The myth of operations

Action against elusive radical groups requires more than military raids

The myth of operations
It is difficult to trace how the word ‘operation’ entered our national lexicon. It comes possibly from the colonial heritage of military jargon, when the proud sons of the soil were part of Operation Braganza and Operation Lightfoot, against the greatest threats to the homeland – Hitler and Rommel.  Another connotation could be the tenuous hope the citizens felt while ambling the corridors of Mayo Hospital outside the operation theatre, praying for the gora doctor to pull some impossible miracle. The comparison between operation theatres – where lives are saved – and the theatres of war – where lives are lost – must have been amusing for them.

Decades later, operations are the ‘in thing’ once again. They are seen as a cure for most of our ills. From the shores of Karachi to the peaks of Kashmir, from the dry Baluchistan hinterlands to the green valleys of Swat, there is hardly an area in Pakistan that is not subject to operations. Amid televangelist hysteria, these operations ‘are in full swing’, as the favourite expression goes. It is about time Punjab got its own.

A close look at the rationale of standard counter-terrorism operations however belies the hype.

“The natural aim of military operations is the enemy’s overthrow,” according to Carl von Clausewitz, the influential military theorist. “Since both belligerents hold that view, it would follow that military operations could not be suspended until one or other side were finally defeated.” In cases where two parties are engaged and neither can withdraw, the operation is a natural outcome. Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban is a natural consequence of the intransigence by an armed group which was holding on to territory. TTP’s actions had taken the form of an insurgency, as they engaged in asymmetric warfare against the state and its functionaries.
Even the flashpoints of South Punjab don't have any no-go areas

But pure military operations have evolved into comprehensive, or composite, or civil-military operations since World War II. Operations are now launched for cessation of hostilities during conflict as well as for post-conflict stabilization. Their aim is to clear, hold, and build the territory held, captured and destroyed during conflict. This entails significant civilian involvement from the onset. This approach was also used in by the CO-IN (Counter Insurgency) strategy crafted by the US General David Petraeus with mixed results. This hybrid approach is also an attempt to adjust to the skewed nature of counterterrorism measures when forces are trained and equipped for low-intensity warfare. The state and its apparatus are in the grey space of counterterrorism when there are no obvious belligerents but seemingly unassuming and undetectable citizens who don’t appear on the scene until they strike.

Punjab has borne the brunt of terrorism like any other part of the country, and terrorist groups have attracted recruits from its towns like any other part of the country. But Punjab is not like other parts of the country when it comes to the presence of terrorist outfits. The area stretching from Attock to Rahimyar Khan is freely accessible and well in control. Even the flashpoints of south Punjab don’t have any ‘no-go areas’ or territories that need to be claimed back. With a homogenous population and negligible migration, the region doesn’t pose challenges like that of the diverse, and multi-ethnic urban metropolis Karachi. The tri-province hub of Katcha poses sporadic challenges and disturbances for law-enforcement, but these are mainly from criminal elements using tribal or clan linkages.

The pro-operation school points towards extremist seminaries churning out radical students used for terrorism. But that hardly necessitates combat type operations. An operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad had the messiest possible consequences. The law enforcement mechanism is still shaken by the severe blowback caused by a negative public narrative. The seminaries with radical mindset are known, and many have political affiliations. A stringent madrassa registration and monitoring regime is certainly needed, with a crackdown on extremist syllabus and hate speech. But the efforts to stem radicalization have always hit a wall because of pandering to the same radical elements that need to be reined in.  These elements have proven to be resolute and resilient so far. Most of those rounded up for hate speech after the beginning of the National Action Plan (NAP) were back on their pulpits in a matter of days.

The clamour about the operation in Punjab is positive in one sense – it shows a desire among people to root out the menace of terrorism. But an operation is practically against a group holding on to some territory and engaged in hostilities on everyday basis. Terrorism is the greatest and gravest threat to our society, but it is drawn from varied elements, providing varied logistics services, using technology and safe havens under the radar. Any field operation against an ephemeral, fleeting target, such as a secret group, is more symbolic than anything else.

A counterterrorism ‘operation’ should essentially be an exercise in prevention and investigation, using threads form incidents and mapping the social networks involved in terrorist attacks. This requires coordination amongst all stakeholders at the provincial and federal level, against the groups who operate underground in the mazes of digital and physical alleys. Visible action, with a mobilization of force, may be good for public morale, but it will bear fruit only once the elusive masterminds of terrorism are brought to justice.