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Islamabad

February 29, 2016

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Holistic strategy to defeat ISIS need of the hour

"Terrorism can never be accepted. We must fight it together, with methods that do not compromise our respect for the rule of law and human rights, or are used as an excuse for others to do so."                 (Anna Lindh)

Over the past few years, world has witnessed another violent and extremist movements in the shape of ISIS. This deadly extremist outfit has managed to deepen its roots over a large area in Iraq and Syria with successful recruitment of foreigners. The organisation has plans of extending its terrorist activities within Middle East and beyond. ISIS’ attacks in the West especially in the case of Paris, have forced Western powers to respond to this emanating threat objectively. These attacks have amply demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that ISIS can be indefinitely contained within Iraq and Syria, the Middle East, or even beyond. They have revealed the inadequacy of current strategies to address the threat. These tragedies have thus created space for a serious discussion about the nature of the threat and the responses required to counter it.

Though there are sporadic traces of Daesh's presence in Pakistan, yet given the growing nature of ISIS, its future plans and vulnerability of our geo social mosaic, its prioritisation as a threat cannot be further delayed. There is a dire need of devising a holistic strategy to contain this deadly menace before it deepens its roots in Pakistan. The strategy must be based on previously learnt lessons and experiences of combating Al-Qaeda and Taliban. In order to devise a counter ISIS strategy, few guidelines are suggested for consideration at international and domestic levels.

Overstatement of threat helps the threat itself. Media should control the narrative, avoid feeding fear and avoid alienating the whole communities. Western efforts to deal with Al-Qaeda have proven that the insurgent movements can be slowed down by use of physical force but their overall curtailment will definitely require more complex and broader strategy. Despite heavy bombing, ISIS has still managed to survive and is continuing to control intended areas in Iraq and Syria. Western allies against ISIS should understand that the use of physical force like bombing alone may even prove counterproductive while the collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure can force the victim communities fall into the arms of extremists.

ISIS may be a common enemy but few of its enemies in the region think it is the number one priority. These regional players out of their sheer politics and inter-state rivalries end up strengthening ISIS besides complicating the efforts to defeat it.

It will be a grave mistake to overlook the political and socio-economic roots of ISIS by focusing exclusively on its religious propaganda. Some facets of ISIS are religious based and pursue theologically inspired goals. Long history of Gulf-sponsored religious and sectarian messaging, via schools or satellite television, has shaped a climate receptive to this message. But in the Middle East, ISIS and other jihadist groups have mustered the support or acquiescence of communities under their control not due to their ideology but because of the things they provide, particularly for people living in conflict zones or failed states. ISIS has won support through exploitation of violence suffered by Sunni Muslims at the hands of regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Similarly, in Europe, the new generation of radicalised youth is lured to ISIS through internet and social media instead of conventional platforms like mosques. This recruitment strategy is based less on religion and more on violence or fraternity.

ISIS, by and large is the product of violence and discriminatory treatment to minority sects by the governments in affected regions. Targeting policies against a sect played by ruling governments have resulted into growth of ISIS over the years. Such policies must be curtailed. Hence, pursuance of policies which have and can accentuate ISIS, must be avoided.

According to Jean-Marie Guéhenno, ISIS issue is a multi-dimensional problem and thereby would require a multi pronged counter strategy. ISIS and other extremist groups are indicators of potential upheaval in Middle East. The sectarian divide and a perception of one sect's victimisation are major triggers of ISIS. Over reaction to the perceived problems by ruling governments, critical role of non-state actors and socio-economic deprivation have made the problem more complex.

Use of force against a particular extremist group in a particular region may defeat the opponent but the loyalties and affiliations of affected population will be lost. Military force often needs to be part of fighting extremism but main goal i.e. winning over communities should never be compromised. Only forces that can establish positive local relations should participate in an assault. Taking the territory and losing the people is not a good choice to make. Aftermaths of US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring is a case in point.

The growing competition between Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran is as grave a threat to regional stability as ISIS itself. It will ultimately promote opposing sectarian currents and pave way for extremism. International leaders should understand the dilemma and concentrate to dampen the tension. Failure to do so will only help ISIS. A comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS must include peace initiatives between rival countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Given that any crisis in the Muslim World is likely to assume an extremist dimension due to sectarian divide. This requires bolstering those in danger, as in the Sahel, where criminal trafficking of all sorts easily morphs into political violence. Jihadist groups like ISIS take root only after a long period of unaddressed local grievances, botched security responses and prolonged low-intensity conflicts. Addressing these issues on priority will be a key factor in defeating ISIS.

Military engagement can potentially weaken the appeal and influence of extremist groups like ISIS. This tactics will not be long enduring in the absence of an efficient and unbiased political process. Moreover, preventing fissures in our society should also be the priority for political and religious leaders. It will not be an easy task as it will require a clear rejection of the politics of fear which is only possible through ensuring fool proof inland security.

In the context of Pakistan, we must confront the magnitude of the potential security disaster without simplifying the challenges or minimising the requirements. We must not throw up our hands in despair and retreat behind our own walls. Retreat will cause a terrible situation to become much worse and will raise the cost and difficulty of repairing it in the future. Else, enemies and adversaries, such as Taliban, al- Qaeda and ISIS will thrive. By the grace of Almighty, with the strong resolve of our Armed Forces and fortitude of national leadership, we shall be able to prevent our country from the menace of emanating ISIS threat. ISIS is a global threat and international community must fight it together sensibly.

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