Police, not military, can fight extremism

At least 20 people, most of them students and teachers at the Bacha Khan University (BKU) at Charsadda near Peshawar in Pakistan were killed in a major terrorist attack on Wednesday morning, laying bare yet again the vulnerability of places of learning to terrorist attacks. The identity of the attackers is yet to be established. While a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader has claimed responsibility, the outfit’s main spokesperson has denied links with the assault. However, the needle of suspicion points in the TTP’s direction. Education has been an important target of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. Schools and colleges have repeatedly come under fire as they are seen to be providing a modernist vision, which is at odds with the Taliban’s obscurantist thinking. Additionally, attacks on schools have maximum shock value and are easy to execute as they are soft targets. Wednesday’s attack at Charsadda has stirred grim memories of a similar assault by the TTP a little over a year ago on a school for children of the armed forces. That attack left 135 children dead. In the wake of the 2014 Peshawar school attack, the Pakistani government displayed a new resolve to fight terrorism. It promised to target all terrorist groups without distinction. It came out with a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) and only a few weeks ago, the military trotted out numbers of slain terrorist to showcase its success in taking on terrorists. However, the attack on BKU lays bare the hollowness of the military’s claim; the terrorists’ capacity to unleash violence and mayhem remains very much intact.

Using the military to fight terrorism often does more harm than good. It undermines civilian institutions. Homes rather than terrorist hideouts are destroyed in random bombing as the military cannot match the local police’s intelligence network. Thus, it is a blunt instrument that results in massive human rights violations, which in turn fuel militancy and anger against the state. High-profile responses to terrorism such as hanging of terrorists found guilty in the attack do not deter others from indulging in terrorism. Importantly, the good terrorist-bad terrorist distinction continues to shape the Pakistan military’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Pakistan needs to substitute its current military-focu-sed counter-terrorism strategy to one that is led by the police and based on strong intelligence input. If the NAP is meant to combat terrorism in Pakistan, it must be reworked to empower civilian institutions and strengthen public confidence in the state, as well as weaken extre-mist ideologies and radicalisation. A strategy that focuses on violence and revenge cannot defeat extremism.

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