Wednesday May 31, 2023

Pre-poll violence

July 22, 2018

Ahead of the general elections on July 25, terrorism has again reared its ugly head in Pakistan, threatening the security of political leaders and the electorate.

The fresh wave of violence in Peshawar, Bannu and Mastung has claimed 176 lives, including leaders of the ANP, Haroon Bilour, and BAP, Nawab Siraj Raisani. Similarly, the blasts in Chaman and North Waziristan Agency have revived the intimidating atmosphere of the 2013 polls when over 170 people were killed in pre-electoral violence.

This fresh wave of violence has marred political activities, forcing political parties and electoral candidates to call off their public rallies. For instance, chairman PPP Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had to cancel his election campaign in Malakand and Bannu because of the terrorist threat. In a briefing to the ECP, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) warned that the leaders of all major political parties are on the terrorists’ hit-list.

The attacks also ended the relative lull in violence achieved after security and stability was restored in the country. These attacks were high-profile and intended to create mass casualties and publicity. In fact, the Mastung attack, in terms of the number of deaths, was the second deadliest attack in Pakistan after the 2007 Karsaz attack which claimed 167 lives. The Army Public School attack was the third deadliest attack with a loss of 147 lives.

Terrorist groups, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), are using these elections as an opportunity to regain some space and reassert themselves in the country’s militant landscape. Moreover, by using violence these groups are also trying to influence the election campaign in which extremism and terrorism remain neglected issues.

Though the heydays of the TTP’s terrorist reign are over, with its residual capabilities, the TTP still has the capacity to strike sporadically. The TTP’s organisational evolution and relocation from a Pakistan-based insurgent group to an Afghanistan-based belligerent group has qualitatively transformed the nature of the threat it poses to Pakistan as well. Instead of an existential and imminent threat, the group now poses a low-intensity, long-term security threat to Pakistan.

In these attacks, the TTP has shown a broader geographical outreach, enhanced operational capabilities and the ability to exploit loopholes in the existing internal security framework. Following the killing of former TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, the leadership of the terror group has returned to the dreaded Mehsud faction. The new chief, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, is establishing his authority though these attacks, trying to reunify the various TTP factions under his command, attract fresh recruits and funding. If he succeeds, the TTP’s operational capabilities will be enhanced further.

Likewise, since its formation in 2015, the ISK has emerged as a formidable terrorist group in Afghanistan’s border areas, and it has consistently carried out high-profile attacks in interior Sindh and Balochistan. Worryingly, Balochistan-based anti-Shia militant groups such as Jundullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almi (LJA) have forged a working relationship with the ISK. They have facilitated the ISK by providing them organisational infrastructure and manpower in return for funding to target common foes.

The relocation of some of the Islamic State’s (IS) fighters to Afghanistan following its defeat in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria has also strengthened the ISK’s organisational and operational capabilities. A recent meeting held between the heads of Russia, Iran and China’s intelligence agencies in Islamabad to discuss the ISK’s growing footprint in Afghanistan shows the gravity of the threat.

For the 2018 elections, no political party in Pakistan has outlined policy frameworks to prevent and counter extremism. On the contrary, several extremist groups such as the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Sunni Tehreek (ST), Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM), among others, have been allowed to contest elections under the pretext of so-called mainstreaming. Keeping in view the gigantic challenges of violent-extremism and radicalisation, allowing these parties to run for elections is self-defeating and counter-productive.

While these groups may not win a large number of seats in parliament, by participating in the electoral process, they gain public legitimacy and create space for their extremist narratives and agendas. The public’s recognition enables them to assert themselves as a formidable pressure group in the political space. Using their street power, these groups not only protect their organisational interests, but also keep a constant pressure on governments against amending laws pertaining to key religious issues.

Additionally, the alleged decision of Nacta to remove ASWJ chief Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi’s name from the Fourth Schedule, unfreeze his bank accounts and allow him to contest the elections only a day after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-listed Pakistan to curb anti-terror financing and implement anti-money laundering laws, is baffling. This trend is detrimental not only for the ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts but also damages Pakistan’s image globally.

If the new National Internal Security Policy (NIPS: 2018-2023) inaugurated in June, which provides a comprehensive policy-framework and addresses critical issues, is judiciously implemented, the gains made in operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad can be consolidated further. Complacency crept in when relative stability attained after a turbulent period was confused with peace. Notwithstanding the absence of violence, all factors of violence such as mass radicalisation, sectarian polarisation, hot borders and regional proxy wars are present in Pakistan. This makes tactical counter-terrorism gains tenuous and prone to being reversed.

Due to relocation of the TTP, ISK and Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) in Afghanistan, terrorism in Pakistan has become a regional issue. Given this situation, it will be self-defeating to find a local solution to a regional problem. Without pacifying Afghanistan, terrorism will persist in Pakistan in one form or the other. Hence, Pakistan needs to double down its diplomatic efforts to facilitate a negotiated settlement of war in Afghanistan.

Lastly, ensuring peaceful elections and smooth transfer of power is critical for internal peace and stability. A prolonged period of political uncertainty or instability will provide enough openings to militants to regain a foothold in Pakistan. While Nacta has efficiently issued timely threat alerts, its operational coordination with different security institutions needs to be improved to prevent terror attacks in the future.

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