The attack on a Quetta church on Christmas Eve, days after the carnage at a Peshawar college, is a grim reminder of terrorism far from being contained despite the government’s claim of success in counter-terrorism drive branded as Raddul Fasaad, or ‘elimination of discord’.
While the security officials describe it as the next phase of the ongoing campaign, there are some serious flaws in the approach as witnessed during 2017.
While Balochistan bore the brunt of terrorist attacks in 2017, the situation in other provinces was not significantly better.
The suicide-bombing early in the year right in the heart of Lahore’s busiest commercial centre not far from the security zone was yet another example of how easy it still is for the militants to strike. From security installation to education institutions and religious places, nothing has been spared. There has been a marked increase in attacks on police across the country.
Also, terrorists have regularly targeted religious shrines in Sindh. The attack in Sehwan Sharif left scores of devotees killed. Many more incidents were reported in 2017 from areas that had remained relatively unaffected by the rise of such militancy.
For sure, the level of militancy has come down significantly compared to previous years. But the latest wave of attacks shows how easy it is for the militants to regroup and hit back with the state still reluctant to act against the major sources of militancy without exception.
Given the state of affairs, it is not surprising to see terrorism rearing its ugly head yet again. The state institutions have failed to act more effectively against proscribed militant and sectarian groups operating under new banners.
It doesn’t matter which militant faction operating from the sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan claims responsibility; the fact is that the attacks are being facilitated by a network operating inside the country. The attacks in Quetta and Peshawar are examples of our failure to act in a timely fashion on an intelligence warning.
Though federal and the provincial governments deny the threat, Punjab is sitting on a powder keg. The province is the hub of violent extremism with banned outfits operating freely. What is most dangerous is the ostrich-like attitude of the provincial government in the face of the grave threat.
It has almost become a ritual for the government to pledge its resolve to fight terrorism and all manifestations of extremism after each incident. But that is mere rhetoric.
There has hardly been any tangible sign of progress on the National Action Plan (NAP) despite solemn pledges. Surely, no amount of bloodletting could force the government to move against the sectarian militant groups that are declared ‘kosher’.
Despite the claims of a widespread intelligence-based crackdown, some sectarian and militant networks are still active in many districts of southern Punjab.
Political expediency and the old habit of creating distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants makes it harder to deal with the menace. Thousands of militant suspects have reportedly been arrested by security agencies in Punjab alone over the past two years, but there is no report of any of them being convicted or even tried by anti-terrorism courts.
Most of the detainees are freed due to lack of evidence. An unprotected judiciary does not want to stick out its neck. The situation has become more complicated with the government’s failure to reform the country’s judicial system as promised under NAP. Only few cases are being sent to the military courts.
That means detained suspects will either be freed or languish in jail without trial. Since nothing has been done to reform the judicial system as mandated under NAP, there is little hope that the detained militants will be convicted.
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.
Also, the alleged extrajudicial killings of some high-profile sectarian militant leaders do not solve the problem in the long term. Given the constant supply of ‘holy warriors’ coming out of radicalised seminaries, it is extremely difficult to eradicate militancy with short-term measures. These cannot be a substitute for an overarching counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategy.
Most of the recent attacks have been claimed by groups affiliated with so-called Islamic State (IS). The emergence of the Middle Eastern militant group and its growing activities is alarming. Some splinter factions of the TTP such as Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) and Sunni sectarian militant groups now pledge their allegiance to the IS.
JuA, which is now operating from its sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan, has been involved in several attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas in the past. It has now expanded its operation to Balochistan.
The presence of all kinds of militant groups makes Balochistan’s terror maze more complex. According to some intelligence reports, members of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), now operating under the banner of Jamaatud Dawa, are getting involved with IS.
The footprints of the global jihadi group were found in several attacks, though the government has downplayed such reports. It may be true that IS does not have any organisational structure in the country, but the threat cannot be underestimated. Reports of an emerging nexus between members of banned militant outfits and IS must be taken more seriously.
Unsurprisingly, foreign hands are being blamed for the latest wave of militancy. It is certainly the easiest thing to do to cover up one’s own failure.
While one must not completely rule out the possibility of foreign involvement, given the current regional tensions, it is also true that our own people are facilitating these attacks. Outside forces can only fish in troubled waters and surely our inaction provides them with an enabling environment.
While each terrorist attack provokes 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. Security forces claimed to have killed dozens of suspected terrorists in a countrywide sweep. Hundreds more have been arrested since the launch of Raddul Fasaad.
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. But the mere use of force is hardly effective unless accompanied by non-kinetic measures.
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 NAP. There is still no sign of carrying out those long-delayed reforms that are extremely critical for containing the rising extremism.
Unfortunately, the state has failed to effectively counter the extremist narrative and establish the rule of the law. The success of the latest operation depends on whether we have learnt any lessons from our past policy failures.