Although no region is immune to terrorism, Pakistan went through over two decades of vicious terrorist attacks on its civilians, military, and law enforcement agencies. It peaked when the terrorist attacked innocent children of Army Public School Peshawar (APS) in 2014 killing 150 young souls that shocked and united the nation in grief demanding effective and comprehensive operation against the ruthless perpetrators of these heinous crimes. The APS tragedy became a symbol of the determination of the nation to say no to terrorism and its determination to eradicate this menace through effective counter-terrorism measures.
The roots of terrorism in Pakistan can be traced to several factors. Pakistan resides in an unsettled and hostile neighborhood. The aftermath of Afghan Jihhad followed by the political, economic, and institutional collapse in Afghanistan and the presence of a large number of Afghan refugees in our country, particularly the Jihadis and their sympathizers in the former FATA area remain some of the most significant factors that fanned terrorism in Pakistan. The calamitous events of 9/11 further aggravated the situation with the War on Terror initiated by the U.S.A and NATO forces. The rest is history we are all witness to. Taking advantage of the unrest in Afghanistan, India used the Afghan territory to perpetrate state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The arrest of Gulbhushan Jadev, a serving Indian Naval Officer from Balochistan is a glaring example of Indian direct involvement in terrorism in Pakistan.
Pakistan also faced an existential challenge from domestic forces of sectarian and ethnic militancy and terrorism. Many of Pakistan’s domestic problems are related to poor governance and the imbalance of power and operational ability between civil institutions and the military. Shortsighted policies of successive governments and a fragile political system have shuffled efforts to develop a strong, stable polity and economy. Civil and political institutions remain weak and sometimes dysfunctional; a well-organized and disciplined military continues to dominate key strategic sectors. Domestic instability and inefficiency only add to breeding discontent and extremism and hampers efforts for the effective implementation of counter-terrorism strategies.
Terrorists employ calculated use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby bring about a particular political objective. It is thus important to ensure there is no safe haven provided to any kind of terrorism whatsoever anywhere in the world, irrespective of the geostrategic and geopolitical interests of individual states which must be defended through means other than proxy wars and supporting organized terrorist entities.
Over the past twenty years, Pakistan has tried a variety of approaches to reduce the chance of terrorists succeeding.
As a leader in the fight against terrorism, Pakistan adopted comprehensive national strategies, taking all stakeholders on board with the aim of balancing hard-end security measures with social, economic, and community-driven policies that are grounded in the rule of law.
The establishment of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was an important step in this direction. Without the will and determination of the general populace, it is impossible to effectively implement a counterterrorism strategy. It requires that government makes use of the instruments of national power to neutralize terrorists, their organizations, and their networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and to coerce the government and citizens to react in accordance with the terrorists’ goals.
To disrupt terrorist networks, Pakistan resolutely started massive military operations Zarb-e-Azb and then Radul Fasad to root out the terrorists who had taken refuge in urban centers thus making it extremely difficult for the military and law enforcement agencies to find them. In the process, Pakistan sacrificed over 100,000 souls including civilians, military and law enforcement agencies personnel. Not to forget the over Dollars 120 billion losses in trade. The sectarian differences were also fanned during this period adding to an already precarious security situation. Not to mention the extremist and jihadi mindset that gradually pervaded certain sections of society providing a dedicated network of terrorist support and financing.
Effective implementation of Counter Terrorism strategies is always daunting and requires, patience, intelligence coordination, and above all preparing the people to support the counter-terrorism strategies carefully conceived to root out the scourge of terrorism: securing borders, tightening financial controls, strengthening the role of the police, improving criminal justice systems, and providing mutual legal assistance to other countries trying to convict terrorists in their courts. It is clear that Government alone cannot deal with this challenge. A truly effective counter-terrorism strategy recognizes the value of involving local communities, the private sector, the media, and other groups in society. They also encourage the exchange of intelligence, information, and expertise between national agencies and across borders. The broader the response, the more effective a counter-terrorism strategy is likely to be.
According to experts, 2009 was the worst year ever in Pakistan in terms of terrorist attacks in a year. Ever since then, there was a consistent and significant decline in the number of terrorist attacks from 2009-2020. However, in 2021, Pakistan witnessed a reversal in this trend. For the first time in ten years, the terrorist attacks in 2021 were more than the terrorist attacks in the preceding year, i.e. 2020. A cause for further concern was that during 2022 this trend continued and the realization dawned that this was not a short-term development, but a more sustained trend.
In this context and in the face of the resurgence of terrorism perpetrated by TTP and its affiliates following the Taliban takeover, Pakistan cannot afford complacency regarding its growing terrorism threat. It is quite evident that TTP’s operational capacity has grown significantly following the takeover of the Afghan Taliban. Along with this, peer militant groups and externally motivated terrorism, especially from India, also present an existential threat to Pakistan’s security and the stability of its neighborhood.
Terrorism experts in Pakistan cite two reasons for this reversal. One is that while Pakistan’s counterstrategy achieved its short-term objectives in countering terrorism, it was not effective in formulating long-term policies and responses to the terrorist threat. Therefore, while Pakistan succeeded in effectively dealing with the terrorist threat in the short term, from 2009 to 2020, this effectiveness could not be sustained. It is also a fact that in Pakistan counter-terrorism effort was, primarily led by the military and the civilian institutions played a supporting secondary role.
For the long-term solution to succeed, the civilian institutions must play a pivotal role but this remained a weak point in Pakistan’s initial response to controlling terrorism. Secondly, while the focus of military operations was on kinetic actions, the civilian institutions could not focus in equal measure on the non-dynamic part, the ideological part. So while the TTP, the main terrorist organization in Pakistan, was eliminated from the former FATA region, its ideology continued to resonate with segments of our society, because we had ignored addressing the non-kinetic dimension. The result is that as soon as it got an opportunity to come up, it did.
Pakistan has long struggled to contain and is familiar with intersecting crises. Today, Pakistan is facing deep economic and financial challenges combined with political and societal turmoil. Unless the government is completely focused on dealing with terrorism and is not consumed by these issues of economic survival, or political partisanship, the terrorists may survive for long. They take economic and political chaos in Pakistan as an opportunity. We need to act comprehensively against them, focusing equally on kinetic and non-kinetic measures, to defeat them in the long term. We have to drain the swamp that breeds them.
No counter-terrorism strategy can be successful when all the federating units and the center do not work in unison.
Provinces working in silos without any involvement of the federal government cannot deliver the requisite results where intelligence sharing and coordinated efforts are a prerequisite to success. In the twenty-point National Action Plan to counter terrorism it was expressly stated that for every point, specific action plans will be drawn up with specific measurable objectives. This, however, did not happen in all the provinces in equal measure for various reasons.
It must also be kept in mind that while for kinetic action the military and the criminal justice system are the key players, for non-kinetic measures, a different set of players is needed like media experts, IT specialists, development experts, religious leaders, youth leaders, education experts, active civil society organizations and much more. Carrying forward this aspect of counter-terrorism through military or police is not likely to be effective, because it is not their expertise or field.
Several initiatives to win the hearts and minds of youth are being taken in Baluchistan and other parts of Pakistan. Some encouraging results are manifesting themselves, but for resounding success, far more focused efforts are required by all. A recently published report by the experts on counter-terrorism in Pakistan admits that recent military operations to clear the northern border regions bordering Afghanistan of terrorist bases have had some success, but the effort inside Pakistan needs to be bolstered much more. They recommend governance should be strengthened with better coordination, promoting meritocracy and accountability.
The greater willingness by the military to bring civilians into their military campaign planning processes and to train and assist civil institutions, particularly the police force in growing into their roles and responsibilities would bolster security.
The central government should establish a clearer vision and a process for decision-making related to anti-terrorism and anti-militancy efforts; devote more resources to its security institutions; and better organize its relationships with individual provinces. Parliament should play a more active role in defining and measuring the success of efforts to counter terrorism and militancy. Civil society has played a more active and informed role in this process. Terrorism is a common enemy of all and must be rooted out completely if Pakistan is to reach its political, economic, and development objectives.
the Author is a retired diplomat with over 37 years of distinguished service in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. During her career, she held key positions, including Ambassador to China, the European Union, Ireland. She also served as Deputy Head of Mission to China and Denmark. With expertise in various areas, she held significant roles at the Foreign Office, including Additional Foreign Secretary for America’s and Director General Policy Planning.
In addition to her diplomatic career, she is actively engaged as Vice Chair of the Council on Global Policy and a member of the Board of Directors of First Women Bank. She serves as an advisor to the China Study Center at ISSI and Kestral International. Furthermore, she is a prolific writer, contributing regularly to esteemed magazines and newspapers. As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including “Magnificent Pakistan” and “Pakistan-China-All Weather Friendship.” Her dedication and expertise continue to impact the field of international relations. She tweets @AmbNaghmanaHash.