Terrorist outfits in the country have conveyed a chilling message over the last few weeks, and even yesterday in Lahore: no one is safe, neither civilians, nor law enforcement, nor the armed forces in the militants’ escalating campaign of urban terrorism. And what seemed inevitable in the wake of this violence has now come to pass.
A military operation has been launched across the country with the stated objectives of eradicating residual terrorist threats, consolidating the gains made in counterterrorism operations thus far and tightening security along the borders. The operation, codenamed Raddul Fasaad, entails coordinated action by all wings of the armed forces as well as paramilitary organisations, civilian law-enforcement agencies and intelligence outfits. Even though the offensive has a countrywide canvas, Punjab — that has long been a hotbed of violent extremist groups that the provincial government has treated with kid gloves — is clearly the focus. This was underscored not least by the fact that the operation was announced after a high-level security meeting in Lahore chaired by the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa.
Despite appearances however, Raddul Fasaad was not inevitable, had the government — both at the centre and in the provinces — not fallen short in countering extremism and terrorism. For this was the much-vaunted aim of the National Action Plan agreed upon in the anguish of post-APS Peshawar. The civilians were to supplement Operation Zarb-i-Azb that was targeting terrorists in northern Pakistan by taking action against hard-line madressahs, cracking down on terrorist cells in urban areas where such elements can easily find cover, initiating reforms in the criminal justice system, etc. Crucially, the centre and provinces had also pledged to craft a counter-narrative to push back against the poisonous ideology that has fuelled extremism in the country. Instead, they have demurred, obfuscated, clamoured for military courts and, most damningly, refused to acknowledge the dynamics of terrorism. Consider Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan’s statement that banned sectarian organisations could not be equated with terrorist outfits. Or take Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah’s shifting the blame for the Mall Road suicide bombing in Lahore on protesters gathered there, or the fact that groups like the ASWJ have taken out rallies despite being banned.
The reality is that a military force can only carry out kinetic operations; it cannot effect a change in mindset. And extremism is a mindset, one that has percolated through society for decades now. Only the government can counter it through an intelligent use of the resources at its disposal, that too if it displays a steely resolve that has been lacking so far. At the same time, even while recognising that a level of secrecy is necessitated by the situation, transparency must inform the operation: the military should clarify who it is targeting and specify a time frame for the campaign. A vague, open-ended engagement is never good strategy.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2017