The entire debate about anti-terrorism narrative has been missing the point. It invariably proposes a historically flawed direct strategy of fighting words with words. It unimaginatively advocates a frontal verbal counter-assault against what is described as fiction created by terrorists out of thin air. In doing this, the all-wise wizards of strategic communication ignore the circumstances in which stories of discontent are born; stories that are effortlessly woven by terrorists into their invective against the state. It must be understood that the seeds of disaffection are sown in the miserable socio-economic conditions in which tens of millions of our people have been mired for decades. It is a mistake to think our disenchanted masses have been charmed by the insurgents; they have actually been abandoned by the state. And hence, unless the real cancer of the state's incompetence is healed, no magical words are likely to work against what the insurgents say and what alienated citizens listen to. Let us understand that insurgents do not create narratives per se. They just feed on the perceptions that are out there in the distraught minds of millions. Our problem does not lie in how they, the terrorists, narrate things; it instead resides in how we, the state, do things. They are invariably medieval but mad about what they want. We are modern but unable to articulate what we want. They build their successes on the debris of our failures. Our actions – or lack thereof – cry out as justifications for their misdeeds. When we fail to secure the life and dignity of our own people, the anarchists jump in to raise a simple war-cry: burn the state that has wronged you time and again and is still unrepentant and unashamed about its criminal dereliction of duty. Each time that cry is raised, millions are sympathetically affected. Some join the ranks of the militants; many more abandon the state like dead leaves dropping off the trees at the onset of the winters. What we must understand is that young men are not attracted by the insurgents' thesis; they are actually driven away by the state's incompetence. From Libya to Syria, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, it is the state's failure to embrace all, repeat all, its citizens that has lent credence to insurgents' words and justification to their actions. Contrary to the popular belief, insurgents don't prey on minds; they feed on the actual problems and deprivations of people. The state fails not because of the intoxicating propaganda of the insurgents but because of lack of connection with its own people. The real habitat of terror is the gulf, literally the gulf, between the state and the society. Even more importantly, in fashionable understanding, this whole narrative thing is about jugglery of words, about spinning harsh realities and about twisting facts to suit the storyline which the status quo wants people to believe. This understanding may be fashionable but it's dead wrong. It misses the point that terrorists communicate through their reactions to state's actions and can be rarely caught on the wrong foot. Inefficient and unjust states light all the fires; terrorists have to merely fan the flames. What we tend to fight through fancy documents, television programmes and nicely worded speeches is the foam on the surface: insurgents' words, threats, slurs, and vows. What we miss in the process is the storm that rages underneath the surface: the masses' alienation and angst. Saddam Hussein of Iraq was grossly unjust but also hyper-efficient in implementing the writ of the state and hence the Iraq of his time could not see the sight of a successful Shia or Kurd version of ISIS. The current regime in Baghdad is both unjust as well as inefficient and hence the rise of the evil “caliphate”, ISIS does not need any nicely worded narratives. It promises – true or false – liberation from a decade of grievous misrule. The lack of government in Baghdad has created enough tragedies to drive the wronged segments of society into the embrace of the so-called Islamic State. I work in the border regions of North West (NW) Pakistan. The only consistent source of income for a clear majority of households is menial work in the Gulf States. The only indigenous alternative is in the form of a string of Madrasahs that engage tens of hundreds of poor young men as students and teachers. Despite this near-total lack of connection with the state of Pakistan, every village has cleared up a cricket field on a piece of stony stream bed and every other child dreams of becoming his nation's cricket hero. What breaks my heart is the scary certainty of a hopeless future for most of them. Few years on, where will they all go? Abandoned and betrayed by the state, most of them will take the route their fathers took. Narrative or no narrative, at least some of them are bound to be attracted by the guy who promises to punish the 'evil' state that shattered their dreams. Write and preach what you will but the reality is as simple as that. Without an acknowledgement of that harsh reality, we will all be fooling all of us, together and forever. Of late, the defence of the constitution of Pakistan has often been cited as the sacred cause that makes for an effective counter-narrative to terrorists' story. To many young men on the verge of declaring a war on the state, that argument comes in as another cruel joke by the happy-go-lucky 'haves' of the country. Constitutions don't get three meals a day. Constitutions only don't keep nations together. Instead, nations – when united and happy – write, erase and re-write constitutions to run their own affairs with justice and with equity. To millions of unemployed youth hanging on to the last shred of their self-esteem and to many more millions of unschooled children, constitution means next to nothing. Let me say that again lest it's mistaken as an unintended verbal flourish from an agitated mind: the constitution means next to absolutely nothing to every single desperately disempowered man and woman of this country. To such tens of millions of our people, all it stands for is an unholy contract drafted by distant and disdainful few to rule the impoverished many. Let us not say we fight for upholding the constitution of a state that has been criminally neglectful of its obligations towards its own society. Let us say we are fighting to build our nation anew; to reunite our people and to enable the society to build a state that it can call truly the work of its own heart and soul. A similar non-sense is cited by the government in Baghdad. Iraq must endure, they say. What they are unwilling to see is that only an Iraq that belongs to all Iraqis will endure. ISIS or no ISIS, an Iraq that means misery for one ethnic or sectarian group and milk and honey for another will not survive in one piece. Examples galore of the linkage between misrule and militancy. To sum up, let's realize that our people know the terrorists are criminals and enemies of humanity. We don't need to preach what people already know. What we need is to eliminate the vast sanctuaries and breeding grounds provided to insurgents by vast concentrations of poverty, desperation and hopelessness teeming with unemployed, uneducated, and unschooled youth.
Traditionally, armed forces of a state are structured and trained to fight a well-defined adversary in a regular conflict, governed by Law of Armed Conflict applicable to the belligerents. However, when terrorism from non-state actors posed a threat to peace and stability in Pakistan, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) undertook counter-terrorism operations for the first time. Air operations by PAF against militants in FATA were first conducted in Operation Al-Mizan in 2004 on a limited scale. This short duration operation continued for about three months. It was a new experience for PAF to engage targets in such a terrain where terrorists’ hideouts and associated infrastructure presented a challenge. Non-availability of desired capabilities and lack of experience in fighting irregular warfare was another major challenge for the armed forces in general, and PAF in particular.
PAF, after realizing these challenges and limitations carved out a strategy identifying most essential capabilities that were required for successful and effective execution of counter-terrorism operations and embarked on an ambitious force modernization plan. As a result of these efforts, PAF was able to equip itself with the required capabilities and trained its personnel for undertaking these operations.
In the timeframe approaching January 2008, PAF undertook operations in support of Pakistan Army in South Waziristan under code name Operation Tri Star. By this time the enemy had become well-equipped, battle-hardened, well-funded and well settled. The terrorists resorted to ‘Hit-and-Run’ tactics, reducing their exposure time to the security forces for a planned counter attack. Post-attack response by the LEAs/security forces entirely depended on immediate available force in the proximity. PAF fighter jets provided this capability to react quickly from operational bases, reaching anywhere in FATA within minutes, and engaging militants from high altitude with pinpoint precision. One such incident was the siege of LadhaFort in South Waziristan. PAF was called upon by the ground forces to engage militants' firing locations. As a result of PAF’s timely action, Pakistan Army was able to hold Ladha Fort with minimum losses. The militants suffered major casualties because of the lethal and precise blows delivered by PAF while assisting the ground forces in defending their positions.
In the same timeframe, PAF undertook OperationFalconSweep to support Pakistan Army’s various operations i.e., Operation Rah-e-Haq in Swat, and Operation Sher Dil series in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies. In 2009, Pakistan Army with the support of PAF planned operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat area which was codenamed Operation Burq by PAF. Capitalizing on its earlier experiences, PAF destroyed and neutralized a number of militants’ command centres, hideouts, training camps, ammunition dumps, and routes and passes to block their escape to neighboring areas. After PAF's successful preparatory strikes, Pakistan Army launched its operations which ended with a timely achievement of objectives and defeat of terrorists.
In mid-October 2009, ahead of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, PAF engaged militants in South Waziristan on an unprecedented scale. PAF started softening up targets in South Waziristan to support subsequent operation of Pakistan Army. The high ridges and slopes in valleys, which were occupied by the terrorists and where they had developed bunkers and pickets to ambush convoys, had to be cleared to ensure safe and swift movement of the troops. During the initial phase of about five days, PAF destroyed more than 150 targets engaging training centres, hideouts, ammunition depots and command and control centres.
After Operation Rah-e-Nijat, PAF continued its operations in support of Pakistan Army; Operation Brekna in Mohmand, Operation Koh-e-Sufaid and Operation Azmara-e-Gharo in Kurram and Orakzai agencies. In addition to these operations, numerous operations of relatively lower scale were also conducted in Khyber Agency. In Operation Brekna, taking over of Walidad Top was a major event. Another noteworthy operation by our ground troops was taking over of Mira-Sar Top in a very short time.
In June 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb which continues till date, became a symbol of will of Pakistani nation. Coordination between PAF and Pakistan Army in this operation was a continuous process. PAF precision strikes paved way for Pakistan Army to conduct their kinetic operations with minimum losses inflicting huge damages to the terrorists. As the operation reaches its concluding phase, terrorists have been driven out of their hideouts (killed and neutralized) and our country has emerged stronger and safer from the menace of terrorism.
These counter-terrorist missions were first of a kind, conducted by an air force which bore fruit and highlighted the importance of air power in these kinds of operations. PAF’s involvement in these operations and the results it achieved in driving the terrorists out of Pakistan has been duly acknowledged. PAF’s professional and unflinching support to the land forces and law enforcement agencies will continue till achieving the end state of war by comprehensively defeating the forces of evil and achieving peace and stability in Pakistan and the entire region.