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February 20, 2017



Mistakes we committed in response to terrorism

Mistakes we committed in response to terrorism

A new wave of terror has hit Pakistan, the worst in six months, which again reminded us of some 'historic mistakes’ we committed in our response to terrorism. These include the indecisiveness in our policies on the terror war, which is different from a conventional war.

As often criticised, successive governments have failed to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP). Non-implementation of the past recommendations linked to the presence of foreign militants, their networks, foreign hand and their facilitators, also showed our weakness. Unless we get serious and united, we only make things far more difficult to cope with the internal and global challenges. Today, nation needs unity but national leaders are busy in blame-game.

Response like killing 100 suspected terrorists in response to terrorist attacks, which killed over 100 civilians and personnel of law enforcement agencies, could raise the morale of people, but it is far from resolving the actual issue.

Looking at some of the past reports, submitted to the governments to deal with the situation, clearly indicates that authorities concerned had diagnosed the disease, also suggested ways and means to cure it, but when it comes to treatment, the civil and military leadership often gets confused in ifs and buts.

For instance, in July 1997, almost four years before 9/11, a 20-page report, submitted to the interior ministry, warned about the possible danger of the presence of some 11,000 foreigners, who participated in the ‘Afghan jihad’ and never went back to their native countries.

The report was a follow-up of the action taken by the then PPP government of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who finally convinced the then Egyptian government to take back some 400 Egyptians, mostly activists of Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen in 1995. They were sent back in a special plane. In response to this action, the alleged militants blew up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad.

Benazir became the target of the militants and almost 20 years later, she was killed in a suicide attack. But, the way the embassy was blown up was just the beginning of the long war within Pakistan. Pakistan put a defensive posture, succumbed to the pressure and dumped the policy of sending foreigners back to their countries.

The issue of Afghan refugees is a peculiar one as because of the failure of their policy, millions have now become part of our society. This has practically changed the political dynamics of Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Many Afghans allegedly became facilitators, if not directly involved in terrorist activities. Now, Sindh and Punjab have also shown their concerns.

The 1997 report had also disclosed that some Islamic countries were continuing a proxy war in Pakistan and were behind sectarianism and they must be stopped. It also suggested a strong political will to deal with this menace before it’s too late and warned that unless the authorities concerned dealt with it with an iron hand it would continue spreading.

Pakistan can win this war with clarity about terrorism, extremism and the mindset. It’s not a conventional war against one country or the other, but against those who have been targeting the places of worship like a mazar or a mosque. Unlike in conventional war, where truth is the first casualty, in this war of minds, the state must keep the nation's morale high by painting a clear picture before them. Don't misguide people by relating success stories that 80-85pc terrorists had been eliminated.

Our capacity to fight such a war not merely required soldiers to fight but a political will to defeat extremism, as without addressing this core issue, no matter how many suspected terrorists we kill, the extremist mindset would continue affecting young men’s minds.

It is an irony that after sacrificing lives of thousands of civilians and military, para-military personnel, officers, police, we are still confuses as a nation how to protect our country. Our intelligentsia still looks for ‘ifs and buts’ of this war. The enemy is not merely sitting in our neighbours, but in our homes, which has made this war against terrorism more challenging.

In the past 20 years, not only Benazir became fell victim to terrorists killing spree but also leaders of other political parties. Suicide attacks were carried out to kill former prime minister Shaukat Aziz, former president and army chief General Pervez Musharraf, but they survived.

In the post-1990 era, successive governments made attempts to change the narrative of the 1980s, but due to political instability from 1988 to 1998, they could not succeed. Civil-military relationship practically came to standstill after October 12, 1999 coup by General Musharraf.

About a month before 9/11, Pakistan banned sectarian outfits on August 14, 2001 and after 9/11, it also banned jihadi outfits in January 2002, but by that time things practically went out of control.

In the aftermath of US-led NATO attack on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and its chief Osama bin Laden, the then Taliban regime of Mullah Omar refused to hand over Osama to America.

The war further aggravated situation in Pakistan, as thousands of Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militant groups, who had made sanctuaries in Afghanistan, shifted their bases to Pakistan, and selected North Waziristan Agency as their base camp.

Quetta and Karachi were the other two cities where they made their 'sleeper cells’. Pakistan launched an offensive against them and, as a result, top al-Qaeda leadership was caught. Pakistan paid a heavy price for it, as these groups launched a reign of terror in different parts of Pakistan, targeted civilians as well law-enforcement agencies.

The 1997 report had warned that if concrete measures were not taken to eradicate all forms of terrorism, things could go from bad to worse, and this is exactly what happened later on.

A little clarity came when, for the first time during the PPP government, the civil and military leadership came on one page and Swat operation was launched, followed by operations in Malakand and South Waziristan. The issue of several million refugees was also settled. But, even under the PPP government, confusion persisted over addressing the issue of eradicating extremism and changing the narrative about the extremist mindset.

During 2013, the PPP and Awami National Party (ANP) paid a heavy price for their resolve against terror networks and became the prime target in the elections and simply could not even initiate their campaigns. They lost the elections for other reasons too like poor governance, but the fact remains that they never got level playing field.

In the last three-and-a-half years of operation Zarb-e-Azb, army cleared North Waziristan of major sanctuaries of local and foreign militants, killing hundreds of them, but what they failed was killing their leaders, who fled to Afghanistan.

In 1997, the government was being led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and in 2017 too, he is the chief executive of the country. We have come a long way in reaching consensus that this 'war' is our war, but what we are still confused about is building a new narrative about changing the mindset. This mindset has allowed growth of scores of big and small extremist groups, which are not militant, but provide ‘support' to those who are fighting against our security forces.

Despite success stories of Zarb-e-Azb, the war is far from over and could not merely be won through a blame-game, but through a fresh strategy.

The very fact that within hours after the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, thousands gathered at the place and showed their eagerness to go inside to perform 'dhamal’ showed the resolve of the nation against terrorism. But, they expect of the state and its institutions to be more clear about the problem and its solution, as it’s not merely a war of weapons but a battle of minds, where defeat is not an option.

If diagnosis is right, the medicine suggested is correct, then why we are allowing the disease to spread?

  This writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO