• ‘Operation Azm-i-Istehkam’ aims to use full force of military, diplomatic, legislative, socio-economic arsenal
• Move comes a day after senior Chinese official voiced concerns over security situation
• National Action Plan’s apex committee reviews SOPs to enhance safety of Chinese nationals

ISLAMABAD: The government on Saturday announced a new counterterrorism operation, Azm-i-Istehkam, vowing to unleash the full force of the country’s military, diplomatic, legislative, and socio-economic arsenal to decisively defeat terrorism and extremism.

The announcement came after a meeting of the Central Apex Committee of National Action Plan, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and attended by key federal ministers, provincial chief ministers, services chiefs and top bureaucrats.

“The prime minister approved a reinvigorated and re-energised nati­o­nal counterterrorism campaign thro­ugh the launching of Operation Azm-i-Istehkam, with the consensus of all stakeholders including the provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, symbolising the national resolve to eradicate extremism and terrorism from the country,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement issued after the meeting.

Azm-i-Istehkam is the latest in a series of counterterrorism operations launched by the Pakistan Army since the mid-2000s. More recent operations include Zarb-i-Azb, launched in 2014 by Gen Raheel Sharif to combat militants in North Waziristan, and Raddul Fasaad, initiated in 2017 under Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to eliminate what was then described as “residual terrorist threats” in the country.

While these operations achieved tactical successes, including the reduction of terrorist incidents and elimination of high-value targets, they did not completely eradicate militancy from the country.

Strikingly, the announcement of the new operation came a day after Liu Jianchao, a high-ranking Chinese official, voiced grave concerns at a political forum. He starkly highlighted that the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan undermined the confidence of Chinese investors, urging a ramp-up in security measures.

Mr Liu’s remarks carried significant weight, not only because China is Pakistan’s largest foreign investor — a crucial support for a country in dire need of foreign capital — but also because they potentially cast a shadow on the country’s investment climate, influencing perceptions among other international investors, whom the government has been zealously courting.

Moreover, the security of Chinese projects and personnel in Pakistan was a paramount concern and a dominant theme in the high-level discussions during Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to Beijing earlier this month.

Surge in terrorism

Pakistan has endured a relentless surge in terrorism since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, with terrorist activities escalating to critical levels. The first half of 2024 alone witnessed over 300 terrorism-related fatalities, continuing a disturbing trend from previous years. Notably, 2023 saw a six-year peak in violence-related deaths, with over 1,000 fatalities.

The majority of these attacks were concentrated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which accounted for 84 per cent of the incidents and 90pc of all deaths.

Besides the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan in 2021, emboldening their affiliated groups like the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by providing them with logistical and ideological support, the security situation in the country in particular was exacerbated by unending domestic political turmoil and socio-economic challenges.

These distractions diverted the government and security institutions’ attention from critical security concerns, weakening the state’s response to terrorism and allowing militants to exploit these vulnerabilities.

Additionally, the landscape of terrorism is evolving, with a broader array of terrorist groups now active within the country.

While terrorism affected the overall stability crucial for economic revival, the overwhelming focus of terrorist activities on security forces — Pakistan’s primary defence against such threats — was also a decisive factor that forced the government and security agencies to recalibrate their strategy.

Combating terrorism, therefore, demanded a multifaceted approach that transcends military might, encompassing comprehensive socio-economic re­­forms and regional diplomacy.

Comprehensive approach

“Azm-i-Istehkam will integrate and synergise multiple lines of effort to combat the menaces of extremism and terrorism in a comprehensive and decisive manner,” the PMO said.

The new counterterrorism operation promised to embody a more comprehensive approach, blending robust military action, stringent law enforcement, and enhanced legislative measures to effectively prosecute and deter terrorism.

The strategy also emphasises regional diplomatic cooperation to constrict terrorist operations geographically.

Simultaneously, the plan integrates socio-economic reforms to address public grievances and reduce extremism’s allure, alongside a strategic information campaign to forge a unified national narrative supportive of these counterterrorism efforts.

“The forum reiterated that the fight against extremism and terrorism is Pakistan’s war and is absolutely essential for the nation’s survival and well-being,” the PMO said.

Emphasising zero tolerance against terrorism, the PMO said the participants pledged “no one will be allowed to challenge the writ of the state without any exception”.

The committee also deliberated on the security threats to Chinese nationals in Pakistan, and the measures being implemented to ensure their safety. The meeting was briefed on the newly established and disseminated standard operating procedures aimed at bolstering security protocols for Chinese citizens residing in the country.

Kalbe Ali also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2024

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