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Which Sharif Will Tame the Terrorists?

by Ejaz Haider

Ejaz Haider

Farooq Naeem—AFP

Farooq Naeem—AFP

Waking up the government from its slumber.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] spate of terrorist attacks last week, targeting both civilians and security forces, seems finally to have shaken the federal government out of its slumber. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting on Jan. 23 with, among others, the Army chief, the director-general of the ISI, and the interior minister in attendance. After that meeting, reports indicated that the government has decided to operate against terrorist groups holed up in North Waziristan. It has also signaled that it will talk to the groups amenable to reconciliation and any such dialogue will be held within the ambit of Pakistan’s Constitution.

This should make those Pakistanis who have been agitating the existential threat from these groups happy. The state seems to finally be waking up to the threat. But I am not convinced. The reason is simple: what does an operation mean? This question contains in itself a host of other questions, to which we shall come shortly, but first, let’s review the reason for the meeting and the decision.

The attacks in Bannu and Rawalpindi were intended to take on the Army directly. The Bannu attack was not only brazen, exposing many chinks in security for which heads should roll, but also one of the worst. The Army, which had been waiting for the government to take a position, finally got down from its perch and arm-twisted it. The prime minister’s meeting and the decision is therefore sans any comprehensive strategy, more a reaction to a situation than something proactive and well thought-out.

Now that the P.M. has indicated his willingness for an operation, he will be relying on the Army to make and execute the operational plan. That’s the Army’s job, of course, but the problem with the whole approach is that there is no one on the civilian side to understand such plans, much less analyze them critically. An operational plan is not just about acting; it is also about assessing how the adversary will react.

We have a fair idea about that reaction. The Tehreek-e-Taliban’s asymmetric advantage is urban terrorism. Its affiliated groups have social penetration. There is no shortage of funds and motivation, and terrorists are embedded in the population. Operating in North Waziristan is somewhat easy. Against a superior force the groups will not hold ground. They don’t need to. An operation will also disrupt their lives for a short while, resulting in temporary scaling down of attacks. But it will be a brief reprieve. Just like the Army, the terrorist groups also have contingency plans.

The question is: does the government, including the Army, have plans to disrupt the adversary’s contingency plans? The application of strategy is like a game of chess. The successful commander is the one who stays ahead of his opponent’s likely moves.

Let’s put it more specifically. Once the groups are squeezed in North Waziristan, they will react in the cities. Does the government have the wherewithal to deal with that? Let me add here that those who oppose the use of force—I exclude from this category the rightwing parties and groups because their opposition is ideological and dishonest—do so because they believe, and not entirely wrongly, that military operations have not managed to break the backbone of the Pakistani Taliban.

This is an important point and needs some clarification. Military operations have cleared and physically dominated all the administrative units in the federally-administered tribal areas and Malakand. That is a success. But it’s not the entire story. In the strategic triangle, physical dominance is only one end of the triangle. Any operational success hinges on securing at least two ends of the strategic triangle. In this case, the other two ends, social-psychological and fiscal-economic have largely remained unoccupied by the state. Add to this the fact that the reprisals have come in the urban centers and we have a situation in which it looks as if the military operations have ended up doing nothing.

This creates a cycle and it is this which the opponents, the concerned ones, point to. However, where they get it wrong is in their belief, begot more of fatigue than any deep thinking, that talking will automatically improve the situation. In this they read the intentions and the ideology of the enemy wrongly and many presume—Imran Khan is the most eminent example—that these groups are reacting to a situation. While, it is correct to say that the situation has given them fillip, their motives and motivations are ideological. That is very clear from their statements, videos, and other material available for anyone interested in constructing their narrative.

Even so, in making one point they are right, even when the point is made crudely or unwittingly. Thus far we have been looking at the problem like the blind men figuring out an elephant. Fighting terrorism (or regular and irregular wars) is not a function of military operations alone. It requires the employment of the full resources of a state. What does that mean?

It means many things. Most of all it means dealing with the whole rather than just the parts. Take urban terrorism, preferred operational space of the enemy. The threat has to be handled through efficient counterterrorism strategies. That presupposes an effective police force and a criminal justice system. As for the police and its counterterrorism function I have written extensively here and elsewhere. I shan’t repeat that. Suffice to say that the government has no plan to improve the capacity of the police.

There are other important aspects of counterterrorism, which, funnily enough, are about the enforcement of everyday laws rather than any James Bond activity. To highlight this point, let me quote from what I wrote for Al-Jazeera after the draft of the Abbottabad Commission report was leaked to that channel:

The [Commission] in trying to connect the dots, comes up with a very important observation: an effective security policy, while improving the capacity of the police, must go beyond a narrow definition of security and, by implication, a counterterrorism strategy.

Let’s take the [Osama] bin Laden case to see the various stages where his presence could have been detected. The land for his compound in Abbottabad was purchased through a bogus identity card. This means that Ibrahim, one of the Kuwaiti brothers who bought the land, managed to stay outside Pakistan’s digital database and by doing that remained untraceable. The building plan for the house was approved illegally and Ibrahim avoided paying the property tax for the entire duration that bin Laden lived in that house. The essential point in this story is that Ibrahim managed to take care of basic logistics, undetected, through illegal dealings with functionaries of the State.

Now turn this around. Imagine that Ibrahim could not secure the land the way he did. Imagine also that his attempt to purchase the land illegally had him caught at that stage. Suppose that he had managed to cross the first hurdle. The next snag would have been to get the building plan approved. Let’s assume that he had to submit a plan according to the requirements. If he were to then construct the house in violation of the original plan, he could be caught doing so by the inspectors who are supposed to inspect the site during the various phases of construction. One can go on.

The point is that counterterrorism is not an isolated activity. It is woven in the warp and woof of a state’s laws and presumes that a state can effectively enforce those laws at all levels. Effective enforcement presupposes that state functionaries are aware of the threat of keeping any activity under the radar. This includes those who do not have any direct affiliation with a uniformed force.

The argument is not to say that since we cannot do X number of things therefore we must stay our hand. I make these points to stress the fact that dealing with our internal threat is not about kneejerk reactions. It requires a policy and a sustained effort. How?

Firstly, there must be a clear understanding and acceptance of the fact that we face a threat. If that requires a declaration, let there be one. Let the state say that the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliated groups, regardless of where they might be located, are enemies of the state of Pakistan and the state will not rest easy until it has rid itself of this threat.

This would mean knowing that we are now in a state of internal emergency. Merely invoking Article 245, without recourse to article 232, would not suffice. Doing so would mean subjecting the political visage of these groups under laws relating to terrorism. The state cannot afford any more the political and social activities of Janus-faced parties that are known to be the extensions of those who are fighting the state or are sympathetic to their agenda.

Such an emergency will give the state the authority to handle places, holy and unholy, that harbor these terrorists. The state must also regulate and audit the funding of these places and other charities. This is a legit exercise and comprises one of the two essentials of counterterrorism, along with the capability to track communication. The building of mosques of all denominations must be regulated. There should be laws governing distances and localities in which mosques can be built and operated. Of course, this will be resisted by vested interests. If it means arresting people and putting them in internment, so be it. This is precisely what an emergency implies: an exceptional situation.

Government officials found involved in any activity that helps keep anyone below the radar must be dealt with as accomplices. People in the media who voice sympathy for terrorists, directly or indirectly, must be dealt with the same way a citizen is dealt with if he/she is found sympathetic to an external enemy with whom the state is in a condition of war.

These measures are drastic and I will be the first to concede they are. But here’s the point: Pakistan’s problem is not just terrorism. In fact, terrorism is the byproduct of an extremist mindset which has seeped into some sections of the population. If the state wants to fight and win, it does not just have to deal with the terrorists but also with a mindset. In that, our existential threat is very different from that facing other countries. We sowed the wind; we have now to either reap the whirlwind or do something about it.

The points I have made are just examples. They are not exhaustive; nor are they final. And they are not in any particular order. The objective simply is to make a central point, i.e., the war will not be won through reactive, half-baked efforts and policies. The modalities of what needs to be done and its fine print will have to involve many experts, from lawyers to police officers to financial wizards to many more.

This brings the wheel full-circle to the meeting chaired by the P.M. It is very well for Sharif to finally sit up and take note. But while that is necessary, it’s not sufficient. For the sufficient, the government will have to address multiple areas and place them on the policy trajectory from the short- to the medium- and long-term.

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Tashfeen Qayyum January 24, 2014 - 8:12 pm

So? Do not do anything? Destroy the base and urban terrorism can be taken care of, keep the base under preposterous assumptions and hand over the country.

Xeric January 24, 2014 - 10:00 pm

The author states the obvious.

If an operation unfolds this time, the civilian setup (bureaucracy, politicians etc) have to play its role, a proper one. They got to do their job by taking care of, as the author says, the other two sides of the strategic triangle (social-psychological and fiscal-economic) by undertaking social uplift and development of the area – a job that too was left for the military to undertake previously.

fAS January 25, 2014 - 2:39 am


Javaid Bashir March 13, 2014 - 3:46 pm

There is no point in telling the government what to do in these circumstances ? The terrorists have caused havoc but the government remains silent. Its inaction is killing the nation. Sharif does not have the gutts to take them on. He is hiding behind the All parties ‘ resolve to hold talks.

The people of Pakistan were expecting that he would call the military operation , but he gave peace another chance. How naive the P>M is that he wants to negotiate with the enemies of the state at the cost of the people’s lives ? How many more should be killed before he takes the action. He should read the writing on the wall, Inaction and his insensitivity can bring him down. No one is safe from the terrorists attacks. The government should leave complacency and become compliant.

Law and order situation has worsened and the people are on the brink of extinction, This is the struggle for our survival. The recalcitrant politicians should wake up from their slumber, and think about the real danger to the country.

This war of terrorism has an economic aspect too. Our economy has been on the decline for the past decade or so, The added costs if war , and general loot and plunder by the ruling elite


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