Students have returned to classes at the Army Public School in Peshawar, one month after the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) carried out the single worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, leaving 150 dead, most of whom were young children. In a country as horror-hardened as Pakistan – where over 55,000 lives have been lost since the global war on terror unfolded in 2001 – such a devastating tragedy was still unimaginable – even after the head of the TTP, Mullah Fazlullah ordered the death of a young Malala Yousafzai for her efforts to support education.  The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif quickly responded to the groundswell of shock and fury against the TTP and introduced comprehensive policy changes, while the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif doubled down on Zarb-e-Azb, the successful military operations in the north which the TTP sought to counter with the attack on children of serving army personnel.

As leadership reacts, the most poignant question begging attention is the possibility of a real, across-the-board counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaign finally coming into realisation. Essentially, Pakistan’s civilian leadership cannot afford to concede this moment to terror, and the stated policy changes must be adequately implemented and enforced in order to garner credibility. Furthermore, Pakistan’s military can no longer separate its military exercises every few years in the north to the extremism that functions with startling impunity throughout the mainland. Can this moment signal a new phase in counterterrorism not just for South Asia, but for the Islamic world writ large, which struggles with some variation of terrorism in all its corners? To be frank, it simply must.

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The Pakistani army has enjoyed widespread public support and respect since the inception of the country in 1947, yet Operation Zarb-e-Azb began in the summer of 2014 with a confused public conversation about the offensive. The crucial narrative required to bolster actions by armed forces was sorely lacking – to be sure, the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali spent most of their political capital out of the election gate in failed negotiations with the TTP. Talks carried on, even as the TTP launched attack after attack, exposing a weak civilian framework by continuing to negotiate with an enemy of increasing strength.  It was only after the horrifying attacks on Karachi airport that the government concluded talks and the military operations began.

The TTP must be taken head on, with the full spectrum of Pakistani leadership engaged and invested in winning our own war. For this agonising moment to turn into a transformative one, the military that has so decimated the TTP as to have them desperately turn schools into battlegrounds, the operations cannot be just to flush out terrorists from the north only to have them gather, reboot and resurface elsewhere. Keeping in mind the TTP is an umbrella organisation of various Islamist militant groups that will certainly draw power from a chaotic, insecure border with a tumultuous Afghanistan, the state must work closely with Kabul to target and dismantle high-value targets who escape to Afghanistan, as Fazlullah himself has done.  As the military continues its operations, and cares for the almost one million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who await their chance to return to a home free of militancy, the focus remains on recapturing territory from the TTP and degrading enemy capacity.

 We have seen exemplary leadership from General Raheel Sharif: in the hours after the attack on APS Peshwar, he visited Kabul to meet with President Ashraf Ghani and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander General Joseph Dunford seeking to extradite TTP Chief Fazlullah. Since the attack in Peshawar, the military has ramped up air strikes and ground operations in North Waziristan and in the Khyber tribal areas, killing over 2,000 militants along with the hundreds who have voluntarily surrendered since the summer.

 Truly sustaining the writ of a state capable of protecting its citizenry requires civilian-military leadership to create internal clarity about the strategic endgame, and the role of each institution. The proverbial table must be set with firm commitments to target the Taliban indiscriminately, and go after banned sectarian and extremist outfits throughout the nation.

It is in this arena where strategic focus will be required of civilian leaders of all stripes. The Prime Minister was correct to chair an All-Parties Conference that resulted in the formation of arguably the most comprehensive National Action Plan.  Its key elements include lifting the moratorium on capital punishment for convicted terrorists, the granting of overdue powers to the anti-terrorism organization NACTA, committing to the development of a wide-ranging policy regarding Afghan refugees.

Pakistan faces much more than a tactical crisis. Perhaps, then, the most crucial aspect of the national action plan for definitively countering extremism is the stated actions to be taken against hate speech. The sinister ideology of extremism – the foundational warped piety that justifies the acts of terror – must no longer be granted any space or allowed to masquerade as an accepted perspective of intellect. The pledge to act against extremist sentiment in literature, newspapers and magazines must be energetically enforced, because that remains key to not just waging a successful counterinsurgency but also tackles population support a future challenge to the state may attract in the name of Islam.

As it stands, Prime Minister Sharif’s promise against extremist messaging requires bold feats from an administration that granted the TTP esteem with months-long negotiations and thus, granted them overt legitimacy. A popular analytical point of view during this time was that the state was differentiating between “good Taliban and bad Taliban.” What is needed now is a zero-tolerance mantra reinforced in an institutionally supported, multi-pronged strategy that partners with civil society to succeed at a two-fold mission: to challenge the narrative that roots violent acts in the peaceful religion of Islam and retake the public sphere from those who valourise terror. Lack of action on this fundamental point would not only seriously undermine the capacity of the state, it would call into question the Prime Minister’s political will to confront terror and can possibly cost Pakistan an opportunity for a decisive course correction.

Candlelight vigil in London for the victims of the Peshawar school attack

The aspect of the action-plan that received the most attention was the creation of military courts for a period of two years to try and sentence terrorism suspects. Considering the military’s history of political meddling, the idea caused visible uneasiness in the polity and concern for possible abuses. Yet the shortcomings of the judicial system as it currently stands led the National Assembly to approve the creation of these military courts. A weak police force, and the very real intimidation and threats of violence faced by witnesses and judges in cases of terror account for the lack of success of anti-terrorism courts (ATCs) thus far.  The military courts, which can legally exist for two years, grant the civilian law enforcement – the first-responders to urban terror – the short but crucial amount of time to enhance their intelligence and operational capacities. A successful strategic endgame means effective counterterrorism efforts have been shouldered in the urban theater, and policing power bears the brunt of this responsibility. The country’s appalling inability to resource, train and protect its justice system leads to the lack of convictions that have made the military courts a necessity in the crisis mode Islamabad now faces.

The fact that military courts are tasked with meting-out justice to terrorists, a role that also falls into the purveyance of civilian law enforcement is just one example of the integration required across key institutions. With over 55,000 victims lost to terror – both civilian and military – it is clear that the enemy does not discriminate. The need of the hour is to publicly state who and what the enemy is, and to fatally challenge their capabilities – both tangible and existential – by structuring the role, scope and functions of various stakeholders invested in securing a lasting peace. Wise leadership would recognise the threat terror wields over the present – and that the future necessitates a more enfranchising system that goes even beyond the Pakistani state and army. Yet it all must begin with clarity and coordination from internal leadership.


Image 1: Asif Hassan-AFP, Getty

Image 2: Kashif Haque, Wikipedia

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