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Revisiting Pakistan’s counterterrorism approach

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On April 7, Pakistan’s apex security body, National Security Committee (NSC) deliberated on the rising spate of terrorism and agreed to an all-out comprehensive action against terrorism. This would be the 10th major military operation to root out the menace of terrorism from the country. Twenty-two years after the first military operation was launched in ex-FATA against the terrorist outfits, Pakistan is set to launch another “comprehensive” anti-terrorist operation. Although in the past, military operations have tackled the terrorist threat to a considerable degree, the institutional divisions and flawed strategic decision-making over security matters have undermined sustainable positive outcomes.

Political polarisation was once again at the forefront within the NSC, where the soft-corner approach towards TTP by former Prime Minister Imran Khan was identified as the root cause of the recent rise in terrorist attacks. However, PTI leader Shireen Mazari denied the allegations and further deflected the blame on the ex-military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, claiming that it was he who wanted TTP resettlement within the country. While the political debates remain frosty over the blame game, serious issues lie in the institutional decision-making over comprehensive military operations.

Not only can the provision of safe havens and sanctuaries make the plausibility of comprehensive military operation complex, but the de facto political asylum to the TTP provided by the Afghan Taliban further complicates the matters. During an interview with Shuja Nawaz for the Atlantic Council, Dr Madiha Afzal discussed the complexity of a military operation against the TTP. She argued that the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar attack provided the much-needed materialistic as well as ideological impetus to root out TTP. However, the state failed on the ideological front. Any military operation against TTP would now be ever more complex owing to the Taliban government in neighbouring Afghanistan. The availability of safe havens and sanctuaries in Afghanistan could prove detrimental to the military’s on-ground operations against the outfit.

The approach to engaging the TTP on the table and hoping to achieve long-lasting peace also had no historical dividends. Linking the current spate of terrorism with the failure of a ceasefire with TTP shows the historical myopia of the policymakers. Previously, five peace negotiations with TTP ended in failure and a return to violence. If history is any lesson to go by, the possibility for the failure of the recently failed negotiation, sixth on the list, was already astronomical. However, it is not only the negotiations that are normatively faulty, in the words of Zahid Hussain, “the ambiguity around the terms of negotiations has made the talks extremely controversial.”

The mistrust between the security managers and the local anti-TTP forces also proved detrimental to the public perception of state policies. Writing for Dawn, Huma Yusuf drew on the centre-periphery debate, arguing that there was a lack of conviction within the centre to take decisive action against the rising incidence of terrorism. Despite continued calls by the peripheral masses, the reason for such a lack of action was that “those opposing the TTP in recent years — particularly from the erstwhile tribal areas — are perceived to be tangential, rather than an intrinsic part of the national whole.”

Public flak has long been ignored by successive governments, especially on matters related to security. However, Muhammad Amir Rana in his article published in Dawn highlighted a complex phenomenon of public opinion against the negotiations with TTP. He opined that it was shocking that only a handful of APS victims’ families protested against the negotiations. No outcry from the public or the mainstream political parties, except PPP and ANP due to their own experiences, accentuates the negative consequences of the ideological narrative of holy jihad propagated by the state.

However, public outcry was not muted all over the country. The peripheries and cities experiencing decades of violence and military operations were extremely vocal about their displeasures and apprehensions. Massive rallies were carried out in Swat and other parts of erstwhile FATA, against the terrorists as well as military operations. These anti-terrorist and anti-military operations protests highlight the apprehensions of the general public toward possible military actions.

Despite these demonstrations, the announcement of another military operation by the NSC was absurd. Soon after the announcement, a Twitter trend #NoMoreOperationsAccepted was trending within the country. The aforementioned demonstrations and such Twitter trends highlight the disconnect between the people and the state’s security managers. Irrespective of the peripheral masses’ refusal to accept any more operations, even the political parties in the coalition government have shown apprehensions toward the military operation.

The cold shoulder by the Afghan Taliban over TTP; multiple failed negotiations; missed opportunities to disassociate them ideologically; and various internal strategic miscalculations along with bad policy choices have resulted in the continuation of terrorism and extremism within the society. Pervez Hoodbhoy was apt in highlighting the strategic miscalculations carried out by the state’s security managers in defeating terrorism. He aptly points out that policies like Good-Bad Taliban, helping Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in Kabul, and releasing hardcore TTP terrorists as confidence building for negotiations have resulted in grave consequences for the country’s security.

Despite the apprehensions of the locals and the mainstream political parties, considering a military operation to root out terrorism will further alienate the masses in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and erstwhile FATA. Instead of another military operation, a comprehensive social policy based on economic development rooted in the true aspirations of the people of the country would go a long way in defeating extremism and terrorism within society.

Note: This article appeared in Tribune, dated 20 April 2023.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.


IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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