Pakistan – At crossroads once again

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Mushfiq Murshed*

*The author is an editor of the journal.

The recent escalation of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has raised questions regarding the internal security strategies and policies of the country.  The 9th military operation, Zarb-e Azb, was launched on 15 June 2014.  This operation was meant to counter any reservations that the world may have had against Pakistan’s intentions and their selective approach towards the elimination of militants.

Skeptics of the operation concentrated on the Haqqani network. They believed that the targeting of the Haqqani network would be an indication that there was no duplicity in Pakistan’s efforts.  The government remained its usual incompetent self and chose to do nothing about countering the apprehensions the world had regarding the integrity of the operation.

The former COAS, General Raheel Sharif, therefore, took it upon himself to reassure world leaders that Zarb-e Azb was not just a military operation but, “a concept to defeat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”.  He gave further reassurances that no group, including the Haqanni network would be spared in this onslaught.  He had said, “this (operation) is against all hues and colours, and it is without any exception, whether it is Haqqani network or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or anything.”

In addition, after the horrendous Army Public School Peshawar terrorist carnage on 16 December 2014, the civil government endorsed the fight to eradicate terrorism and committed its efforts towards this endeavor.  The National Action Plan (NAP) was passed and special powers were legislated to the army under the 21st constitutional amendment and the Pakistan Army (amendment) Act 2015.   Speedy trial military courts were, thereby, established for cases pertaining to offences relating to terrorism and terrorists, respectively.

This was meant to be a stopgap arrangement with a sunset clause of two years.  The government was to use this period to strengthen the civilian law enforcement agencies and to reform and strengthen the criminal justice thereby removing the need for military courts. This has not been accomplished.

As per the sunset clause, the special powers given to the military courts expired on 7 January 2016.  The government’s attempt to revive the military courts is now finding resistance from other political parties.

The lack of initiative by the government to reform the required systems and institutions, coupled with selective targeting of militant outfits has provided the space for terrorism to resurface in the country.  The efficiency and frequency of the recent terrorist attacks demonstrate that militant recruitment, network and financial chains remain intact, in some form or the other.

Furthermore, considering the rise of nationalist/populist governments and movements around the world, it becomes imperative for Pakistan to ensure that it is not accused of fostering terrorist groups. Any act of terrorism with the slightest link to Pakistan – be it in the form of safe havens or individuals working on their own whims – will have devastating consequences, not only for the country, but also for the millions of Pakistanis live abroad.

The present internal and external dynamics leave no room for patronage towards any militant/extremist group whose affiliation and loyalty may be questionable.  A case in point is the affiliation that the Haqqani network has with the Tehreek –i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Sirajuddin Haqqani has taken over from his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani as the leader of the Haqqani network.  He is disliked and, as a result, divisions have emerged in the network.  He has also provided assistance to the head of TTP, Mullah Fazlullah.  As the network becomes weaker and more fragmented the alliance between them and the TTP will inevitably grow and as far as the primary agenda of the TTP is concerned we are all fully aware that it is to target the Pakistani population through terrorist attacks.  The 16 December 2014 attack in Peshawar, for instance, substantiates this alliance. The carnage in Peshawar was conceived and planned by the TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah who was operating from the Haqqani network controlled areas of eastern Afghanistan.  The links are all apparent.  There is no good and bad extremist.  Pakistan has to realize this truth.  Only then will its counter terrorism strategies be effective.

The external adversaries and threats that Pakistan face are as daunting as the internal undercurrents mentioned above. India, for instance, with its nationalist Modi regime at the center that thrives on populist sentiment, has played a sinister role in an attempt to isolate Pakistan; their high-point being the boycotting of the SAARC summit that was to be held in Islamabad.

Islamabad, in turn, did not reply in kind and sent the Prime Minister’s Foreign Affairs Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, to Amritsar to participate in the 6th Heart of Asia Conference.   There, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani and Modi “joined hands to lash out at Pakistan on terrorism.”

Ashraf Ghani quoted a statement made by a Taliban who had recently said, “If they had no sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn’t last a month.” Ghani demanded a “clarifications on what is being done to prevent the export of terror.”  In stark contrast to this belligerent approach towards Pakistan, Ghani praised the support that Afghanistan had received from India, which he naively believed had ‘ no strings attached’.

This is the same man who had visited Pakistan 3 years ago, at the risk of alienating India, as he emphatically believed that ‘Af-Pak’ collaboration and cooperation was essential if peace and stability was to return to the region.  Since then, with every terrorist attack on either side of the border, the trust deficit has widened.

Each country blames the other for harboring and supporting militants. Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants had fled Afghanistan in 2001 and resumed their operations from Pakistan, primarily from the safe havens they found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and Baluchistan. The advances made by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the escalating terrorist attacks in the country have been attributed, by Kabul, to the support the Taliban and Haqqani network are getting from Pakistan.

Similarly, an estimated 100,000 people from Pakistan temporarily fled across the border to Afghanistan when the military initiated the on-going operation, Zarb-e-Azb, in North Waziristan in 2014.  Simultaneously, the Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups found safe havens in Afghanistan from where they have launched deadly attacks in Pakistan.  No military operation in either country can reach its potential under such circumstances.  The objective can only be achieved through close cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Bringing India back into the mix, Afghan grievances are integral to India’s strategy of isolating Pakistan in the region. India will continue its attempts to divert international focus away from the atrocities it is committing against the people in Kashmir, and towards developing a trust-deficit between Pakistan and the world.  Economic pragmatism will ensure that the west lean towards India’s narrative.

Pakistan will have to ensure that its narrative is as effective as that of India.  For this a proactive and all encompassing approach pertaining to eradicating the militant extremist in the country needs to be developed.  Empty rhetoric needs to be replaced by substance.  The National Action Plan being a case in point.  Referring to the 20 points in it as a plan only shows the incapability and reluctance of the civil government to seriously tackle this issue.  A genuine plan has goals, objectives, timeframes and strategies in place.  NAP is, at best, a mission statement.  The plan still needs to be developed.

All is not lost yet.  The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance has given Pakistan a lifeline towards prosperity and towards countering any isolationist agendas.  The military operation in North Waziristan has also provided the state an opportunity to regain its writ and establish itself as the sole authority for the socio-economic wellbeing of its citizens.   The country stands at crossroads. One road leads to stability and self-sustained prosperity. The other, stemming from association and support of terrorist groups, notably the Haqqani network, can only lead to ignominy and isolation.  The choice is entirely that of the Pakistan government.