Tackling the lethal troika

Published June 14, 2024
The writer is a former police officer who was Nacta’s first national coordinator.
The writer is a former police officer who was Nacta’s first national coordinator.

NOOR Wali Mehsud, ameer of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, stated recently that their ‘jihad’ against Pakistan had entered a “decisive phase”. He expressed the determination to “liberate their lands and enforce the divine laws therein”.

Mehsud’s newfound confidence is due to the provision of a sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban government, as well as the commitment of the Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda, to mentor the TTP in carrying out its terrorist campaign in Pakistan. Pakistan must immediately review its strategy of tackling this security challenge from the lethal troika, which is more experienced, committed and battle-hardened today than ever before.

To prepare for war, Sun Tzu states “of supreme importance … is to attack the enemy’s strategy”. It follows that Pakistan’s main goal in defeating the TTP should be to proactively neutralise its anticipated terrorism strategy. This is best achieved by basing our national response on four pillars: creating an environment in Pakistan conducive to an effective national counterterrorism (CT) effort; an external dimension in targeting the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary by the TTP/ Al Qaeda; sustained and coordinated kinetic measures; and a holistic plan for comprehensive, well-resourced, non-kinetic measures.

It might be a cliché to state that a poor and divided nation is likely to find it difficult to counter a serious challenge to its security. But sadly, that is what Pakistan looks like today. The political polarisation is unprecedented, economic conditions are dire and getting worse, and social cohesiveness is at its lowest. All this saps resolve and the capability to fight terrorism.

Therefore, the essential starting point for Pakistan in its war against the lethal troika is to set its own house in order by resolving its political polarisation, alleviating the common man’s economic woes, and moving towards building a more cohesive society through a government trusted by its citizens, and by improving the rule of law, adherence to fundamental rights, and accountability.

The second pillar — the external dimension — is crucial because the centre of gravity of the revived TTP and Al Qaeda is their sanctuary in Afghanistan. To make this sanctuary restrictive for the terrorist groups, we need to engage with the Afghan government at three levels — bilateral, regional and global.

Bilaterally, a nuanced approach should be adopted to make it more beneficial for the Taliban to restrict the activities of the two terrorist groups on their soil. Regionally, it should be stressed that the groups’ revival in Afghanistan poses a threat to regional security. We can use the forum of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has a CT mandate implemented through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. Globally, Pakistan can use different fora like the UN to keep the world updated about the implications of TTP/ Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan for global security.

The essential starting point for Pakistan is to set its own house in order.

It is pertinent to point out that while sanctuary in Afghanistan is an asset for the TTP/ Al Qaeda, it is also a constraining factor, because in the 2020 Doha accord, the Taliban had committed to not allowing their territory to be used for terrorism against any other country. It follows that a primary goal of the two groups would be to capture some territory in Pakistan and proclaim that they were not based in Afghanistan. To defeat this strategy, we should give the highest priority to preventing the TTP from capturing territory in Pakistan, particularly along the Afghan border.

As regards the third pillar, kinetic measures are an essential part of the CT toolkit. But we need to analyse why the military operations in ex-Fata and Swat, which successfully subdued the TTP from 2014 to 2020, could not prevent the group’s revival from 2021 onwards. One factor was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The other was our inability to realise that military operations, to be effective in the long term, have to go hand in hand with capacity building of local police and other civilian departments, so that in due course, when the military withdraws or takes a back seat, the civilian departments are capable of taking over.

Coming to the fourth pillar, if the capacity-building of state institutions for combating terrorism is important, no less crucial is the building up of the resilience of society to counter the terrorist threat. We witnessed how the people of Swat forced the TTP to withdraw again to Afghanistan in 2022. This resilience of the people against violent extremism must be expanded and strengthened. It can best be done by non-kinetic measures.

While there is a wide array of non-kinetic measures recommended by the UN for countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism, four areas deserve more attention in Pakistan — increasing socioeconomic opportunities, reducing political marginalisation, improving governance and neutralising social networks that propagate violent extremism. Being the front-line province, KP deserves the highest priority in terms of allocation of resources, both for CT and PVE. In this regard, Pakistan can learn from international initiatives like the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network.

The above-mentioned measures have been suggested earlier also, but are rarely implemented. This can be broadly attributed to 1) lack of political ownership of the national CT/ PVE effort, 2) the perception that national security is the military’s domain, with nominal input from civilians, and last but not the least, 3) non-allocation of required resources to civilian institutions.

To address these, an essential step is to civilianise the concept of national security, with the military playing a supportive role. Else, this vicious cycle of terrorism, military operations, dislocation of terrorists, peace accords and then terrorists’ revival shall continue.

It is time we realised that in CT, which Rupert Smith defines as a “war amongst people”, the military’s utility is critical but limited and is likely to be short-lived, unless the political, economic and governance dimensions are simultaneously addressed. For that, we need civilian supremacy in CT/ PVE decision-making. The future of our success against the Afghanistan-based lethal troika depends on whether we learn this lesson or not. The choice is ours.

The writer is a former police officer who was Nacta’s first national coordinator.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2024

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