Pakistan has remained at the forefront of the global war on terrorism for decades now. The country has played an instrumental role in uprooting top leadership of Al-Qaeda and in eliminating safe havens of global terror outfits within its own backyard. However, the fight has come at the cost of more than 70,000 human losses and approximately $250 billion economic losses. Attributing to Pakistan’s pursuit of counter-terrorism policies, recent years have seen a considerable recession in terror-led activities. Yet the endeavour remains far from being completely achieved and therefore, requires a study into the current and emerging challenges to the state in terms of terrorism.
The 9/11 attack conducted by Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden led USA to respond in the form of Afghanistan’s invasion and the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom. The operation sought to overthrow the Afghan Taliban’s government in Kabul and to dismantle Al-Qaeda safe havens there. Unable to withstand the US conventional forces, the Afghan Taliban and several other militant outfits opted for a strategic retreat in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The phenomenon was facilitated by similar cultural outlook, tribal bonds, and permeable nature of the Pak-Afghan border.
The tragic attack on the Army Public School Peshawar in 2014 was the last nail in the coffin and waned down any form of support for religious extremists within the Pakistani society.
Fast forward to the Lal Masjid Operation in 2007, that served as a catalyst for terrorist activities in the country. The military raid on the mosque and successive public relations disaster enabled propagandists to create support for extremism. Consequently, various militant factions jointly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). These Pakistani Taliban upped the ante, responding with an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks across the country. By 2008, the militant group was virtually in control of tribal areas and was expanding its influence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. However, successive military and intelligence-based operations decreased the frequency of terrorist attacks to a great extent.
The tragic attack on the Army Public School Peshawar in 2014 was the last nail in the coffin and waned down any form of support for religious extremists within the Pakistani society. The attack led to the development of counter-terrorism initiatives like the National Action Plan (NAP) and increased intensity of intelligence-based operations. With a downward trajectory of terrorism within Pakistan, the country still faces number of challenges in reducing the intensity of the menace.
In its drive to remain relevant to contemporary politics, Islamic State (IS) is developing its foothold in South Asia. Over the past four years, the IS has made inroads to Pakistan with the support of TTP splintered groups and other militant organisations. In May 2019, IS declared its province in Pakistan, which was followed by several IS claimed terror attacks in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. According to experts, the weakening of IS in Iraq and Syria has allowed its affiliates to operate independently. Therefore, it is expected that IS (Pakistan province) will operate independently under the central command of IS (Khorasan province).
With a downward trajectory of terrorism within Pakistan, the country still faces number of challenges in reducing the intensity of the menace.
Apart from militant outfits, foreign involvement in terrorism continues to remain a threat. The arrest of the infamous Indian spy Kulbhushan Jhadav stands testament to this fact. India has been reportedly providing medical and financial assistance to Baloch ethno-nationalist militants. Iranian security forces have been providing safe havens to these militants and their families as well. Similarly, Afghan soil has been frequently used for conducting terrorist activities in Pakistan, the APS Peshawar attack in 2014 and Bacha Khan University Attack in 2016, naming a few significant ones.
Erstwhile FATA, which remained a hotbed of militancy for years, has now been cleared out of militant hideouts. This is coupled with development work and the region’s merger with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In Gilgit-Baltistan, couple of terror attacks, orchestrated on sectarian lines were recorded in 2018. These included setting a girls school on fire and abduction of state personnel. In May 2019, the Pakistani government cracked an Indian spy agency’s subversive network operating to destabilise Gilgit-Baltistan. India is seeking to sow anarchy in the area to sabotage CPEC. The threat of militancy and terrorism therefore looms in Gilgit-Baltistan. As of Sindh and Punjab, the two provinces have relatively taken lesser tolls of terrorism so far. However, given the upcoming development projects in the shape of industrial and economic zones in the two provinces, a special focus on the security of the two provinces is becoming a necessity.
The biggest challenge, however, emanates from Balochistan. This strategically significant province has remained inflicted by both ethno-nationalist militant outfits and Islamist terror groups. Supporters of ethno-national militancy attach their grievances to the federal government for Balochistan’s resource exploitation and its uneven development. These outfits have gained external support from Afghanistan, India, and Iran. Although not huge in magnitude and effect, these outfits have periodically launched militant attacks in Balochistan. Apprehensions about CPEC have led these outfits to launch attacks against CPEC-related projects. In past 15 months, three major terror incidents occurred against Chinese nationals in the country. The future use of suicide bombing could change the security landscape of Balochistan. Therefore, it needs to be tapered down urgently and aptly via state-led response.
On a wider spectrum, effective de-radicalisation measures that ensure disengagement of previously radicalised individuals from their respective terror groups and mitigate the prospects of recidivism need to be adopted to ensure a terrorism-free Pakistan.
Structural reforms are required to enhance the speed and effectiveness of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism drive. National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) holds a profile quite unimpressive. It reportedly runs low in employees and has failed to constitute comprehensive response policies. The leadership of the organisation is contested between the civil and military administration. A slow criminal justice system is another challenge. Anti-terrorism courts established under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) remain overburdened. This results from the broad definition of terrorism stipulated under ATA. A precise definition that differentiates terrorism from other heinous crimes is therefore required. Also, National Action Plan is criticised for being non-comprehensive, and a hasty response to Peshawar attack, lacking an in-depth and long-term insight.
Lastly, the state overwhelmingly depends on its military for counter-terrorism operations. Ironically, in practice, counter-terrorism operations against threats emanating from within the state are principally conducted by the state’s law enforcement bodies. A 2008 RAND Corporation study titled: “How Terrorist Groups End,” delineates that law enforcement agencies are a state’s first line of defence against terrorist threats. Excessive dependence on military for the purpose has proven to be counter-productive. Pakistan’s dependence on military mainly results from the incapacity of the police department. An empowered, well-trained and well-equipped police force remains a critical need for enforcing a sustainable counter-terrorism policy.
The antidote to terrorism requires consistent and wilful efforts that ensure inclusion of all relevant parties. Pakistan’s counter-terror initiatives come as a positive development as the state has been able to curb the menace militarily to quite an extent. However, to fully eradicate any chances of militant resurgence, comprehensive and long-term measures need to be taken. This requires introduction of capacity building measures for law enforcement agencies and strengthening of anti-terror legislations. With a harmonious working relationship between the civil and military leadership achieved, counter-terrorism measures are expected to acquire strength. Socio-economic development in Balochistan to address the valid grievances of the aggrieved people should be accelerated. Intelligence-based pro-active policies need to be adopted for the stability of Gilgit-Baltistan, as it is pivotal to the CPEC. On a wider spectrum, effective de-radicalisation measures that ensure disengagement of previously radicalised individuals from their respective terror groups and mitigate the prospects of recidivism need to be adopted to ensure a terrorism-free Pakistan.
Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.