Written By: Amir Zia
So where does Pakistan stand in its make-or-break struggle against religiously-motivated extremism and terrorism? Are we somewhere close to victory against this “internal enemy” or need to slog it out for years and years to come? Is the dream of a peaceful, stable, economically vibrant and strong Pakistan within our grasp or will it continue to elude us?
In these troubled and uncertain times there are hardly easy and straight forward answers to these questions. Our 21st century world – from parts of Middle East to Europe and South to Central Asia – is in turmoil or living in an ever lingering fear of violence and chaos that can be unleashed by the non-state and state actors with the blink of an eye.
Pakistan’s geographical proximity with war-ravaged, lawless Afghanistan and a hostile eastern neighbour, India, means that it has to confront internal as well as external factors in its bid to fight the twin ghosts of extremism and terrorism. This makes Pakistan’s task even more complicated, messy and deadly.
Yes, in this globalized world, it’s not just ideas, information, technology, goods, capital and the politically correct ones, who move briskly, but also those defiant individuals, groups and their baggage, wanting to take on, shake and destroy the system. Therefore, like any other state, Pakistan too has to deal with factors it can influence and those beyond its control. The outside factors, though not the core problem, do act as a catalyst to ignite and sustain the internal conflict and can only be ignored at our own peril.
However, the primary focus of defeating extremism and terrorism – now ingrained in the country’s social fabric – must remain within the geographical frontiers of Pakistan.
It is indeed a Herculean challenge because the process of nurturing, grooming and patronizing the extremist mindset and violent non-state actors was unleashed more than three decades ago as part of a US-led strategy to counter communism. The United States, its Western partners and once the close allies in the East, including Pakistan, are facing the unintended consequences of this policy now. This process cannot be rolled back by merely switching off a button. It requires the use of force as well as painstaking reforms to bring back harmony in the society and establish the rule of law. The journey is arduous and akin to walking a minefield.
Terrorism and extremism have extracted a heavy price from Pakistan. The Global Terrorism Index, prepared by an independent think tank – the Institute for Economics & Peace, includes Pakistan among the world’s top five countries affected the most by terrorism in 2014. Pakistan ranks 4th in this list of top five – lower than Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria, while one place higher than Syria. According to the Index, 78 percent of terrorism-related deaths were concentrated in just these five countries.
In 2013, the Global Terrorism Index placed Pakistan at the third position in this list. Though Pakistan, improved its position by moving one place lower in the list, still the situation is far from being satisfactory.
The results for 2015 should be better than the preceding years due to a notable decline in the incidents of terrorism. This gives room for some cautious optimism. The Armed Forces have definitely put terrorists on the back foot since the start of operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, 2014. Now terrorists are on the run and no longer enjoying safe havens over large territories in the tribal areas. The border region of North Waziristan no more serves as their undisputed den. Our Armed Forces have smoked them out of almost 90 percent of this tribal belt after tremendous sacrifices. Desperate for revenge and to retain at least some of the diminishing space for themselves, terrorists have repeatedly tried to hit high-value sensitive installations. But they failed to penetrate. In hopeless moves, they turned their guns towards soft targets. Pakistan witnessed one of the worst atrocities in its history when terrorists struck at the Army Public School Peshawar on December 16, 2014. In cold blood, they murdered more than 140 students and teachers. Words fail to describe this tragedy. Planners of the barbaric act thought that it would weaken the nation’s resolve in taking them on. Terrorists thought that this cruelty would strengthen their apologists and naysayers among the civilian leadership, who have been pleading for the so-called peace talks with terrorists and their masterminds so that they could get another lease of life.
But the cowardly APS attack got terrorists the opposite of what they had desired. Pakistan Armed Forces stepped forward – as they always do in moments of crisis – articulating what the nation expected from them both through their words and actions. A resolute action against this “internal enemy” remained the message for both friends and foes. The futile debate led by some mainstream religious and centrist parties, that whether the war against terrorism is our war or not, has also ended.
The civilian leadership agreed to lift the ill-conceived moratorium they imposed on the death penalty since 2008. The military courts got a seal of approval to support the dysfunctional and weak civilian justice system. The security forces escalated efforts to track and hunt down hardened terrorists, their masterminds, abettors and financers across the country. The result: the much feared backlash did not materialize. However, along with the crackdown, there were series of other steps collectively decided by the military and civilian leaders in the aftermath of the APS tragedy under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP). These planned actions aimed to supplement efforts of the armed forces. But barring the first two points – the execution of convicted terrorists and establishment of special trial courts – not much has been done on the remaining eighteen promises made to the nation.
These included crucial steps such as revamping and reforming the criminal justice system and registration and regulation of religious seminaries. Strengthening and activation of NACTA, countering and controlling the hate-speech and extremist material, choking terror financing and FATA reforms are also the key elements of the NAP. Pakistan doesn’t need an Aristotle to advise that the military-led crackdown and civilian-institutions propelled reforms need to move in tandem for maximum impact and to ensure success in this internal conflict.
Zarb-e-Azb along with operations in Karachi and Balochistan created space for the civil authorities where they could have aggressively pursued the much-delayed reforms and ensured that the non-state actors remain unable to get new recruits.
However, synchronization of the somewhat military and civilian effort remains missing in the fight against the internal enemy. So far this fight proved a lopsided affair rather than moving in a holistic manner. While the military aspect of the operation has been taken care off effectively and on the war footing, reforms are either moving at snail’s pace or have not been initiated at all by the concerned. Also, the mainstream political and religious forces have not initiated any consorted effort to weave a counter-narrative to defeat extremists, who exploit the sacred name of Islam to misguide people and use them as pawns to fulfil their nefarious designs.
This is a bad tiding for Pakistan as it could not result in prolonging the conflict and reversals of gains made in the battlefield in the mid-to-long-run. An open-ended, protracted conflict may suit the non-state actors, but proves damaging if not fatal for a state. The sooner the state establishes its writ and undisputed monopoly over violence the better it would be. Therefore, ideally Pakistan should aim for a swift closure of this internal conflict by eliminating both the actors and the factors responsible for the lawlessness and bloodletting. But despite battlefield successes, Pakistan appears all set for a prolonged, low-intensity simmering internal war.
This internal threat along with the traditional security challenges on the country’s eastern frontiers and a volatile, porous border with Afghanistan could be any country’s security nightmare. It requires a focused, determined, united and active response from the military and civil leaders to mitigate and offset these dangers – out of which the internal one should assume the top priority.
Many independent analysts and experts have long been pointing out the lack of focus on the implementation of NAP. They have also been urging for the past several years that the political and religious leadership need to take the ownership of the war against terrorism and build consensus at least on one point: zero tolerance for the non-state actors, who under any pretext or ideology, target fellow Pakistanis belonging to any sect, faith or ethnicity. This requires more efforts than just a lip-service.
So far the record of the civilian institutions, including the executive and the legislature, is short of desired actions and introducing long term reforms. The apathy and procrastination in dealing with the issue of terrorism is depressing. The leaders had to be coaxed and literally pushed to take whatever little steps they took in fighting terrorists, otherwise several top officials among them kept advocating and favouring talks and deals with the terrorists even hours before the launch of Zarb-e-Azb.
The frustration of majority of Pakistanis and the security forces with this inaction and the continued tragedy of delay is understandable. No wonder, the Corps Commanders Conference, held on Nov 10, “underlined the need for matching governance initiatives for long term gains of the Operation.” The conference also called for progress in the implementation of NAP, including FATA reforms and the swift conclusion of investigations by the joint teams in all important cases. It never meant more than that and the subsequent debates stretched to their own imaginations.
We as a nation need to put our acts together and sincerely support efforts to eradicate not just extremists and terrorists but defeat their mindset once for all. It is not the responsibility of just one institution – no matter how organized, disciplined and popular it is – to fight and win this internal war. It is the duty of all institutions and every thinking Pakistani. Whatever little we can pitch in – collectively and individually – to support this effort through our words and actions need to be pitched without any hesitation or ifs and buts.
Pakistan is at war. It is at war with the internal enemy which is being propped up and sustained by the external forces. These are not the normal times and there cannot be business as usual. It is not the time to focus on the secondary issues. While the Pakistani Armed Forces are playing their historic role, the other institutions and leadership must improve their game and back up this effort through measures that can help defeat the extremist mindset and eliminate its breeding grounds. These are times to form a united front and supplement one another’s efforts to win this internal war, which is far from over. This we owe to our country and the future generations. Pakistan must win this war – the sooner the better. A protracted internal conflict is not in our interest.