Peshawar Suicide Attack Calls For Review Of Afghan Policy & Bolstering Counterterrorism Capabilities

Peshawar Suicide Attack Calls For Review Of Afghan Policy & Bolstering Counterterrorism Capabilities
The scourge of terrorism has returned with a vengeance, a stark reminder of the tenuous security foundations over which the edifice of our national security is erected.

According to Italian extremist ideologue Carlo Piscane, an act of terrorism is “propaganda by deed”. The worst deed in this violent propaganda has today taken more than 95 precious lives in an attack on a mosque in the heavily guarded Police Lines at Peshawar. Now what does that propaganda seek to exploit today in Pakistan?

The suspected perpetrators of the attack i.e. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) make no bones about their objectives. They wish to replace the current constitutional and political system of Pakistan with a Shariah based system as per their obscurantist understanding of religion. The TTP, a UN designated terrorist organization based in Afghanistan, wish to be dry cleaned of their heinous crimes through a blanket amnesty, and want the state to roll back the merger of tribal districts with KP into the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Senior TTP sources Omar Mukaram and Sarbakaf Mohmand have confirmed that the dastardly attack on the mosque was carried out by their fighters. After Operation Zarb-e-Azb, 3,400 terrorists mainly from the TTP were killed by Pakistan Army at the expense of 488 invaluable sacrifices, including the lives of our officers and soldiers.

After being pushed out of their last bastion i.e. North Waziristan, the TTP sought sanctuary in Afghanistan along with their families. It was hoped that after the Taliban took over Kabul, the TTP would not be allowed to launch attacks against Pakistan: a hope in congruence with the UN Resolution 2593, which stipulates that all countries are responsible for preventing use of their soil for terrorist activities. The Taliban had also given an undertaking to the international community in the Doha Accord, that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used for attacks by terrorist groups against any country.

What happened after Taliban’s takeover was the release of 2,400 hardened TTP militants from Afghan jails. The TTP, being ideological kinsmen of the Afghan Taliban, received 'kid glove' treatment by the Taliban for two reasons. One was ideological affinity and the oath of fealty of TTP to Taliban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada. The other is the fear of TTP joining hands with ISKP against the Taliban.

The economic meltdown in Afghanistan, and the refusal of international community to bail out the Taliban, have also contributed towards the Taliban regime’s lack of control over non-state actors operating from Afghan territory. Taliban 'look the other way' while their own fighters collude with criminal elements like TTP and indulge in cross border criminal activities in return for remuneration, since Taliban do not have money to pay to their fighters' salaries.

Afghanistan has again become a black hole of crime and terrorism that the international community was so scared of. Continued international isolation and economic insolvency are also not helping matters. The environment in areas bordering Pakistan-Afghanistan border is now ideally suited to terrorist forays against Pakistan from secure sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Diplomatic engagement with Taliban to rein in TTP did not yield any dividends, other than gentle nudging of TTP towards negotiations with Pakistan during 2021-22.

The TTP-Pakistan peace negotiations commenced in November 2021, after a one month cease fire during the PTI government’s tenure. Even then, there was criticism by intelligentsia, public and media circles over peace talks with a terrorist entity.

Talks with TTP continued well into 2022 until they finally foundered on the rocks of TTP’s truculence. The killing of TTP leader Omar Khalid Khurasani on 6th August heralded the de facto end of the futile exercise, and the TTP reverted to its violent ways, formally revoking the ceasefire in September 2022. During 2022, a 28% spike in terrorist incidents was witnessed compared to the previous year.

As per reports, some 500-600 TTP militants infiltrated Pakistan, exploiting the window of opportunity during the PTI government's peace parleys. These militants soon started making their presence felt through their old tactics of intimidation, kidnappings and extortion in newly merged tribal districts and in Swat. These activities elicited a vociferous response from the people, who viewed this recrudescence of violence by militants as a harbinger of another reign of terror in their towns and cities.

For the first time, an interesting new phenomenon was observed in these erstwhile insurgency and violence-wrecked areas. This phenomenon was at first wake up call for the state, as the people were in no mood to permit the state to enter into a menage á trois involving a hapless population, militants and the government. The scars of the reign of terror and the memory of 83,000 deaths was enough for the people to resent the return of the terrorists.

The development was a godsend for the state, as the rage of the public against TTP will be a strong enabler in draining the swamp for the elimination of the terrorists. The ambivalent KP government of Chief Minister Mahmood Khan remained confused about the policy direction vis-a-vis TTP, partly due to lack of clarity about dealing with TTP. The policy hiatus and ambivalence resulted in lowering of the counter terror vigilance posture of the CTD apparatus of police in KP.

Despite valiant individual efforts by daring policemen risking their lives in the line of duty, a concerted effort as a government priority was lacking.

The over-reliance on Pakistan Army for counter terrorism operations for over a decade had created a dependency syndrome within the country's civilian counter terrorism apparatus. When the army 'sanitized' the region and decided to hand over the newly merged districts to the civilian government, it found that the civil administration, police and judicial apparatus of the province was not ready to take over the 'newly sanitized' areas.

Despite heavy presence of paramilitary Frontier Corps and full support of national intelligence agencies, training and deployment of police in newly merged districts could not be ensured. The lackadaisical response of provincial government to take over the newly merged districts, and to develop a robust counter terrorism apparatus, is the main reason of the terror recidivism in KP at present. Governor KP stated on a TV channel that the past KP government had not “taken even a single step towards countering terrorism in right earnest”.

The takeover of a CTD compound in Bannu in December 2022 by incarcerated terrorists should have been a serious wake up call for the KP government. It was an egregious failure on part of provincial CTD force to guard a compound holding 33 dangerous terrorists unprofessionally. When the few CTD officials at the facility were overpowered by the terrorists using the arms stacked inside the compound, SSG special forces had to be called in to storm the compound and eliminate nearly 25 terrorists during an extremely risky operation.

Why has the provincial counter terrorism capacity not been built up, is a question worth asking from the provincial government that takes great pride in its political autonomy after 18th Amendment. There were rumours of TTP cadres raising revenue through extortion (bhattas in local language) right under the nose of intelligence and law enforcement apparatus of the province. There is a need for a stock taking and accountability of those who overlooked such prohibited activities by the militants.

At federal level, there is a need for better intelligence coordination through a Joint Intelligence Council (JIC) which should collect, collate and share intelligence regarding terror threats with federal and provincial CTD organizations. NACTA should be utilized as a federal counter terrorism coordination agency that should coordinate policy response at national level, utilizing the inputs from the Joint Intelligence Council.

NACTA, however, should not be burdened with the responsibility of executing counter terror operations for which local police and counter terrorism departments should be the leading agencies. The CTD organizations of police at the provincial level should be fully resourced and strengthened, and they must operate based on accurate intelligence inputs from JIC coordinating a network of intelligence agencies in the provinces. Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps should be utilized in counter-insurgency and border security roles, as per their mandate.

Due to the multidimensional nature of terrorism a “whole of nation” counter terrorism approach needs to be adopted wherein civil society, media, clergy, and political parties need to agree on a coherent national counter terrorism narrative. Casting lone furrows by individual organizations would not win this war against terrorism.

An epistemic war has to be declared against terrorism and its drivers like extremism, with zero tolerance for sympathizers and apologists of terrorists. The fourth wave of religious terrorism that subscribes to an apostasy narrative – justifying killings of fellow Muslims – needs to be countered through preventive as well as curative remedies. Preventive remedies include assuagement of politico-economic deprivations and mapping of a “human deprivation mosaic” to identify potential breeders of militancy. The external support structures sustaining militancy also need to be identified and eliminated.

The asymmetry of will should never be allowed to be tilted in favour of terrorists. The national will to survive and lead normal lives in a peaceful environment is the strongest bulwark to the depredations of TTP terrorists. The country's religious leadership also needs to step up and condemn the apostasy doctrine nourishing TTP ideology.

The state should henceforth display zero tolerance towards any variant of extremism domestically, with strong monitoring of religious seminaries and mosques preaching hatred. The fire and brimstone elocution from pulpit should be controlled, like it is done in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malaysia and Turkey. The hatcheries of terrorism and extremism need to be deprived of their support structures as a matter of national priority.

There is a need to revisit the National Action Plan (NAP) and take stock of the steps not implemented, especially the modifications in the criminal justice system and enhancements of provincial and local counter terrorism forces.

Nations that are serious neither mollycoddle terrorists nor pussyfoot on hard decisions. When the British found the IRA terror too hot to handle, they resorted to extreme measures. These included non-jury trial courts under “Northern Emergency Provisions Act 1973”. The judges of “Diplock Courts” could sentence terrorists expeditiously based on evidence presented by police while staying incognito as per law. The best police officer of Great Britain was appointed to head the counter terrorism organization in Northern Ireland, while keeping the army in reserve as a backstop. When people saw IRA militants being punished as ordinary criminals by a police led counter terror force their mystique and fear was eliminated, leading to erosion of public support.

The result was a loss of will on part of IRA to fight the state in Northern Ireland, leading to the political settlement now known as the “Good Friday Agreement”. The political agreement was a consequence of a robust counter terror response by a resolute state leveraging special police and judicial means. Nations that are resolute always win their wars against terrorists.

It is worth introspecting whether we have the will to modify our criminal justice system to fight this war. The present judiciary also needs to cooperate with state by ceding some of its peacetime powers in the interest of expeditious trial of TTP terrorists challenging the state’s foundation upon which our justice system rests.

Pakistan has come through worse crises than the present wave of terrorism. What is needed is a consistent and coherent “whole of nation” counter terrorism response through utilising all elements of national power. On the counter terrorism policy front, the state should plan clearly, organize optimally, apply consistently, and execute resolutely.

Take the battle to the terrorists instead of being the passive recipients of the violence, even if it entails unpopular decisions and an overhaul of the national counter terrorism apparatus.

The writer is a PhD from NUST and Director Islamabad Policy Research Institute.