How can the state counter attackers whose sole goal is to inflict maximum damage before they die?
Let’s begin with what’s now obvious. Given the psychological, emotional and communicative impact, the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, and the Jan. 20 attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda will be the new modus operandi of the terrorist groups the state is fighting.
There are reasons for this savagery and they must be understood. It’s not enough to talk about these attacks as terrorism galvanized by hatred or even attacks on education. It’s an operational strategy designed to increase the cost for state and society—to show the state up as unable to safeguard its best, young students and faculty, and to instill fear in society. Fear leads to fatigue and despondency.
The savagery is calculated, cold and rational.
An adversary, weaker in terms of numbers and direct military capabilities, needs to find ways to gain an asymmetric advantage over the state. He acquires it by blunting the application of brute force, denying a state’s military to concentrate its forces and land the punch. He fights elusively. Attacks, melts away, hunkers down, attacks again and so on, sacrificing a few and extracting a bigger price. The impact on state and society is gained not through sheer bodycount but through uncertainty, through a sense that an attack is always imminent and can come anywhere, that there are no rules of the game, that anyone can be a target. This is what raises the cost.
When Ayman Al-Zawahiri wrote about suicide bombing, this was the logic behind the tactic that has developed a strategic dimension. When people, analysts and even clerics talk about developing a narrative that decries suicide bombing as un-Islamic, it leaves me cold.
An operational strategy is not underpinned by religious precepts. It’s a tool to gain advantage over the adversary. Look around and you will see the diabolically fascinating results of this operational strategy. Walk-through gates, concertina, Jersey barriers, lack of trust, frisking, blocked roads, 24/7 checkpoints and much else is a result of that one person prepared to blow himself up, upending the security paradigm which rests on the idea of self-preservation. At a very small cost to themselves, the terrorists are extracting a very high price.
Then there are IEDs. They have been the bane of military and police forces in all the contested zones: Pakistan’s tribal areas, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Once again, this method of asymmetric physical attack raises the cost for the stronger military forces exponentially and disproportionately. The U.S. Department of Defense Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has spent nearly $3 billion so far to tackle the problem of IEDs. The kind of counter-efforts these methods of asymmetric physical attacks require is another and more intricate story.
The point, however, is simple: terrorist groups will use methods that are savage, raise the cost for a state, instill fear and uncertainty among people and strike at social trust, one of the most important ingredients for the normal working of a society.
But let’s return to the problem of attacking educational institutions. Khalifa Umar Mansoor, the terrorist hiding in Nangarhar who masterminded the Army Public School attack, had threatened more such attacks to come. He has made good on his promise. Of course, there is need to capture this abomination. But that alone will not solve the problem. Once a tactic has been tested and found to work, the state has to be prepared for more such attacks.
It is evident to anyone that the state cannot provide security to all institutions. Mercifully, the terrorists do not have the capacity to attack all institutions. So, we have to draw a list of those institutions that terrorists could and would attack. This list can be based on a number of factors but two stand out: prestige and impact. This should bring the list down to a manageable number.
Many people have spoken about response time in the case of Bacha Khan University. Statements differ from 30 to 45 minutes before the police showed up, followed by the Army Quick Response Force. Let me lay down a basic principle of response time. If there is a dedicated response force for an area, the response time will always be shorter than when there’s no dedicated force. Dedicated forces train precisely for a contingency. Part of the force is always geared and ready. If it’s a building or a compound, they know the schemata, they train according to that, they know the distances and time to cover the area. If they are not stationed in the area, they know exactly the drills and time required to get to the area in all weather conditions. Usually, the geared part of the force is in the area with reinforcements close by. If an attack happens, those inside are in communication with the response reinforcements.
In the absence of a dedicated force, when surprise comes, lots of things can go wrong. The force dispatched will have to gear up: weapons and ammo from the armory, vehicles from mechanical transport, negotiating, as in Charsadda and other cities, fog and traffic et cetera. Their response time will depend on all these factors from gearing up to reaching the area, given the distance they have to travel.
Also, unlike a dedicated force they are unlikely to be in communication with any defenders inside. They are unlikely to know the schemata. Sans communication inside, it will take them time to appreciate the situation and formulate a response. There are far too many technical details in that but sufficient to say that it is not easy—or at least not instant.
This was a case of a non-dedicated force response. Police was closest; Army came from Mardan; Special Service Group from Peshawar.
Lessons learnt, list of likely targets prepared. What next?
The institutions that can be targeted must enhance local defense in combination with the police. There should now be dedicated forces. The force must drill its responses regularly in coordination with the institution’s security. These drills, like fire drills, should occasionally also involve students and faculty. Drills are a good way of making responses instinctive. If X happens, you do Y and so on. The attacker doesn’t come in with an extrication plan; he wants to kill before he blows himself up. The drills must be geared toward minimizing damage and denying him this objective. This means establishing protocols in an emergency where students and faculty can be secured before the firefight becomes intensive.
Essentially, this means enhanced local defense by the guards in combination with a dedicated force that knows what it has to do and part of which force is based in the area. But even more importantly, there’s need for improved perimeter defense. Defending an area, first and foremost, requires marking and defending likely enemy approaches—and, not just the obvious ones but, going by the example of the outflanking of Maginot Line by the Germans (a metaphoric reference), also improvised approaches.
There is a cost here but it is less than the cost of the attackers succeeding. Of course, there’s the importance of better intelligence and preemption and the rest. But, as in safe sex, two protections are better than one.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.