Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have surged following a series of terror attacks all across Pakistan in recent days. The military in Pakistan has pledged “no restraint” in its fight against extremism in the aftermath of these attacks. Authorities in Pakistan maintain that the recent attacks were planned and coordinated from within Afghanistan. “Recent terrorist acts are being executed on directions from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We shall defend and respond,” said the Pakistan military’s media wing in a statement. Reportedly, hundreds of Afghan nationals have been arrested in the wake of recent terror incidents. Moreover, Pakistan also claims to have carried out military strikes against the sanctuaries of various militant groups based in Afghanistan near the Pak-Afghan border.
Domestically, Pakistan has launched a countrywide combing operation and reportedly more than 400 suspects have been apprehended due to the operation. The newly launched combing operation is expected to target militant sanctuaries in South Punjab.
There are growing institutional linkages between militants from Pakistan’s tribal belt and Punjab-based sectarian outfits. A number of militant outfits that fled the country in the wake of Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations more than two years ago have reportedly extended their influence to sectarian organizations working in southern Punjab.
A series of combing operations reminiscent of the one currently underway have been launched previously. However, all of these combing operations have proven to be a kneejerk reaction to terror incidents, rather than operations with a clear strategy. Pakistan’s “post terror attack reactive measures” have become quite predictable now. There is always a high-level security meeting in reaction to terror incidents that ends with promises of punitive measures against terrorists of all sorts. The provincial government in Punjab has on many occasions promised to act against militant outfits based within the province. However, despite these assurances, there has been little action beyond rounding up the usual suspects. What is also predictable is that it’s just a matter of days before the media frenzy surrounding the recent incidents, families’ reported grief, and national bitterness recedes and, with it, so do any promised punitive measures.
At the strategic level, there exist many loopholes in the government’s counterterrorism strategy. One of the main issues concerning this problem deals with the political stakeholders’ apologetic attitudes toward conservative religious groups, which are not only part of networks that are deepening the country’s ideological divides, but also challenge the state’s writ in the streets every day. While the government in Pakistan has tried to find scapegoats in Afghanistan to shift the blame away from the country’s borders, the government’s tolerance of Islamist extremists, or supporters of radical theocratic Islam, is only undermining the country’s moderate Muslim voices.
A few months ago, the federal government in Pakistan presented Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi a peace award. Jhangvi won Punjab’s Jhang district’s by-election after running a vicious election campaign on a sectarian basis where he openly declared that “Shia are infidels.” After winning the election, Jhangvi joined another far-right religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F). While the JUI-F is part of the government, it has openly confronted the government’s efforts to regulate madrassas (religious schools) and vehemently opposes any change to the country’s blasphemy laws.
Adil Arshad of the School of Education at the Forman Christian College University believes that giving such an award only reflects “a mismatch and mocks the heritage which the award carries.” “It encourages the pro-extremist narrative while compromises the effectiveness and credibility of the government’s any counter-measures in this regard,” he adds.
After the attack in Lahore last week, a local television channel in Pakistan invited the head of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a banned organization, to discuss the country’s counterterrorism policy. During an hour-long discussion, the banned organization’s head recommended that the government should release all captured Taliban leaders, for such measures would only aggravate the threat of terrorism in Pakistan.
Moreover, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), which, along with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed the majority of recent attacks, has announced the launch of “Operation Ghazi” in the honor of a cleric, Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, who died in the 2007 Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad. The Lal Masjid’s leadership, which has openly declared its allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), has on many occasions called for the enforcement of sharia law in the country.
In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri killed Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, for defending a Christian woman over the issue of blasphemy. Qadri’s arrest and his eventual execution last year have been widely condemned by the conservative Islamic parties while mosques and streets have been named after him in his honor. His act has been applauded with titles such as “Shaheed” and “Ghazi.” The violent expression that militant groups such as the JuA, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and ISIS have adopted takes inspiration from the passive support of conservative evangelists with whom the government in Pakistan seems to collaborate.
While Pakistan needs to develop better cooperation with Afghanistan to deal with the two countries’ common militant threat, Islamabad cannot afford to look away from its domestic militant challenges, which span beyond tactical and operational challenges.
The so-called combing operations currently underway and the mostly random arrests in response to terror incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. The deepening ideological divides in the country pose a real challenge, and Pakistan’s leadership needs to prepare on a war footing.