Questions about Pakistan’s ‘war on terror’ following the Taliban’s university attack
Yesterday’s terror attack on Bacha Khan University in northwest Pakistan which killed over 20 people wasn’t just a reflection of “how strong” the terror network continues to be locally. It also puts a big question mark on the logic of Pakistan’s “National Action Plan” (NAP) in the face of Islamabad’s upbeat assessments about the “success” of its counter-terrorism operations that began in 2014.
Pakistan’s NAP is based on the concept of using force against all “types” of terrorists. However, the question we must ask is this: Can sole reliance on force be sufficient to counter terrorism? Years of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have unambiguously proven that force alone cannot be the only option in obliterating the kind of terrorism the region faces. This is the crucial lesson that Pakistan as well as Afghanistan’s “masters” are yet to learn.
As long as political power remains concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite—or security agencies for that matter–terrorism can’t be effectively tackled. As a matter of fact, the chief reason why terrorism flourishes in the Federally Administered Areas of Pakistan (FATA) is that this wild and remote tribal area has remained and continues to be politically excluded from the national Federation of Pakistan. The power vacuum created by this misstep is easily filled by rogue organizations such as Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has accepted responsibility for yesterday’s university attack.
Since the start of the current phase of counter-terrorism operations by the North Waziristan agency of FATA, officials claim that scores of terrorists and numerous hideouts have been obliterated. Yet yesterday’s attack on Bacha Khan’s students was another tragic reminder of how hollow these official claims are.
The spuriousness of these claims is traceable to Pakistan’s flawed strategy vs. terrorism. One aspect of this failed strategy is the use of military courts and the reinstatement of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses under NAP. What has this achieved?
What was clear then is incontrovertible now: The death penalty does not deter terrorism per se. On the contrary, it serves as a propaganda tool for the militants. This is underscored by the fact that more than one group besides the Taliban are stepping forward to claim credit for the Bacha Khan attack. This is not to suggest that terrorists need not be punished for their crimes. The point is that merely punishing individuals is not effective.
University was deliberate target
Consider this: Bacha Khan University as a target and the day of the attack weren’t selected randomly. The tolerant, compassionate, inclusive politics of Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bach Khan), a famous Pashtun political and spiritual leader after which the school was named, is what Pakistan ought to embody. The attack came as Bach Khan University was preparing to honor the day of their namesake’s death on Jan. 20. The institution represents a symbol of what the Islamic extremists are seeking to destroy.
While military operations seek to destroy the Taliban as a physical force, the very idea of the “Talibanism” also needs to be defeated. An idea, as the saying goes, can only be defeated by another idea. Pakistan, therefore, needs to rely on sources other than using force to “kill” the idea of ‘Talibanism.”
The first step in this campaign should be the empowerment of the people directly affected by the Taliban’s ideological as well as physical onslaught, argues veteran FATA agency participant, Abdul Fazal, who now lives “trapped” in one of the many slums of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
“In the absence of state institutions and guarantee of protection of life and property of the people, fear of the Taliban overwhelms, leading to a silent yet virtual surrender of the people to the forces they cannot fight alone,”Abdul Fazal said. He added that powerlessness and fear either lead to surrender or flight to other cities in Pakistan. And it is precisely the inability to directly integrate people into the fight against terrorism that continues to keep Pakistan’s anti-terror “grand narratives” flawed.
Therefore, while Pakistan’s mainstream media reporting of the incident was littered with the so-called “rapidity” with which security agencies responded to and killed all terrorists in the university attack, hardly anyone seems to question the sorry state of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.
Instead, the focus of all media reporting remained on the terrorists’ links to Afghanistan and India. While Pakistan and India continue repeatedly to blame each other for various terrorist activities, the Afghan-link does have some substance and needs to be examined carefully.
More than anything else, the Pak-Afghan border–a colonial legacy–is as much a part of the overall problem of cross-border terrorism and more efforts need to be focused there. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an anachronism that has been both a buffer against and a base for projecting power into Afghanistan for Islamabad. Now, with more than 150,000 Pakistani troops spread out across FATA as part of a protracted build up, the border has become perhaps the single-most immediate danger to both countries’ stability. It is a porous border. But should it necessarily remain so?
Deploying Pakistani troops in their thousands alone can’t prevent cross-border movement of terrorists. Nor can it be physically halted due to the nature of the terrain. However, what is feasible is better bilateral coordination of counter-terrorism efforts along the border. This co-ordination, however, needs to be extended into areas other than mere intelligence sharing. More than anything, both Pakistan and Afghanistan need to redirect their efforts in obliterating safe havens from where attacks are plotted and executed inside Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Recent incidents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have highlighted the utmost need for greater regional co-operation. The fight against terrorism cannot be won, said an official from the Interior Ministry of Pakistan who asked not to be identified, unless the affected countries learn to co-ordinate their wars, with or without the co-ordination of the US and NATO forces. This is imperative since these foreign forces aren’t going to remain in the region for an indefinitely.
Islamic State in Pakistan
Pakistan and Afghanistan, therefore, need to restructure their relations against this scenario. The self-styled Islamic State (IS) has reportedly demonstrated a presence in Afghanistan. Some Pakistani officials, too, have acknowledged a rudimentary IS presence in Pakistan’s various urban areas.
The crucial need for Paksitan, therefore, is to “diplomatize” rather than “problematize” relations with Afghanistan. This requires local integration of all people involved in the war on terror as well as at the regional level (including Afghanistan) if the war on terror is to succeed.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org