IPRI – The Islamabad Policy Research Institute

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Tackling Terrorism: Time is the Essence!

While international focus is on bracing up for post 2014 Afghanistan, recent spiralling terrorist attacks have propped up a national contingency for us—tackling 2014 Pakistan. imagesUnrelenting events of terrorism have weakened the pro-dialogue constituency and have strengthened the hawkish school of thought that sees ruthless use of force against terrorists (read Taliban) as the only solution.  The headline grabbing attacks have reignited the lingering controversy over whether Pakistan should respond to the TTP menace by fighting or talking. Endemic violence in Pakistan’s urban centres signifies the challenges confronting the federal and provincial governments in restoring and consolidating the state’s writ even in urban areas. It appears that the governments stand confused and clueless as to: Where to start from? How to proceed ahead? And what are the end objectives?  The government is certainly running out of time; its lethargy is foreclosing the option of dialogue even before it could begin.

It appears that terrorists are ahead of state and government. However, these are not Taliban alone that have turned this country into present disorder, as the criminals within the country and also the foreign intelligence agencies are at work and exploiting the situation. Current session of National assembly is expected to take important decisions with respect to the way forward. Government should not fall victim to tunnel vision and attribute everything to Taliban. Government needs to counter terrorism on multiple fronts.

National and international media is strengthening the already snowballing perception about an impending full-scale military action against militants in various parts of the country—especially in North Waziristan. However, strategic environment does not support a wholesome and protracted operation. Hence any such operation is likely to be limited in scope and duration, to be followed by a renewed effort for talks. Some analysts are of the view that the country’s militancy issues would be resolved once the US and its allies exit Afghanistan. They may have a valid point, but it does not mean that government should, till then, remain hands off viz-a-viz protection of life and property—even in urban centres. It is a sorry state of affair that since the beginning of 2014, not many days has passed without a terrorist event of one type or another.

When the new government came into power, it had unanimous backing of all political elements and military leadership that gave it a free hand to form a strategy for countering the menace of terrorism; it chose dialogue as first option. images (1)In all sincerity, all segments of state and society went along the idea of talks with Taliban. However, as the clock ticked by, and government lost precious seven months, the consensus has weaned out and the issue, once again, stands politicised. Government is still struggling to cobble together a national policy. Even essential back-ground work has not gone into establishing the parameters like identifying the real dialogue partners and bandits, and putting forward at least a ball-park framework for negotiations. Political leadership does not have unlimited time at its disposal; every lost day means collecting more dead and injured  persons, additional loss of public and private property and reinforcing the aroma of perpetual insecurity for a typical ‘man on the street’.

During the previous ten days or so, Pakistani and Afghan Taliban entities have demonstrated their motivation and capability of hitting high value as well as routine targets at the time and place of their choosing. In Pakistan a speeding suicide bomber detonated his bomb at a checkpoint close to the General Headquarters. On the same day, Afghan insurgents tried to fight their way into a NATO base near Kandahar. Beside this incident, Afghan insurgents also claimed responsibility for a suicide assault on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul in which 21 people, including 13 foreigners, were killed. Anxiety is running high, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, about whether the end of US-led combat operations in Afghanistan this year will create even more violence and instability on both sides of the border. A recent US intelligence report warns that many of the military gains made in recent years could be lost by 2017. In another development, President Karzai has linked signing of Bilateral Security Agreement to American negotiations with Taliban.

Taliban are keeping their options open. images (3)Taliban are aware that nation’s patience would not last indefinitely and eventually someone is going to say enough is enough. That is why alongside acts of terrorism, they are articulating their willingness for “sincere and meaningful talks” as well. Though TTP has claimed responsibility for most of recent attacks and has vowed to continue such attacks, its spokesman Shahidullah Shahid has recently said, “We are willing to hold talks even at this stage but the government is not sincere… We also long for peace and are willing to explore all options if that benefits the people of Pakistan”. In the same stride, Qari Shakeel Ahmed Haqqani, the TTP’s political shura member said, “A ceasefire is a two-way process…You expect us to cease attacks when the government is continuing its operations in FATA and in the cities… We are prepared for a ceasefire but the government must first announce a ceasefire from its side.” However, if sincerity means that government should halt all military actions in the tribal areas even as the TTP itself continues its campaign of violence throughout length and breadth of the country, then this is certainly an untenable position.

It is indeed mind boggling that 12 years into the war, our law enforcing entities have serious capacity and capability shortfalls. Terrorist outfits continue to be intelligence black-holes. Inter agency coordination is inadequate and our approach towards countering terrorism has not graduated beyond day-to-day fire fighting—it is reactive rather than proactive.  National consensus is missing on vital issue as to ownership of war as well as a tenable exit strategy.  There is certainly a need for purpose raised anti terrorism force with appropriate vision, training equipping and skills. Shortage of life saving kits and flawed judicial process leading to acquittal of apprehended terrorists due want of evidence have certainly affected the morale of the personnel of law enforcement agencies.

Leaving aside the foreign dimensions, there is a need to confront and neutralize the internal factors contributing towards perpetuation of terrorism in Pakistan—in the form of maintaining at least a semblance of law and order in urban centres. Neither talks nor use of force in isolation are likely to work; it will indeed have to be a delicate combination of the two.

Pakistan is confronted with elusive, imprecise and omnipotent terrorism— not confined to Taliban alone. There is no doubt that government is serious in establishing peace and is in no way ready to call off dialogue process. Dialogue and negotiated settlement favour the national interest. Present situation demands serious and prompt actions from the national leadership.

The government needs to take charge and generate appropriate response. Even though time is the essence, given the complexities, nobody expects the government to solve internal security issues any time soon. However, demonstrating strong and clear intent is the need of the hour. Jockeying between appeasement and punitive strikes is radiating messages of confused thought process and lack of political will. A meaningful message should immediately be sent to the terrorists that the government has the will and power to eliminate them, should they continue to practice terrorism. Starting point could be denying space to terrorists in urban areas and zero tolerance of terrorist activities in settled areas.

Disclaimer:  Views expressed are those of the writer, and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

{ Carried by The nation on Jan 28, 2014}

 

Author

Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal is Consultant Policy & and Strategic Response at IPRI. He is on the panel of experts for Spearhead Research and Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. He is a member board of advisers of Opinion Maker and member National Academic Council, Institute of Policy Studies. He is on the visiting faculty of Quaid-i- Azam University, Islamabad. He is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.

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