The terrorist incidents in different parts of Pakistan in rapid succession in February this year have brought Pakistan’s policy of countering terrorism in sharp focus. How and why terrorist activity escalated when there was a noticeable decline in such activity in 2016? What should now be done to totally eliminate extremist and terrorist activity in Pakistan?
There is a widely shared consensus in Pakistan that terrorist activity declined because of the Zarb-e-Azb security operation in North Waziristan and other tribal agencies and the security operation in Karachi. Some people turned optimistic to argue that Pakistan had overcome the menace of terrorism. The independent observers also recognised the military successes in coping with terrorism but they argued that more sustained efforts were needed, especially in the non-military domains, to completely root out extremism and terrorism.
Terrorism is based on a narrow political and ideological agenda that provides a basis for use of violence in a sustained manner. The people are not born extremist or terrorist. They are socialised into it through a conscious effort by a state or by self-motivated politicised leadership that uses an ideological framework derived from a religious or worldly philosophy.
Pakistani society’s tolerant disposition was converted into what it is today through the efforts of Pakistani state system by socialising at least more than one generation into religious orthodoxy and militancy. The orthodox and hardline religious circles were pampered by the Pakistani state in cooperation with friendly foreign countries that had their own overlapping agendas to pursue. The conflict developed between the Pakistani state and the hardline religious groups when the Pakistani state decided to abandon militancy as the major state policy in September 2001. It was easy for the Pakistani state to do that because it viewed militancy as a matter of policy which it could change. However, the religion-oriented groups pursued orthodoxy and militancy as an article of faith which could not be changed easily. Furthermore, the changed official Pakistani policy threatened the privileged position of these groups. Some of them decided to challenge the Pakistani state.
However, history cannot be used to sidestep the problems of the present. One lesson can be drawn from history. As orthodoxy and militancy were inculcated in society by a conscious effort over time, their reversal is possible through a sustained effort on the part of the Pakistani state and society.
The elected civilian governments and leaders are not convinced that they need to work towards moderating the socio-cultural and religious profile of the society. A good number of them are the product of the era when the state was socialising people into religious orthodoxy and militancy. As they have not experienced the pre-orthodoxy period, they do not see anything wrong in their disposition. Some of them are likely to be critical of the use of violence by the Taliban and other groups but they are not opposed to their ideological agenda. The civilian governments are too weak to take a firm stand for reformulating the societal profile by revising school education in view of the opposition by Islamic and militant groups. Furthermore, as the relations between the government and the mainstream opposition political parties are marked by distrust and hostility, the government fears that the opposition will exploit any confrontation between the government and the religious groups.
There are several other dilemmas in the non-military civilian domains for countering terrorism. With the exception of the PPP, the ANP and the MQM, the political parties maintain an ambiguous disposition on militancy. These political parties condemn terrorism and violence at the level of abstraction or in principle. Terrorism is bad, wrong, inhuman and un-Islamic, they argue. However, they rarely apply these theoretical formulations to concrete situations of violence.
This is true that Islamic teachings and principles reject the use of violence against people or killing them but the militant groups invoke Islam in support of their activities. Furthermore, Islamic militancy is linked to some schools of Islamic thought based in Saudi Arabia and the Indo-Pak subcontinent, although this does not necessarily mean that all followers of these religious denominations support violence by these groups. Other schools of Islamic thought avoid linking with the Taliban and other militant groups. These groups publicly criticise the militant groups that resort to suicide bombings or other violent methods that cause loss of human life and property.
The groups that escaped from North Waziristan in the course of Zarb-e-Azb operation to Afghanistan and mainland Pakistan, regrouped to resort to violence to make their presence felt. They will repeat this from time to time rather than engage in violence in a sustained manner over a long period of time because their human and material resources are limited as compared to the pre-Zarb-e-Azb period.
Another dilemma is the reluctance of the Punjab and federal governments to assign an autonomous role to the Rangers for countering terrorism in the province because this challenges the PML-N’s monopoly of power in Punjab. The PML-N leaders want the Rangers and the military to operate in Punjab under their instructions.
The new security operation, Radd-ul-Fasaad, initiated by the Army in the urban areas on February 22, is expected to dismantle the militant networks and support systems in the urban areas of Punjab and elsewhere. However, the active support of the civilian government will still be needed to cope with the non-military and societal aspects of terrorism. It is here that uncertainty exists because the political and electoral considerations dominate the dispositions of the political leadership ruling at the federal and provincial levels.
These dilemmas will have to be addressed in order to permanently eliminate violent groups throughout Pakistan. This calls for an earnest effort to moderate Pakistan’s socio-cultural profile by reformulating education and other agents of socialisation. The greater focus of this effort should be on Punjab where over 50 per cent of Pakistan lives.