With the news of the abduction of the son of the Sindh High Court chief justice streaming in, one wonders if this was possible in a city where the state and its security apparatus had run what was declared a successful anti-terror operation. Or did the kidnapping indicate a basic flaw in planning – that while all focus was directed against a particular political party or chasing after the corruption of another, many of the terrorist forces managed to go underground and hide themselves until they could strike strategically?
Karachi was one of the promises of Zarb-e-Azab. The military operation was considered a reaction to the tragic death of 140 children in Peshawar and the terrorist attack at Karachi airport on June 9, 2014. The operation started on June 15, and was promised to be a turning point in Pakistan’s expedition against terrorism. Unlike earlier operations, such as in Swat in 2009, this one was aimed at flushing out terrorists from the entire country without exception. This was meant to impress the world as well – which complained about Pakistan’s lack of action – as it would put boots on the ground in areas like North Waziristan, where army generals had not dared to go before. Zarb-e-Azab was also meant to be a different promise, as it represented a combined approach by the military and the civilians. While the armed forces would strike against the terrorists, the civilian leadership would make a comprehensive plan to push back terrorism and radicalism, and find ways to turn societies around through the National Action Plan. Furthermore, unlike the past, there was a promise of all civil and military intelligence agencies coming together to wipe out both terror and radicalism. That is why the country’s primary counter-terrorism organization, the National Counter-terrorism Authority (NACTA), was activated.
The state suffers from the problem of over-reporting
Two years later, we continue to wonder if most of the promises were fulfilled. Indubitably, the incidence of violence has reduced. But that does not necessarily mean that the threat from terrorists and radical elements has dissipated. In any case, a quantitative approach focusing on the number of dead bodies may not have been a good criterion to measure insecurity. Senior sources in law enforcement are of the view that the state suffers from the problem of over-reporting. They say the overall loss in the past 12 years is not more than 20,000, a figure much less than the claim of 50,000 deaths. The point being made here is that the practice of showcasing violence during the war on terror has generated an imperfect perception and a resultant methodology that may not grasp the real nature of the threat.
This is not to argue that the military operation and the comprehensive plan is totally ineffective. Both the civil leadership and military have made certain achievements, but the problem is far from being resolved.
To look at some of the progress first, it is a fact that elements of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangavi (LeJ) were fought, and some eliminated. The extra-judicial killing of terrorists, such as LeJ’s Malik Ishaq, is an evidence of that. Similarly, the civilian government managed to move forward on tricky issues such as madrassa management. Although it has not announced been yet, there is a fair amount of consensus between the state and the five madrassa boards to modernize religious seminaries and their registration process. Officers at NACTA were also of the view that there were on-going negotiations to ensure that madrassas only catered to the local population in their areas.
Then, there are figures of religious clerics being taken to task for misuse of speakers and people being arrested for distributing hate literature or inciting violence. Yet we seem to be far from fulfilling the objectives that would allow the army chief to pull back his troops at the end of 2016, because we still do not have a plan to fight terror.
There are two major issues worth noticing. First, counter-terrorism will not work effectively until it is accompanied by counter radicalism. I remember a conversation with a senior official of NACTA who seemed in a hurry to undertake counter-radicalism. His idea was to encourage cultural festivals around the country. Even foreign donors are happy to give money for de-radicalization. That may have forced the interior ministry to compel the counter-terrorism authority to work on generating an alternative narrative. That means presenting a less violent version of Islam – an activity that is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. This is not because an alternative narrative cannot be found, but because it would take years of dialogue between scholars and within Muslim communities until the development of a consensus. The NACTA official I spoke to was very disappointed when informed that fighting radicalization was not possible without making basic changes in the curriculum, teaching a different version of history and de-linking radicalism from the popular version of nationalism. Politically, de-radicalization has only taken the shape of a competition amongst provincial governments. They issue orders and acts aiming at overall de-radicalization and improvement of governance, with little ability to implement them. In short, we are miles away from de-radicalizing.
But the actions to fight terrorism also need a close re-examination. Despite the perception of reduced violence, we are not close to overcoming the bad Taliban, because it remains a gigantic task to separate the good from the bad. While the army chief travels to Qatar to discuss the role of a Taliban office in the country, and we urge Kabul to hold talks with these warriors, it undermines the possibility of completely cleaning the mess inside Pakistan. The continued presence of the Quetta Shura on our soil indicates a strategy that may have short-term external benefits but is likely to prove costly for Pakistan, as had happened in the past.
The Afghan Taliban, whom the Pakistani security establishment is close to because of its own strategic objectives, tend to strengthen the presence of other Taliban factions. And then there are Pakistani jihadi groups, against whom no action was ever taken despite promises that an operation would target all violent extremists. The Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), parts of LeJ, and Siphah Sahaba Pakistan continue to run their show in South Punjab. Instead of targeting them, an army corps conducted an operation to smoke out approximately 13 criminals from the tribal areas in Punjab.
Be it Deobandi militants, or the Ahl-e-Hadith Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jamaatud Dawa, such militant groups rule the roost in the plains and deserts of Punjab and Sindh. And since everyone shies away from admitting that the policy of supporting non-state proxies continues, there is no debate on the dangers or efficacy of this approach.
Meanwhile, Zarb-e-Azab is slowly transforming into a political maneuver that views corruption and lack of governance as fundamental to eradicating terrorism. What we may see is the elimination of political governments rather than radicalism or violent extremism.
Note: This article originally published here.