Pakistan’s war on terror has reached a decisive phase and promises to redefine the way the world looks at the embattled country.
When geostrategy shapes regional conflicts, extremism seamlessly molds into terrorism.
This has unfortunately been Pakistan’s reality for over a decade now. In the midst of an uncertain and shifting economic landscape, a rapidly transforming social and cultural interdependence and a world increasingly turning multi-polar, the country has inadvertently become a frontline state in the battle against extremism, radicalism and terrorism. The good news is Pakistan has begun to turn this liability into an asset.
With the ongoing vicious war on terror on multiple fronts, several questions arise. Can Pakistan fight this battle alone? Will it continue to be the playground of a regional proxy war, as it was during the Cold War era? And does the country enjoy the kind of unity that would enable it to counter radicalism and armed extremism? The list of questions is endless.
Call it a product of circumstances or the prevailing of common sense, but the general public in Pakistan is now backing the national army. Pakistan’s Armed Forces’ commanders have vowed to uproot the scourge, which has shaken the country’s very foundations over the past period.
It is worth noting that the fear factor, which has always been associated with acts of terror, is no longer potent enough. People on the street appear more than willing to fight the menace instead of continuing to live in fear. This is a major shift from a few years ago when various government officials would turn to one another in search of answers instead of forging a collective strategy to fight terrorism.
But that is a thing of the past now, as the threshold of fear has been crossed. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s Armed Forces—highly regarded by the public as the most organized and efficient institution in the country—have taken on the critical responsibility of combatting the threat of terrorism. The step has proven to be the right one taken at the right time, with major combing operations across troubled spots resulting in a sharp decline in terror attacks.
“Pakistan is fighting for its survival; failure or partial success is not an option. We must [marshall] all resources and need a strong political leadership to win this battle,” retired Commander of the Army’s Strike Forces (Strike Corps 1, Mangla), Lt. Gen. Ghulam Mustafa, told Newsweek Middle East.
The operation – commonly referred to as Zarb-e-Azb – was launched in June 2014 in North Waziristan along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It was the beginning of a concerted response to terrorist groups and their hideouts.
About 30,000 Pakistani soldiers involved in Zarb-e-Azb operation have managed to flush out foreign and local militants in this comprehensive operation.
The reason behind the operation’s success is attributed to the widespread support from Pakistan’s politicians and civil society. Overall security situation improved and terrorist attacks across the country have dropped to a six-year low since 2008. The operation, largely dependent on what is known as Intelligence Based Operations (IBOs), has eliminated 3,400 terrorists, destroyed 837 hideouts and led to over 21,000 arrests.
The international community has also commended Pakistan for striking terrorism with an iron fist. There is greater awareness of the contribution the operation has made towards combating terror. Jonathan Carpenter, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that Waziristan and Khyber have become safer because of Zarb-e-Azb Operation. British Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon appreciated the efforts of Pakistan’s Army, and said that they have helped stabilize the region and not just Pakistan.
Menace of Terror
For years, terrorism had become so commonplace in Pakistan that people had become fatalistic and even acquiescent about it. They saw little light at the end of the tunnel. Yet all of that changed following December 2014’s brazen attack on Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar. The attack claimed the lives of 145 people, of which 132 were school children and several teachers. It proved to be a turning point and a decisive moment that shaped the public’s opinion in favor of a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.
Ghastly scenes emerging from Peshawar may have stirred the nation’s soul but this wasn’t the first major terror attack of its kind in the country. There have been numerous similar incidents over the years, almost all claiming innocent lives.
According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, Pakistan was the fourth most terror-affected country in the world.
“The total number of deaths from terrorism in 2014 reached 32,685, constituting an 80 percent increase from 18,111 the previous year. This is the highest level ever recorded. The significant majority of these deaths, over 78 percent, occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria,” according to the report.
In Pakistan, at least 1,760 people were killed in terror attacks in Pakistan in 2014 alone, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was declared as the deadliest group. It was responsible for 31 percent of all deaths and 60 percent of all claimed attacks. The group killed 543 people in 2014 and 618 in 2013.
The Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) – launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence and led by the University of Maryland – released a report immediately after the Peshawar attack. The report clearly stated that the country experienced the largest number of terrorist attacks on educational targets between 1970 and 2013.
According to the report, terrorist groups launched 753 attacks targeting educational institutions, 724 (96 percent), of which took place between 2004 and 2013.
Plan of action
A critical component of Pakistan’s fight against terror has been a consensus within the government to tackle the challenge. Alongside Zarb-e-Azb, a comprehensive plan was formulated within 10 days of the APS tragedy. The National Action Plan (NAP) was adopted and endorsed by all stakeholders in the country, marking a rare moment when the country spoke in unison against terror.
Within weeks, the 20-point plan provided a blanket policy to speed up action against terrorism. One of its highlights was establishing special courts under the supervision of the Armed Forces. Furthermore, a rapid and across-the-board crackdown was launched against all those who facilitate and finance terror in any way; so was a strict ban on the glorification of terrorists and terrorist organizations via print and electronic media.
“I would strongly recommend to my government to halt all expenditures and give immediate attention and top priority to the NAP, which is the backbone of the political and economic stability and well-being of our nation,” Senator Anwar Baig of Pakistan’s ruling party, PML-N, told Newsweek Middle East.
The Battle for Karachi
NAP facilitated the establishment and deployment of a dedicated counter-terrorism force, protection of minorities, and action against elements spreading sectarianism. Another major component was to steer the ongoing operation in Karachi to its natural end. It included establishing a solid presence in parts of the country that have become a safe haven for terrorists.
Regardless of the debate over the degree of its success, NAP has admittedly produced concrete results.
The southern port city of Karachi, one of Pakistan’s largest cities, has long been a lifeline for the country because of its major contribution to the economy. One of the most populous metropolitan cities in the world, Karachi is a hub for economic activities and a place where a large number of people earn their living.
For these reasons it has become imperative to restore law and order in the restive city. Street crime was spiraling out of control and Karachi was fast becoming one of the favorite spots for sleeping cells and criminal activities. In September 2013, the government asked the paramilitary forces to launch an operation against targeted killings, kidnappings for ransom, extortion and terrorism.
The crackdown resulted in the arrest of at least 4,074 suspected criminals during 2,410 raids, in 2015.
The operation also targeted terror suspects and financiers in addition to bigwigs, who were directly or indirectly involved in terrorism. While most were hunted down, others managed to escape. Karachi operation only goes on to show that the government’s determination to take terror head-on is like never before and is here to stay.
Almost since the beginning of the modern form of terrorism, Pakistan has suffered because of its proximity to Afghanistan with most attacks occurring near the border and involving the Taliban. In 2014, the city of Parachinar in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had one of the highest rates of deaths per incident, with 12 killed per attack. Unsurprisingly, Parachinar is the closest point in Pakistan to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul.
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