The new wave of terror attacks in Pakistan that has resulted in more than 100 deaths raise a number of questions about Pakistan’s war against terrorism. After a gap, during which it was assumed that the terrorist groups are on a retreat, the menace of terrorism has resurfaced in Pakistan. What is alarming is that despite numerous denials regarding ISIS’s presence in Pakistan by certain quarters, these attacks are claimed by Jamaat-Alaharar, an ISIS affiliated terrorist group. This also indicate that despite certain headway made in operation Zarb-e-Azb, terror groups in Pakistan are still capable of conducting devastating attacks and that the country’s war on terror is far from over. Yet, the most important question to consider is whether the political leadership of Pakistan ready to take the ownership of this war and develop a consensus on what exactly is Pakistan’s terror problem.
At least 75 people including women and children were murdered and more than 200 were injured in the latest terror attack on the shrine of a famous saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan in interior Sindh. According to initial police reports these victims included 43 men, 9 women and 20 children. This attack was one of the deadliest terror attacks in Pakistan in the last two years. Jamaat Alaharar, an affiliate of Dash or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) accepted the responsibility through its website Amaq. Earlier, a suicide bomber attacked a rally in Lahore resulting in at least 13 death and numerous casualties. Chief Traffic Officer Captain Ahamd Mobin and acting DIG (operations) Zahid Nawaz Gondal were among these who lost their lives in the Lahore attack. This attack was followed by another suicide bombing in the Mohmand agency in which a government building was targeted. In yet another attack, government employees in Peshawar were targeted. Prior to the Sehwan attack, police were apparently the main target of the terror attacks. Lahore Capital City Police Officer Amin Wains talking to the media reportedly said that the main target of the suicide attack in Lahore were the senior police officers and not the protestors in the rally. The Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and an affiliate of ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on Sehwan. This is not the first time; it has targeted Pakistan. Last year, it claimed responsibility for two of the deadliest terror attacks in Balochistan: on the police training school and the civil hospital in Quetta that killed at least 75 and wounded many more. Pakistan Army’s spokesperson and director general Inter-Services Public relations (ISPR) General Asif Ghafoor responding to these terror attacks accused the hostile powers behind these attacks. In his twitter feed, he stated these “terrorist” attacks were executed on direction from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. He declared” “We shall defend and respond.” Pakistan closed the Pak-Afghan border until further notice stating security reasons.
Islamabad’s terror week raises a number of questions: Islamabad especially the Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan have in many statements denied the existence of ISIS in Pakistan. Would these attacks result in accepting the reality of the existence of ISIS in Pakistan? The only plausible explanation that this scribe could think of regarding his statements is that ISIS as it exists in Iraq and Syria etc. does not have a presence in Pakistan in the sense it has in these countries. In Pakistan, local terror groups use the name of ISIS. While this explanation or understanding, if it is correct, might have some veracity to it but it demonstrates a lack of understanding of how these terrorist organisation works. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are brands, anyone can join them and conduct attacks under their name as far as these attacks are credited to them. A number of local terror groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have expressed their allegiance to ISIS: Jamat-ul-Ahrar is prime amongst them and along with LeJ represents ISIS in Af-Pak region. These attacks also point that despite significant headways made in the on-going Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a lot still needs to be done. At the federal level, the National Action Plan (NAP) that was worked out after the 2014 attack on the Army Public School (APS) remains unimplemented. Critics of NAP consider it an overly ambitious and rather generic document. The same goes for the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA). NACTA was established as the primary organization responsible for counter terrorism activities. It is functioning just in name and lacks necessary resources and financial capacity to operate properly. Reportedly, half of its budget was cut during the current fiscal year. However, the most important point is that the political leadership of Pakistan, policy influential and opinion makers have to take the ownership of this war against terrorism. They generally hold the view that Pakistan’s army has the main responsibility for fighting terrorism. It seems that the country’s political leadership has yet to acknowledge the existence of the threat, and are unwilling to go beyond their political agendas to address it. This war that needs to be fought on multiple fronts: ideological, military, social and political, cannot be won unless the political leadership of Pakistan sets its priorities straights. Police has a major role to play in this war against terror. The political leadership needs to prioritize what is more important and they need to rise above political point scoring. What is the point of using police to enforce ban on valentine day activities and crack down on youngsters who still try to celebrate it? What is a bigger threat to Pakistan’s national security: valentine day celebration or terrorism? Unless this prioritization is done and a clear and target oriented policy is worked out, terror attacks in Pakistan would, unfortunately, continue.
Rizwan Zeb is consulting editor of Pakistan Review. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK; visiting scholar India-South Asia Project, Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, USA. He holds a PhD from University of Western Australia. He also studied at Gordon College Rawalpindi, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan and the Uppsala University, Sweden.