AS the physical infrastructure of militancy in North Waziristan — the bomb-making factories and suicide-bomber training centres — is discovered and dismantled, it is worth dwelling on the asymmetry here in the militants’ approach and the state’s response. To be sure, no militant force can hold out against the resources of the Pakistan Army in a direct fight anywhere. But that is to ignore the central aspect of militancy: it never seeks a frontal, direct fight with a better-resourced, more-powerful state. The real strength of militancy is its ability to build weapons that are difficult to protect against — ever more deadly IEDs and increasingly better trained suicide bombers, for example. This is precisely what the terrorist network in North Waziristan excelled in and it cannot — must not — be forgotten that while the physical infrastructure has been uprooted, the brainpower behind building the human bombs and IEDs is still very much at large.

More problematically for the state, while the terrorist and militant have honed their skills when it comes to spinning a narrative that can be sold to would-be suicide bombers, the state has not even begun to think seriously about what it will require to build a counter-narrative at the societal level. The Interior Ministry’s National Internal Security Policy does touch upon the subject of a counter-narrative, but it offers nothing close to a methodical and broad-based solution. Consider, meanwhile, just how effective the suicide-training centres of the militants, foreign and local, have become. In a report published in this newspaper yesterday, the level of detail about the lives of the boys and young men and their families that is painstakingly recorded by the militants is startling. From basic data on the would-be suicide bomber to political affiliations and incomes of family members to data on friends of the bomber, the process of vetting and selecting suicide bombers has been elevated to the near-scientific. Perhaps in that there should be little surprise: those hunting for targets to brainwash as suicide bombers would know best the complex matrix of factors that makes someone more or less likely to agree to blow themselves up in the name of religion.

What the discoveries do underline though is just how big the challenge is for the state. In addition to the physical infrastructure, there is the soft power of the militants. A society that has increasingly drifted towards the religious and political right and in which the so-called philanthropic arms of militant groups are allowed to operate with impunity is a society that is ripe for the picking when it comes to militant masterminds looking for the impressionable youth who can be persuaded to become a suicide bomber. If the infrastructure of jihad, militancy and terrorism is to be comprehensively rolled back, the state will need to re-educate and reorientate much of Pakistan. But can it do so?

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2014

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