EDITORIAL: The government’s attempts in recent days to quell the misgivings regarding the contours of Operation Azm-e-Istehkam haven’t entirely answered some very valid questions raised by relevant stakeholders. Amidst the vociferous opposition expressed against the operation by the PTI, JUI-F, ANP and the provincial authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the government had initially clarified that the counter-terror campaign would not be along the lines of the kinetic large-scale operations carried out in the past nor would it lead to mass displacement of people.

It would instead largely focus on intelligence-based operations (IBO) to “decisively root out” the crime-terror nexus and violent extremism. Following on the heels of this clarification, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has now stated that as part of this campaign, Pakistan could also strike terror havens in Afghanistan, whose soil has been used to shelter terrorists who routinely raid our territory.

Both these statements have done little to clearly specify the scope and contours of the operation. On the one hand are assurances that this is not going to be a large-scale military campaign, and on the other, the defence minister has indicated the possibility of a military initiative that will actually go beyond our borders.

Those apprehensive about the government’s ability to uphold its promises that this campaign will not upend the lives of millions have reason to be anxious, as any military operation that could encompass a cross-border component inherently carries significant risks and uncertainties.

Most apprehensions that have been expressed centre around the possibility of mass displacement of local populations, especially in areas close to the Afghan border in KP and the erstwhile tribal areas, where memories of the misery and dislocation that millions endured during past such campaigns, especially during the 2009 Swat operation and the 2014 Operation Zarb-e-Azb, are still fresh.

Moreover, the aftermath of these operations saw less-than-satisfactory attempts at rehabilitating displaced populations back in their homes and half-hearted reconstruction efforts of destroyed infrastructure.

Given this history, it is understandable that those belonging to the areas that will be most impacted by any counter-terror campaign will be unwilling to lend support to such an initiative without more concrete assurances and clarifications around the extent and scope of the operation.

Without the local populace buying into and taking ownership of anti-terror initiatives, their success will remain doubtful. As has been argued in this space before, the need to take parliament into confidence and calling of an All-Party Conference is fast becoming essential before opposition to the military operation becomes even more hardened.

While any opposition to Operation Azm-e-Istehkam on account of political point-scoring must be avoided, the authorities must realise that genuine disquiet and fears have been expressed, and these must be laid to rest. They must answer some important questions that have arisen: what measures will be taken to ensure the safety of citizens and vital infrastructure as well as protect people from dislocation; how will the effective rehabilitation of areas that could be impacted by the operation be ensured; furthermore, if this operation is going to largely revolve around IBOs, as the government claims, how will these be any different from the current efforts that are ongoing against terror outfits, as the present counter-terror approach in place also appears to centre around IBOs?

Furthermore, there is a need for all stakeholders, including our political leaders, the military leadership and society at large, to introspect and ask themselves, why we need such operations after every few years and why have we failed to eradicate the terror menace once and for all? What else is needed, apart from military campaigns, to upend the environment that so readily breeds hate and incites violence? It is clear that honest answers to these questions as well as the public’s buy-in for the anti-terror campaign are the needs of the hour.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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