Evolving from Tactics to Strategy
Despite daily reports of tens of miscreants eliminated and militant hideouts destroyed, Pakistan stands at an all too familiar point: reeling from a spate of country-wide terrorist bombings as those in-charge re-read the scripted statements of making those responsible pay while the political blame game reaches its zenith.
Pakistan is at a point where counter-terrorism (CT) tactics need to develop and translate into strategic counter-terrorism: a trilateral doctrine that will shape our future kinetic and non-kinetic CT engagement, undermine the recruitment of terrorists, and inhibit the environments terrorist outfits inhabit. Not over-selling tactics at the expense of strategy is key. While tactical CT (the elimination of terrorists and disruption of their operations) must continue, rooting out the core issues at the strategic level will require a major departure from the current CT approach.
The defining feature for our CT strategy needs to be a ‘Whole-of-Government’ effort: to succeed at both the tactical and strategic levels, Pakistan must foster a swift yet coordinated CT protocol. One which reflects the expansive proficiencies and resources of our entire CT structure (both civilian and military). The kinetic arm of CT operations is essential to bring stability but must not remain the default option. Most critically, our CT strategy needs to integrate the clout and capability of each agency, civil and military, to apply the appropriate tools to the right situation at the right time.
Additionally, our CT strategy needs to possess a short-term facet belonging to the military and a longer-term dimension allocated to the government. Pakistan’s strength has typically been its armed forces, a jugular characteristic it needs to use to leverage its strengths while minimizing its vulnerabilities. The military’s success in the short run must pave way for long run civilian engagement. Critically, this will also come to define what ‘winning’ in the CT context means: with success in near-term objectives, we may be winning everyday but without long-term goals, this short-term success will be pushed away from the future and into the past. It won’t translate into something more meaningful for Pakistan. In 2008-09, the military pushed the Pakistani Taliban towards a ceasefire. And yet, the truce was short-lived as there was no long-term strategic plan for the Pakistani government, allowing the Pakistani Taliban to regroup and make territorial gains. Balancing our near- and long-term CT considerations will consolidate the success column.
At the heart of our CT strategy must lie clearly defined objectives. Without distinct targets and quantifiable metrics, CT efforts, even when tactically successful, will present variable results at the strategic level. A dynamic assessment of priorities that evolves to recalibrate our most privileged operations will enhance Pakistan’s CT abilities to tackle current threats and prevent future risks.
The trilateral strategic CT doctrine mentioned earlier should aim to neutralize the following three terrorism facets:
1) The planner/handler and the militant cadre;
2) The economically/politically deprived (susceptible to recruitment);
3) The extremist ideology.
The Planner/Handler and the Militant Cadre
This has been the dimension where Pakistan has found most success in. For this is where the kinetic option is most appropriate. And the Pakistani military’s strong arm tactics and CT operations have been exemplary. The PAF’s aggressive and precise air campaigns have strongly supplemented the Army’s vigorous ground operations, entailing sustained operational tempo, covert partnerships and active combat power.
What can drive this progress further are two key measures: a) Choking terrorism finance; and 2) Chalking out identifiable and measurable metrics to gauge success.
a) Terrorism Finance: The Gulf continues to thrive as the core source of financial support for terrorism in Pakistan and beyond. Pakistan needs to have a political commitment to guarantee robust action against terrorism financing and negate a conducive environment for terrorism financiers. Strict action against misuse and abuse of Gulf money for Pakistan’s religious seminaries and madrassas needs to continue. The planners and handlers thrive on illicit finance so a sincere effort to track and choke the money stream needs to exist. Civilian bankers and financial authorities can be useful in guiding CT efforts in the forensics of terrorism-related illicit finance. A stronger national sanctions system will further deter terrorist sympathizers for fear of having their assets seized.
b) Identifiable and Quantifiable Metrics: Gauging CT success with the number of terrorists killed or the territory gained can occasionally be too broad to translate into continued success. Stating CT success to be when a terrorist outfit no longer poses a threat to Pakistan’s national security or completely destroying the Taliban can be too abstract to quantify, especially when this will not happen overnight. As such, this may hide the current successes being made on the ground. While official policy may still state CT objectives in these terms, the military needs to offer ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ success metrics and emphasize the gains vis-a-vis the aims.
Some alternatives might include:
• Whether Peshawar APS School-scale tragedies and PNS Mehran-style or Jinnah Airport-level critical security lapses have been prevented.
• Tying specific objectives to particular ground operations, linking CT actions to parallel priorities (e.g. improved health care, economy and governance), and relating CT operations to lower civilian fatalities caused by terrorism.
• Explaining how the terrorist outfit’s operational capacity has been degraded by Operation A.
• Underscoring what Operation B did for CPEC.
• How Pakistan’s foreign policy ambitions were bolstered and neighborly relations alleviated by Operation C.
• Where and how many roads Operation D opened for Villages X, Y and Z.
Ultimately, such substantive and clear metrics will allow the average Pakistani to identify with and celebrate any and every CT success, big or small. This will feed into developing an optimistic national CT narrative and evaluating future action paths.
Finally, CT activity against the militant cadre must understand that it is unlikely for any single event or sole termination of a terrorist leader to weaken the terrorist group’s operational capacity or leadership structure permanently. Not only is sustained CT pressure a prerequisite but a multifaceted strategy encompassing kinetic, social, political, and economic aspects also needed to ensure the group degrades faster than it recovers. Which is why, the remaining discussion on ‘the economically/politically deprived’ and ‘the extremist ideology’ is relevant to any CT strategy.
The Economically/Politically Deprived
Extremism presents an opportunity to break from the status-quo albeit in a grossly illegitimate way. Yet, this means that the status-quo dysfunctionalities (social, political, and economic) must be weeded out to avoid recruitment by terrorist groups becoming a lucrative (or at times, the only) option available to struggling citizens (especially the rural and marginalized communities).
Terrorists are able to frame the communities’ socio-political grievances and economic despair as a sense of humiliation and ignominy caused by the Pakistani state. While the communities’ grievances may be legitimate or not, it still underscores the need to address the basic needs of all Pakistanis, in all geographic regions, and of all ethnic and religious affiliations. An underlying characteristic of terrorism is its compartmentalization vis-a-vis other spheres of society. Collapsing such compartmentalization (e.g. by encouraging potential recruits to interact on a regular basis with other spheres of society) is vital both in the short and long run.
Giving the economically and politically deprived a strong option to resist such terrorist recruitment is imperative to undercut and reduce the appeal of the ‘jihadist anti-state narrative’. Good governance is critical: not necessarily Western-style democracy (that will not be successful amongst the tribal chiefs and maliks) but one that focuses on institutional and socio-political reforms that allow all society groups to be stakeholders of the future. Simultaneous educational changes, economic reforms, and entrepreneurship opportunities that enable communities to emerge from their silos and compete in mainstream Pakistan are crucial as well.
From the inception of Pakistan’s War on Terror, remarkably limited attention and resources have been diverted towards addressing the more intricate structural problems of our society that lead to resentment, hostility, and distrust in the first place. This has allowed the resulting frustration to coalesce into violent non-state actors for which terrorist groups present a platform to vent and demonstrate their grievances. On several occasions, terrorist outfits have prospered on the illusory propaganda of portraying themselves as fighting for the people, not against them. This fuels the anti-Pakistan and anti-government narratives, portraying the actual enemies as Robin Hoods of some sort. In 2013, Asmatullah Shaheen (leader of the shura council that selected Mullah Fazlullah) stated: “We will target security forces, government installations, political leaders, and police…We will not target civilians, bazaars, or public places. People do not need to be afraid.” This clearly has not been true and must be distinctly and repeatedly highlighted by the political leadership to reveal what such groups truly are: traitors and miscreants.
Consequently, the Pakistani government and forces need to come off as ‘responsive’ actors who prioritize the will and needs of the average citizen first. Lack of discontent and sincere efforts to address the people’s grievances will directly reduce traction and space for the terrorist ideology and make it irrelevant to the ordinary Pakistani.
One greatly under-utilized actor that can aid in this strategy is the Pakistani police. Why the CT strategy merits a stronger and broader role for the Pakistani police is a whole separate discussion. Our police is a unique resource, being structurally grounded in the rural and village levels, knowing the environment and being aware of the most pressing local issues, all of which will remain unfamiliar territory for the army to work in. In several cases, there needs to be a local solution to a local problem, a scenario for which the police are perfectly placed. On the other hand, the army can be a valuable instructor and coordinator for
the police in CT tactics. As such, a symbiotic CT relationship can thrive between the army and the police, easing the military’s burden and providing symmetry to civil-military relations in the CT aspect.
Ultimately, the police, along with the criminal justice system must be more responsive to public and local needs. In this aspect, working with local partners (including non-profits) is essential: NPOs can go in local districts and identify the grievances and suggest specific reforms for the authorities to act upon. Another use of NPOs in active CT tactics can be to develop standard procedures and protocols for police officers to secure terrorist attack sites and preserve the crime scene and evidence until specialized investigators or the army arrive. Likewise, NPOs can also improve the training of anti-terrorism prosecutors to prevent terrorism-related cases falling apart in civil courts, thereby, reducing the appeal for military courts and alleviating people’s faith in the rule of law.
The Extremist Ideology
The upshot message for any CT actor is that terrorism is a plague that unless treated by a variety of CT actors through different doses of kinetic and non-kinetic solutions applied holistically and simultaneously will not exterminate the ideology behind it. CT actors must be cognizant of the fact that contemporary terrorism in Pakistan signifies a wider malaise that has its tentacles deep into our societal prejudices, state policies, and regional politics.
Extremist groups can veil their true motives through various ways. Some individuals are attracted to the group’s distorted religious message while others are engaged by its anti-Western outlook, where the West’s military interventions in the Middle East are particularly highlighted. Yet others see the terrorist group as the only available channel of political change and social mobility, one which responds to their feelings of alienation. Although all such vitriolic nodes of thinking are dangerous and unhealthy for our society, one particularly vicious but unfortunately enticing aperture for Pakistani extremist groups is to portray their message in sectarian or ethnic terms, especially against the minority Shia and Christian communities of Pakistan. In the past, Pakistan has been a hotspot for proxy battles fought between the Saudis and Iranis along sectarian lines. While Pakistan has successfully extinguished the Saudi/Iran fire within its borders, plenty of highly incendiary fuel for sectarianism still remains.
At a broad level, countering the extremist ideology requires setting a national tone that balances discussion of the terrorism threat with diminished schizophrenic attitudes and positive overtones of CT operations. The politics of manipulating the terrorism threat for one’s own ends must be reduced. For any citizen, it is unbelievably demoralizing when the provincial law minister accosts the ordinary citizens (such as the protesting group of chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers in the aftermath of the Lahore bombing) rather than the actual culprits. Similarly, after the most recent Lahore tragedy, another MPA publicly threw shade at his rival political party regarding the cause of the catastrophe. Such irresponsible and immature statements need to be zipped up and party leaders need to pursue an active stance here. Such unchecked remarks only divert attention from the real mischief-makers.
Since terrorism is a political strategy, any CT strategy needs political leadership. Realistic expectations and incremental steps must guide our CT strategy: the terrorism phenomenon will not disappear overnight since extremist beliefs tend to be generational and it’s not possible to always satisfy every major stakeholder when it comes to political choices.
In acting against terrorist ideologies, it is critical that the armed forces and government clearly convey that their CT actions are being conducted because they are the right thing to do rather than another attempt by the government to consolidate its position by eliminating marginalized groups. The terrorists are not marginalized groups and the government should make an effort to communicate this visibly.
Additionally, a cocktail of modernization will signal fast decay of radicalism. Local and federal institutional reform and economic liberalization are essential for fracturing the compartmentalization of Pakistani rural and tribal communities and reinforcing their notions of being a part and parcel of Pakistan.
CT actors need to question:
1) The incentives that provoked discontented groups to join terrorist outfits against the state.
2) The management of a particular terrorism crisis (e.g. TTP attacks in a specific place such as Lahore) by both the terrorists and state once the crisis began.
Such an approach will in turn enable authorities to question how and why the kinetic CT tactics became the default option and explore the non-kinetic and non-violent tactics equally to the kinetic ones.
Typically, Pakistani public opinion and lack of institutional systems make policies reactive and event-driven: consequently, CT policies aim at reassuring the country’s anxious population and to produce swift, visible developments when a longer-term picture needs to be involved. The Pakistani political system and society respond with alarm and panic to terrorist calamities as they did in the aftermath of the Peshawar APS attack. No management responsibility is set on any individual or agency. Legal concessions get crowded out in such a response. This weakens the state’s activist role in dealing with the penetration of Pakistani society by extremist ideologies. Ultimately, a ‘whole of government’ strategy is needed that looks beyond merely satisfying popular demands or political agendas.
Pakistan is facing a hybrid onslaught that requires a hybrid counter-offensive. It needs to take the fight to the miscreants on multiple fronts. But such a CT strategy needs to originate from Islamabad and can only be effective if led by the political leadership. Kinetic operations are useful but can only be the short-term band-aid solution (think again of the 2008-09 failure of the Taliban ceasefire).
Additionally, the time has come to revisit our legal system seriously and genuinely, making amendments where necessary. It is imperative that the top civilian brass, backed by all political rivals and friends, leads Pakistan’s CT strategy. GHQ can continue to play a central role such as in the coordination of CT activity, actors, and resources. Critically, there should exist a stronger link between the top civilian authority and local army command.
Ultimately, relevant to any CT strategy must be the aim to oust terrorists faster than fresh ones can join the fray. And to prevent new mischief-makers, the CT discourse and resources need to shift towards treating the disease rather than merely the symptoms. The ideological menace hurting Pakistan requires an ideological counter-response. As such, a bottom-up CT approach that targets the underlying causes of terrorism and aims to choke the extremist group’s structure and network is needed to neutralize the threat. Pakistan must leverage all available instruments of national power in fighting terrorism. This includes defense and offense through the military but also government (both provincial and federal) diplomacy and influence. A multifaceted triage composed of economic, legal, political, and cultural priorities needs to factor in the long-term CT game in mutually reinforcing ways vis-a-vis the Army’s kinetic tactics.
is Senior Non-Resident Fellow of CSCR. A Graduate from Grinnell College and Pursuing his masters from Brown University through Harvard Brown Program in Public Affairs. His area of expertise is Nuclear non-Proliferation, International Security and Civil-Military Diplomacy.