be “nasty, brutish and long”. Indeed, this war needs a combination of vigilance, patience and force to be won.
The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.