While the latest wave of terrorist attacks has provoked an intense militaristic response from the state, there are questions about the limitations of the use of kinetic force alone in dealing with the threat.
Hours after the Sehwan shrine attack, security forces claimed to have killed dozens of suspected terrorists in a countrywide sweep. Hundreds more have been arrested since the launch of a new counterterrorism campaign branded as Raddul Fasaad or ‘elimination of discord’. The military action has reportedly been extended to the alleged terrorist sanctuaries across the Afghan border. This punishing response is unprecedented though the country had earlier witnessed bloodier spells of terrorist assaults.
While the security officials describe it as the next phase of the ongoing counterterrorism campaign, there are some serious flaws in this purely militarist approach. For sure, the state must use force whenever it is necessary. It not only raises the cost for militants, but it is also a way to reassure an alarmed public that something is being done for their security.
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But the mere use of force is hardly effective unless accompanied by non-kinetic measures. The threat from violent extremism cannot be successfully challenged militarily. There is a difference between fighting insurgency and combating terrorism. The real struggle is to win over minds, and we are hardly addressing that. This, perhaps, has been the reason for our failure to implement the National Action Plan. There is still no sign of carrying out those long-delayed reforms that are extremely critical for containing the rising extremism being witnessed in the country.
Yet again, the civilian government is reluctant to take the ownership of the operation. As in the past, the announcement of the latest campaign came from GHQ. The prime minister did not even bother to take parliament into confidence or reassure the public that the government is fully resolved to confront the challenge. As a result, there is no clarity over the objectives of this new round of the crackdown.
It is more important to fight against the ideology that produces terrorists.
Even for the sake of symbolism, the civilian leadership must be seen as taking effective charge of the battle against terrorism. What is most intriguing is the absence from the scene of the federal interior minister who is supposed to lead the operation. He did appear in public lately — not to talk about the operation but to engage in an ugly blame game with the Sindh government over who was responsible for the lapse in security at the shrine. Is it fear or political expediency that is causing the civilian leadership to take a back seat? Perhaps it is a mix of both.
After much delay, the Punjab government has finally agreed to expand the operation to the province. But there is still no clarity on whether the crackdown is across the board or limited to a few sectarian outfits. Rana Sanaullah, the provincial home minister, recently declared that no local group has been involved in the terrorist attacks, thus adding to the confusion. One wonders whether it reflects a state of denial or if it is a deliberate attempt to protect some local extremist groups.
What is most dangerous is the reported profiling of Pakhtuns in the province. According to some media reports, markets and business associations in Lahore have been instructed to provide information about Pakhtun members. That makes a single community much more vulnerable. By targeting one particular ethnic community, the claim of an across-the-board crackdown becomes doubtful.
It may be true that Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter of the TTP now operating from its sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan, has claimed responsibility for much of the recent violence. But it is also a fact that the IS-linked militant group could not have carried out those well-planned and synchronised attacks without local support, not forgetting that a large number of local militants known as Punjabi Taliban took sanctuary in North Waziristan and other tribal agencies before they were driven out by military operations.
Many of those militants are now back in their home province. The Punjab government’s earlier reluctance to allow security forces to extend the operation to the province provided the militants space to regroup. Many of them had been closely linked with various TTP factions. Across-the-board action is necessary to win this battle against terrorism.
Meanwhile, hundreds of suspected militants have reportedly been detained on terrorism charges across the country since the launch of Raddul Fasaad. They are in addition to scores of others apprehended during the military operation in Fata and earlier intelligence-based raids. While very few of them were tried by the military courts and convicted, several others have been freed by the anti-terrorism courts, apparently because of lack of evidence.
Since nothing has been done to reform the judicial system over the past two years, as mandated under NAP, there is little hope that the detained militants will be convicted. The problem has been further aggravated with the lack of consensus among political parties over whether or not to extend the term of the military courts.
There are reports about those freed by the courts returning to militant activities. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons for the surge in terrorism after a brief lull.
There has been a marked increase in the number of suspected terrorists being killed in ‘encounters’ with the security forces. More than 100 alleged terrorists were reportedly taken out overnight at the beginning of Raddul Fasaad. But they have not been identified. There are no names only numbers.
Extra-judicial killings are not the solution. Such acts will only make things worse. Decapitation is not an appropriate strategy to fight terrorism. One cannot deny that use of force is necessary to eliminate those who kill innocent people. But more important is to fight against the ideology that produces terrorists.
Unfortunately, the state has failed to effectively counter the extremist narrative and establish rule of law. The success of the latest operation depends on whether we have learnt any lessons from our past policy failures.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2017