Fighting terrorism

Fighting terrorism

Over the last decade, the deteriorating internal security environment has gradually morphed into Pakistan’s foremost national security threat. The inability of the Pakistan army to meet internal security challenges effectively is a particularly worrying factor.

Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan and the restive Gilgit-Baltistan Northern Areas are a perpetual security nightmare. Karachi remains a tinderbox that is ready to explode. The Al Qaeda has gradually made inroads into Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and others. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has consolidated its position in North Waziristan and appears capable of breaking out of its stronghold to neighbouring areas. The Nawaz Sharif government has now announced a new counter-terrorism policy.

The Pakistan army has been facing many difficulties in conducting effective counter-insurgency operations even though it has deployed more than 150,000 soldiers in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA, and has suffered over 15,700 casualties, including over 5,000 dead since 2008. Total casualties including civilians number almost 50,000 since 2001. Special Forces units of the Pakistan army, the elite SSG, are also directly engaged in fighting the militants.The army is unwilling to conduct high-intensity counter-insurgency operations due to apprehensions that fighting fellow Muslims would be demotivating in the long run. Many soldiers, including officers, are known to have refused to fight fellow Muslims. Several cases of fratricide have been reported. Questions are now being raised about the army’s lack of professionalism in counter-insurgency operations and its withering internal cohesion.

The TTP’s cadre base is over 20,000 tribesmen and Mehsud commands about 5,000 fighters. Mangal Bagh Afridi leads Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), a militant group that has refrained from joining the TTP and is independently active up to the outskirts of Peshawar. Meanwhile, radical extremism is gaining ground in Pakistan and the scourge of creeping Talibanisation has reached southern Punjab. Though it has flirted with peace deals with the militants, the army finds it impossible to meet the demands of the TTP and the TNSM. Demands have included the suspension of all military operations in the tribal areas; the withdrawal of army posts from the FATA; the release of all tribals arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act; and, enforcement of the Sharia in the tribal areas.

Hurt by a series of Taliban successes in ‘liberating’ tribal areas and under pressure from the Americans to deliver in the ‘war on terror,’ in the initial stages the Pakistan army employed massive firepower to stem the rot. Helicopter gunships and heavy artillery were freely used to destroy suspected terrorist hideouts. This heavy-handed firepower-based approach without simultaneous infantry operations failed to dislodge the militants but caused large-scale collateral damage and served to alienate the tribal population even further. Major reverses led to panic reactions including the hurried negotiation of “peace accords” that were invariably broken by the militants.

Counter-insurgency operations

The new counter-terrorism policy, titled National Counter-Terrorism and Extremism Policy 2013, focuses on eliminating terrorist networks through counter-insurgency operations based on accurate intelligence, in coordination with the police and the prosecution of captured terrorists. According to the Express Tribune, “the five-layered counter-terror policy seeks to dismantle, contain, prevent, educate and re-integrate.” The policy “calls for building the police capacity and following up on the military action in an extremist bastion with a broad strategy focused on development work and economic revival.” It proposes to make the local police the first line of defence as it is the beat constable who always has his ear to the ground and can provide ‘actionable’ intelligence. The police will be trained in “modern techniques of investigation, evidence collection, interrogation, prosecution and rapid response.”

The new policy calls for periodic re-assessment of the terror threat by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, measures to plug sources of funding and better management of the western border to prevent the ingress of militants. It seeks to provide security against terror strikes, improve emergency response and manage the handling of victims in a better manner. The policy proposes to review education in Pakistan, including the madrassa system. Re-integration and the rehabilitation of captured and surrendered militants is also part of the new policy. All of this is unexceptionable.

In seeking to follow a comprehensive, ‘all of government’ approach at the national level, the new policy appears to have learnt some lessons from India’s counter-insurgency doctrine. It has now become axiomatic that governance, development and security are three ends of the counter-insurgency triangle and all must proceed in close synchronisation for a counter-insurgency campaign to be waged effectively. However, it is not clear whether the Pakistan government has sought the army’s concurrence before announcing that it seeks to eliminate ‘all’ terrorist organisations.

While the army would be quite happy to see the TTP and the TNSM eliminated – as these organisations are fighting the army and the state, it would not relish going after the LeT and the JeM with the same enthusiasm. This is because these three organisations, particularly the LeT, are creatures of the ISI and still do its bidding in launching attacks against targets in India. Similarly, the army and the ISI use the Haqqani network for attacks against Indian assets and Afghan targets across the Durand Line. The Pakistan army and the ISI have always looked at these organisations as ‘strategic assets’ and are unlikely to wholeheartedly support the government in going after them.

(The writer is a Delhi-based strategic analyst)