EDITORIAL: The killing of four women vocational trainers in North Waziristan on February 22, 2021, an attack on their vehicle that wounded the driver but mercifully spared the fifth woman, has once again focused minds on the abiding terrorist threat even after the military operations in the tribal areas from 2014 onwards. Ironically, the gruesome incident took place on the fourth anniversary of the Operation Raddul Fasaad that the Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major-General Babar Iftikhar summed up in a press briefing on the day. Whether the timing of the attack was a coincidence or a deliberate tactic to send the message that the terrorists were still in business is not known, especially since there was no claim of responsibility. Just a day before, a night attack in the Shewa area ended with the driver of a vehicle killed and 10 people taken away. There have been unmistakable signs for some time in the tribal areas of an uptick in the targeted killing of civilians and deadly clashes between terrorists and security forces. Despite the DG ISPR’s claims of success in the anti-terrorist campaign, including 375,000 intelligence-based operations over four years to curb urban terrorism and dismantle the remaining militant networks, the caution by informed observers that the problem had merely been ‘exported’ rather than scotched is proving correct. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its splinter groups have found safe havens across the border on the Afghan soil. Fencing the border may have helped, but has proved insufficient to halt cross-border attacks altogether. Ominously, these groups have reunified in a Shura-i-Mujahideen, a process overseen by al Qaeda, according to a UN report. The report says TTP has been responsible for over 100 cross-border attacks in the period July-October 2020. Despite the military’s successes in counter-terrorism, the existence of sleeper cells left behind by the retreating militants cannot be ruled out. The security forces have claimed they have killed the key suspect of the attack on the women, Hassan alias Sajna, the very next day. But that success too cannot be taken as the last word on the subject.
The feel good factor of success against the terrorists in the tribal areas needs to be tempered by the realisation that the many-headed hydra of terrorism is still alive and kicking, despite severe losses. In the tribal areas, the presence of terrorists is evidenced by threats to music shop owners, barbers, etc., and warnings to women not to work with NGOs. This monster needs a sustained, multi-faceted, long haul approach to be defeated. Despite successes, our efforts apparently still fall short and need to be bolstered. Tribal elders friendly with the government, who could potentially mobilise the public against terrorists, are themselves prime targets, along with surrendered militants, NGOs and the security forces. In North Waziristan in particular, the situation is deteriorating to near where it was before the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014. One untried and possible option may be to use Pakistan’s influence with the Afghan Taliban to help quell the TTP. Whereas Pakistan has nudged the Afghan Taliban into talks with the US, the militants have not decreased their violence. However, perhaps they could be persuaded to help Pakistan achieve that in its tribal areas and border regions. Since the Afghan government is unable to control the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, perhaps the Afghan Taliban can assist, at least to the extent of denying the TTP its safe havens in the area. All this notwithstanding, Pakistan needs to carry out the uncompleted task of bringing its plethora of civilian and military intelligence agencies together on one platform to share data and intelligence in order to become more effective against terrorists. And not let down its guard or slip into the complacency and inertia that creeps into an inherently long, tedious counter-terrorism effort.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021