Terrorism is a double-edged sword, which targets not only innocent people but also destabilises a society. Although the recent suicide attack at a mosque in Peshawar’s red zone was not of the same scale as the terrorist attack at Army Public School (APS) in 2014, it was still a horrific incident. Countless lives could have been saved had there been a plausible and effective exit strategy from the menace of terrorism in Pakistan. After every terrorist incident, the state responds with pledges and action plans, APEX committee meetings and All-Parties’ Conference but fails to rein in those groups who are responsible for plunging Pakistan into violence and terrorism. Efforts such as the National Action Plan or the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Pakistan have failed to yield any results.
Pakistan became a battleground following the launch of Afghan Jihad to combat Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1978. Initially, Pakistan offered support and shelter to Afghan groups fighting against the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. But, soon after, the country began experiencing violent tendencies within. Terrorism gained legitimacy due to the state’s failure to eliminate those parties and groups by either being complacent or involved in patronising the culture of Jihad.
Back in 2014, the state claimed that it will show zero tolerance against terrorism. However, the attack in Peshawar shows the government’s incompetence in dealing with Tehrek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangwi, Tehrek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and other groups. Even mainstream religious parties like Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulmai Islam pursued a policy of appeasement against the aforementioned violent groups, which further provided them with the space to destabilise the Pakistani state and society through their ceaseless acts of terrorism. A professional exit strategy from the scourge of terrorism should have been a fundamental priority for the state authorities but the reality on the ground is different.
An exit strategy from terrorism was never a consideration for the state of Pakistan because it lacked the political will, determination, clarity, competence, and vision to effectively deal with forces that have been using Islam to either seek power or a privileged status in society. The absence of a credible and effective strategy to combat terrorism has deepened the influence of insurgent groups who have extraterritorial affiliations. Most terrorist incidents have targeted innocent civilians and there is only a momentary hue and cry, but soon things are back to normal.
Following the APS attack, the military launched operations ‘Zarb-e-Azab’ and ‘Rad-ul-Fasad’ but they had meagre results. Will the military launch another anti-terrorist operation with a different name? It means the ‘musical chair’ to counter terrorism in Pakistan will continue without any positive results.
From a scientific and pragmatic point of view, an exit strategy to counter terrorism would require three major steps in the short and long run. First, the roots of terrorism need to be cut, which include intolerance, extremism, militancy, the radicalisation of youth and violence. Rhetoric and superficial measures under the cover of the National Action Plan and NACTA will not eradicate terrorism because this will not eradicate the symptoms and causes of terrorism at the grassroots level. An exit strategy from terrorism would also require promoting normal behaviour in society instead of preaching a dogmatic and ultra-conservative way of life under the name of religion. The threat and menace of terrorism will remain unless a normal, moderate and enlightened culture is promoted particularly at the grassroots level. For that matter, the education system in Pakistan must be restructured so that the goal should be the pursuit of knowledge, moderation and enlightenment should instead of preaching hate, intolerance and chauvinism against non-Muslims.
Things could have been different had we addressed the mindset that killed the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Zygfryd Wolniak and three Pakistanis on November 1, 1970. During the interrogation, the culprit, a PIA truck driver Mohammad Feroze claimed that he killed the Polish delegate because according to him killing communists is justified in Islam. When the mindset is poisoned in the name of religion, the outcome is intolerance, extremism, militancy, violence, and terrorism.
Second, the rule of law would require zero-tolerance against a mindset, which justifies the use of violence. Rule of law means that law enforcement agencies and the justice system must be efficient and professional. The menace of terrorism cannot be defeated when the courts and those responsible for maintaining law and order are inefficient and corrupt and when arrested and convicted terrorists are released due to weak prosecution. Terrorism has permeated Pakistani society due to widespread acceptance and appeasement of those elements who openly preach hate, anger and violence against minorities and all those who do not want to conform to their mode of Sharia. Pakistan is fast becoming like Afghanistan where the close-minded and brutal rule of the Taliban targeting women, minorities and all those who are against their mode of governance continues unabated.
We must learn the lessons from previous acts of terrorism and prevent security lapses and show zero tolerance towards those who justify the use of violence. Had the state of Pakistan not given space to groups and political parties using Islam for political purposes, the country would have been safe from terrorism.
Finally, an exit strategy from terrorism requires a holistic and multidimensional approach. Law enforcement agencies, judiciary, and political parties must adopt professional counter-terrorism strategies. But how can there be a paradigm shift in counter-terrorism when incompetence, corruption and lack of accountability remain a stark reality in state institutions? When the system of prosecution is weak and terrorists are not awarded harsh and timely punishment by courts? In this situation, how can one expect the elimination of terrorism from the country?
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2023.
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