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November 3, 2016

Quetta attack: the rot is deeper


November 3, 2016

Coming on the heels of two terrorist assaults by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami, the attack on the Police Training Centre (PTC) in Quetta was a tragedy waiting to happen. We could have prevented it but we did not. Anything that can possibly go wrong went wrong in the PTC attack, whether you look at it from the state-society perspective or from the narrow lens of counterterrorism (CT).

There is nothing new about the PTC attack in Quetta. This has happened before and, unfortunately, it will probably happen again. We did not learn anything from such incidents in the past and we are least likely to learn any lessons even in the future. The problems are not just in Pakistan’s over-militarised CT policy; there are broader structural issues in the Pakistani polity and the geopolitical environment in which it operates.

Put differently, the rot is much deeper than we can imagine. In every sector, whether it is energy, security, education, or development, we have lowered the bar so much that the perpetual struggle to survive is equated with success. Thus, Pakistan has not been able to break free from this survival syndrome.

The Quetta PTC attack is a chronicle of collective state-society failure, an indictment of our negligence, a verdict on our perfunctory policies, an indication of the systematic decay of institutions, a ruling on the absence of the culture of specialisation and professionalism. Given that, it will be unfair to single out the current CT policy, whose theoretical face is the National Action Plan (NAP) and operational face is Zarb-e-Azb. Terrorism as a problem and counterterrorism as policy cannot be seen in isolation from other problems and policies. The CT policy is as good as other policies or as bad as others are.

The ad-hoc approach of our policies can only provide temporary respite and short-term results before the troubles pop up again. For instance, look at the circular debt crisis. The PML-N government tried to fix it through printing money and paying the IPPs in 2013. However, two years later the issue has re-emerged with the same ferocity. The judicial activism in the wake of the 2007 lawyers’ movement, which ideally should have trickled down to the lower courts, has fizzled out. The list is endless.

In the last few years, something serious has gone wrong with the leadership psyche of Pakistan’s top political and military leadership. The concept of progress has been reduced to damage control. As a result, the lowest common denominators are considered the benchmarks of success. In our collective national psyche, finding corruption-free leaders is an achievement while in the civilised world it is a basic requirement.

A loadshedding-free Pakistan is considered a vision of a political leader while in a normal progress paradigm, this is the least a government should be able to do. Averting APS Peshawar like tragedies is considered security improvement, not an embarrassment that as a nation we cannot even provide a fear-free environment to our children to seek their education.

The PTC attack is a repetition of what we have seen previously in different other walks of life. The academy has been attacked by terrorists twice in the past – once in 2006 and again in 2008. The intelligence alert of a possible third attack was issued well in advance to the authorities. Given the forewarnings, it is a major security lapse. The attack could have been averted, and if not averted the damage could have been minimised had the required measures been taken.

The mandatory three-layer security requirement for sensitive installation that constitutes inner and outer security cordons and perimeter security was not followed. Implementation of these measures would have slowed down the terrorist assault on PTC providing the SSG commandos enough time to reach the attack site. However, there was only one security guard at the watchtower. Once the terrorists took him down, it exposed the 750 unarmed police cadets to five well-armed terrorists who gunned down 60 cadets and wounded 107 others at point blank.

In light of the regional environment and the local circumstances in which NAP and Operation Zarb-e-Azb are operating, they can achieve only this much: short-term results and temporary respite. The tactical brilliance of these two policy instruments cannot overcome the strategic blunders of our regional policies and structural flaws of the system at the macro level.

The way new regional rivalries are shaping up in South Asia with re-entrenchment of the older ones, terrorism and proxy wars would remain part of the regional geopolitics. As always, the great power rivalries – Indo-US strategic alliance to contain China – coupled with the Middle Eastern geo-sectarian tussle (recent resurgence of sectarian violence) will find spaces in this region. Terrorism is a sub-set of geopolitics and proxy-battles. And without changing that, fully overcoming terrorism is wishful thinking.

In the existing South Asian geopolitical environment, it is very difficult to create a win-win between regional rivals – India and Pakistan – and competitors – Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Indian and China. Without taking out proxy-wars as a factor in South Asian geopolitics, state-centric counterterrorism policies and local peace-making efforts can achieve limited results.

The top leadership will have to think of a paradigm-shift instead of mere doctrinal adjustment; from a security state to a welfare state. The advent of the CPEC has created a rare opportunity to replace geopolitics in South Asia with geo-economics so that mutual benefits and overlapping win-win factors can be created between rivals and competitors.

Under the Chinese umbrella, if Pakistani can take a lead in this direction, things can improve. Reorienting existing state-centric policies to people-centric policies holds the key to peace and prosperity in South Asia. Meanwhile, at the local level unless the hard and long road to reforms and restructuring is taken, the situation will remain more or less the same.


The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]

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