ANALYSIS: New trends in counter-terrorism óDr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
The next two months will show if Pakistanís civilian and military authorities will exert more pressure on Punjab-based militant groups and ensure that they do not force a foreign policy situation on Pakistan in its interaction with India
The completion of the Malakand security operation and initiation of a new security operation in South Waziristan represents a turning point in Pakistanís efforts to deal with extremism and terrorism. There is a widespread view in official and non-official circles that the security forces will also succeed in South Waziristan, which would be a major achievement in Pakistanís drive against terrorism.
The new counter-terrorism policy stands out on four major counts.
First, the army and the paramilitary have demonstrated that they have the commitment and capability to deal effectively with the Taliban and their allies. In the past, the army was periodically criticised for lacking the determination to fight the Taliban because, it was alleged, the army viewed them as a Ďstrategic assetí and thus took action against them half-heartedly and gave them enough space to survive. The other criticism raised doubts about the armyís counter-insurgency capacity. These criticisms have now been set aside by the security operations in Malakand and South Waziristan.
Second, the civilian leadership and the top brass of the military are now unanimous in their view that the Taliban and their allies are the major threat to Pakistanís internal harmony and stability. In addition to the federal government, the ANP-led provincial government in the NWFP is also on board for the on-going security operations.
Third, the civilian leadership made a conscious effort to mobilise popular support for the security operation against the Taliban. This effort has been quite successful, and has boosted the morale of the army and paramilitary personnel fighting the Taliban. Major political parties support the security operation; the exceptions are Islamist parties and Imran Khanís PTI. A large number of societal groups also extend support to counter-insurgency. The mediaís tone has also showed significant change ó from varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban to support for the security operation.
Fourth, the security operation has helped to rehabilitate the armyís image at the popular level. Around 140 army personnel, including officers, have been killed in the Malakand operation, which has won popular sympathy and appreciation of the efforts of the army. The role of the Pakistan Air Force, which has been actively involved in the security operations, has been equally appreciated.
The shift in the orientation of the key institutions and leaders of the Pakistani state towards Islamic militancy and how to cope with it is a remarkable development. In the past, the Musharraf government lacked unity of mind on countering terrorism The same could be said about the military/intelligence agencies that were not fully convinced about the total elimination of militancy, especially the Taliban.
The Islamist MMA government in the NWFP, 2002-2007, was supportive of the Taliban and allowed them to expand their influence to settled districts of the province. The Musharraf government ignored such activities because it needed the MMAís support to sustain his rule. When the army went into Swat to control Taliban activity, the MMA government refused to grant permission for a full-fledged security operation. The Army got greater freedom of action in Swat after the exit of the MMA government in 2007.
The real shift came in March-April 2009 when the Taliban got fully entrenched in Swat and the efforts of the NWFP government to defuse the situation by agreeing to implement a sharia-based judicial system failed. The Taliban viewed this as a weakness of the government and expanded their domain to Buner, thereby mounting more pressure on the civilian and military authorities in the area and elsewhere.
Further, violent incidents in Lahore, like the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team and the attack at a police training school, perturbed both military and civilian authorities. Several violent incidents including suicide attacks took place in other parts of the country, especially Punjab. In the first 100 days of 2009, twenty suicide attacks caused 332 deaths.
These developments threatened the writ of the state in unambiguous terms. The civilian leadership was left with no choice but to stop the Taliban onslaught or let them take control of more and more territory, which would have opened their way to overwhelming the Pakistani state.
The top military commanders came to the conclusion that the militant groups were threatening the primacy of the army as the key security institution. They felt that the Taliban and their allies would have to be checked in their bid to grab more Pakistani territory.
These developments also improved the Pakistani stateís credibility at the international level. The United States was already asking Pakistan to adopt a tough policy towards the Taliban and other militant groups.
By mid-April, tough action against the Taliban had become Pakistanís own imperative. Had the Taliban and their allies not over-played their hand in Malakand and not stepped up their activities in Punjab, civilian leaders and the army top brass would have continued with their ambiguous disposition towards militancy.
Discussions between the president, prime minister and army chief produced a consensus among them to take a firm action against the Taliban and their allies. The NWFP government was also on board for this decision.
The security operation in Swat was initiated on April 26, although its formal announcement was made by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on May 6. Since then there has been no going back on the part of the federal government and the army top brass on counter terrorism.
The key decision makers in Pakistan ó the president, the prime minister and the army chief ó regularly consult each other on counter-terrorism. They held three meetings on July 1, 4, and 7 for winding up the Malakand operation and initiating a new operation in South Waziristan. The Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee also met the president on July 7. They issued public statements from time to time in support of the security operation for popular mobilisation and to boost the morale of the troops.
It is however difficult to suggest if the top civilian and military leadership has come to a similar decision regarding the militant groups based in Punjab, who are known for violent activities in Indian-administered Kashmir and mainland India. Some of these groups have Islamic-sectarian orientations and function exclusively within Pakistan. The recent incident in Mian Channun shows that militancy is deep rooted in the province.
It seems that these groups are no longer favoured by Pakistanís security and intelligence authorities. These have been put on hold because the army is busy in the tribal areas and does not want to open a new front in mainland Pakistan. Further, it does not want to seen as taking action against these groups under Indian pressure.
The Punjab security and intelligence apparatus is now targeting activists of these organisations and monitoring the madrassas that have a reputation for militancy and maintain links with the Taliban. This effort is aimed at destroying their networks, isolating them and discouraging recruitment.
The next two months will show if Pakistanís civilian and military authorities will exert more pressure on Punjab-based militant groups and ensure that they do not force a foreign policy situation on Pakistan in its interaction with India. If the role of these groups is neutralised, it will be possible to argue that Pakistanís counter-terrorism policy has made a historical shift.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst