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The Quetta Attack Exposes Pakistan’s Misplaced Counterterrorism Priorities

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The Pulse

The Quetta Attack Exposes Pakistan’s Misplaced Counterterrorism Priorities

Pakistan cannot afford complacency in its counterterrorism efforts.

The Quetta Attack Exposes Pakistan’s Misplaced Counterterrorism Priorities
Credit: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons

The suicide bombing in Quetta, Pakistan earlier this week that killed at least 70 people and injured more than 100 was one of the most despicable attacks reported this year in Pakistan. It’s the deadliest such attack to date against the Pakistani lawyer community, which has been targeted by terrorists for some time. The attack took place as a group of lawyers gathered to grieve the death of Balochistan Bar Association (BBA) President Bilal Anwar Kasi, who died in a gun attack earlier in the day.

Just minutes after the attack, Balochistan’s chief minister, Sanaullah Zehri, claimed that the attack was orchestrated by the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). In Pakistan, incidents of terror are often blamed on RAW or any other foreign intelligence agency that the country’s leadership considers hostile.

A few hours after the attack, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA), a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS), took responsibility (separately) for the attack. Moreover, JA was also behind the Lahore park bombing that killed 75 people in March and the Bacha Khan University attack in Charsadda that killed more than 20 people in January.

What is particularly shocking about the Quetta attack is JA’s ability to carry out the bombing on a gathering that only came together just hours after the death of a senior lawyer. The shooting of BBA’s president that took place earlier in the day may have also been planned by the group. The motive might be to provoke the city’s lawyer community into protest in order to carry out the bigger attack. In both cases, the intent of maximizing the number of causalities is evident.

What is more worrying is that JA’s bombings are not indiscriminate (targeting random civilians); rather the attacks carried out by the group appear to be meticulously planned, suggesting that the militant outfit’s ability to penetrate Pakistan’s soil and attack at will remains intact.

After the attack in Quetta, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif ordered a nationwide combing operation to target militant sleeper cells. The newly ordered “combing operation” is reminiscent of a similar order that was issued by the military chief after the Lahore attack, promising to eliminate all “no go areas” in Punjab. The fate of the Punjab operation is before us: the highly anticipated military operation vanished only weeks after targeting some low-level bandits in the province’s badlands, leaving behind the province’s sectarian militant base, with known leanings towards the Islamic State, untouched. One wonders how this latest order will be helpful when the two-year-long vicious hunt has not produced desired results to date.

Moreover, bizarre statements released by the country’s top leadership after the attack also reflect how regionalized and politicized Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts are. The problem is not just with a general inefficiency in tackling such threats, but also with the selective implementation of the National Action Plan, a 20-point nationwide counterterrorism strategy.

For instance, JA’s attack in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, which killed scores of innocent people, was defined by the country’s top civilian and military leadership as an attack by the “enemies of the country” on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The group’s earlier attacks in Punjab (Lahore park bombing) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Bacha Khan University) were not linked to any regional projects.

However, what is often ignored by the country’s leadership and remains overlooked is the deepening inter-provincial bickering concerning CPEC’s implementation, which is likely to cast a shadow on the project. With the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan forging alliances with Islamic State, terrorist threats for Islamabad are only going to get worse.

The fact remains, however, that in order to avoid blame and to disguise incompetence, the strategy of pinning the blame on foreign countries has been adopted by the Pakistani leadership as an ‘easy way out.’ Rather than wasting time and resources on petty point scoring vis-à-vis other states, Pakistan needs to address all militant threats on a war footing.

While terrorist groups – local or foreign – who are bent on destroying the country’s peace should be dealt with by iron hands, the habit of buck-passing and blaming others for internal political and security problems will not help in resolving these important security issues.

Lastly, regardless of the significant reduction of terror attacks in the country, as long as militants retain ability to carry out bombings even after protracted gaps, instability will continue to loom large on Pakistan.