Pakistan’s unfinished war on terror

Pakistan cannot wipe out terrorism through hard-core military operations in tribal areas as more and more people in urban and metropolitan centers are getting drawn to extremist ideology. University campuses, for example, are becoming breeding grounds of various forms of terrorism. Hence there is need for a broader anti-terror strategy 

While Pakistani officials continue to make upbeat assessments about the success of military operations against the Taliban based in FATA (federally administered tribal areas), neither is this operation based on a thoroughly considered de-radicalization strategy nor is the success of the operation an outright victory against the various forms of terrorism Pakistan is facing.

The success of Pakistan military's anti-terror drive in FATA region is not a sign that militancy is on the wane

The success of Pakistan military’s anti-terror drive in FATA region is not a sign that militancy is on the wane

Most important of all, the presence of religiously inspired extremist thought in Pakistan’s top ranking universities has not only been not considered important enough to be countered but has also been completely left out of the much-celebrated and talked about National Action Plan (NAP). Hence the question: how far can Pakistan go in countering terrorism through hard-core military operations?

Pakistan’s military operation in FATA region, which is a part of NAP, is reaching its final stages as the strategists claim a clear-cut victory based on a crude calculation of the number of terrorist incidents taking place in Pakistan since June 2014 i.e., the beginning of this operation. Were numbers to be taken as the ultimate indicator of success, we would be tempted to leave out of our scope the qualitative aspect of terrorism i.e., radicalization of certain sections of the society and the imperative of reversing it.

Fewer attacks in a given period of time do not necessarily indicate a long-term success. On the contrary, it can also suggest a dangerous trend i.e., dislocation of the locus of terrorism from one center to the other. In the case of Pakistan, it has moved and continues to gradually move away from FATA, or rural areas, to the sub-urban, urban and even metropolitan centers.

Some recent cases clearly suggest this pattern. For instance, a student of Punjab University allegedly not only told authorities at a disciplinary hearing that he considers slain Taliban chieftains Nek Muhammad and Baitullah Mehsud to be his leaders, but that he intends to avenge their deaths in drone strikes.

It should be mentioned that this phenomenon is not something new. Omar Sheikh, an Al-Qaeda operative, remains one of the most notorious private-school educated militants in the country`s history.

Combating extremism and militancy on campuses will therefore prove a formidable challenge. For one, the state itself appears to have underestimated the problem. The NAP drawn up in December 2014 rightly identified the need to reform and modernize madrassas (Muslim schools that are often part of a mosque), but there was no mention of universities in the mainstream.

Neither does NAP mention universities as important targets for fighting radicalism nor is religiously inspired radical thought the only form of terrorism that can be explicitly observed in Pakistan’s campuses. Indeed, ethnic tension and ethnically inspired violence continues to surface in many forms.

One such incident took place in Punjab University of Lahore during the recently held Pakistan Super League (PSL) when Lahore’s team was beaten in a cricket match by Quetta’s. Students from Quetta were attacked and beaten up by the students from rival ethnic gang for celebrating this victory.

This small episode indeed reflects Pakistan’s major problem i.e., ethnic diversity and related ethnic tension between the dominant and the suppressed ethnic groups. What is more important to note here is how this conflict is being played out inside university campuses which are supposed to be avenues of intellectual development of the youth.

Another episode taking place in Pakistan’s top-ranking university indicates how the locus of terrorism may not just be located in rural areas. It was only a few days ago when students of Quaid-i-Azam University called a strike against alleged infiltration of Jamat-i-Islami’s (J.I.) student wing organization.

Although the strike was called off after an agreement was reached between students and the management, the case does indicate how significant the question of youth radicalization is becoming with the passage of time.

Already the University of Punjab, Pakistan’s second best university, has been largely plagued by the presence of J.I.’s student wing, which is particularly notorious for its opposition to co-education and teaching of progressive ideas.

While the case of J.I.’ alleged infiltration in Pakistan’s top-ranked university does indicate the presence of avenues of terrorism and radicalization, students’ resistance points to how this menace can effectively be countered.

Pakistan’s anti-terrorism strategy therefore not only suffers from serious shortcomings but is also very limited in scope and effectiveness. Certainly, there are numerous cases that can be cited to illustrate how universities, both public and private, are turning into breeding grounds of various forms of terrorism.

The anti-terror strategy therefore has to widen its scope. On the external level, Pakistan needs to re-frame its relations with the Afghan Taliban. Unless Pakistan does so, the Taliban sympathizers cannot be countered on and off campuses.

Internally, Pakistan has to move well beyond deployment of troops in certain areas and the safe return of the ‘internally displaced people’ to their homes.

However, while Pakistan’s top-strategists’ framing of success against terrorism rests solely on military gains and consolidation thereof, the question of just how to fight off radicalism off the battle fields in FATA remains unanswered and largely unaccounted for in the official circles.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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