How serious is Pakistan about fighting terrorism?
This week Conflict Zone meets Pakistan foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz. He says terrorist incidents have fallen, but with deadly attacks nearly every week, is the country really coming to grips with extremism?
"The total number of incidents in the last two years are down by 70 percent. And if that is not good progress, I’d like to see any country which has achieved that much success in such a short time against terrorism," Sartaj Aziz told Conflict Zone.
Aziz is a former director at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and foreign minister and now serves as an adviser on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He sat down with DW’s Tim Sebastian to discuss the volatile situation in his country.
"We have suffered a lot because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and then 9/11. So these are global faultlines that are trouble to us. But we have now managed to break the backbone of the infrastructure that terrorists had built … So they don't have the same capacity to launch attacks."
Operation Zarb-e-Azb aimed to clear the militant stronghold in North Waziristan on the Afghan border
That terrorist ‘backs are broken’ has been a regular refrain from military and political leaders in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Sharif repeated that line in June 2016 on the second anniversary of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in which Pakistan deployed tens of thousands of soldiers after an attack at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.
Aiming to destroy terrorist strongholds in North Waziristan, Pakistani officials claimed to have killed 3,500 terrorists and hailed it as a success.
However, in December 2016, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson accused Pakistan of offering sanctuary to terrorist groups targeting Americans in Afghanistan, a charge denied by Mr. Aziz: "I don’t think we give them sanctuaries. What is the meaning of sanctuary? There were sanctuaries in our tribal belt after 9/11. And those have been destroyed."
Supreme Court inquiry
Authorities in Pakistan have also come in for criticism from the country’s own institutions.
Set up in the wake of attacks in Quetta in August 2016 which killed more than 70 people, a Supreme Court commission inquirycondemned Pakistan’s national counter-terrorism agency (NACTA), the country’s intelligence services and the government.
Confronting Mr. Aziz with the findings of the report, Tim Sebastian said: "Your Supreme Court doesn't feel there's much to celebrate. It says you pass laws but you don't enforce them."
Sartaj Aziz: "Well, we don't celebrate. We are just saying that we are now turning the corner in terms of breaking the back of terrorists because we have broken their infrastructure which was in the tribal area. Secondly, we have launched a combined operation with the military to snake out those which are still there. And obviously the remnants are scattered all over the country."
The report cited a "monumental failure to combat terrorism" and included criticism of Pakistan’s interior minister for meeting with leaders of banned organizations.
On this criticism, Aziz said: "I don't think it amounted to anything that deserves the sacking of the minister. I think the minister for interior has done a very good job in a very difficult circumstance … Everywhere else the incidence of terrorism and the resultant death toll is increasing, in Pakistan it has gone down."
Mr. Aziz denied Tim Sebastian’s suggestion that the situation could, however, flare up again in Pakistan at any time: "It won’t flare up [on] that scale. There are isolated incidents here and there."
But recent attacks have brought further pressure on the government to act and bring into question the plausibility of the administration’s line that it has ‘broken terrorist backs’.
In mid-February Pakistan suffered its most deadly attacks since 2014. At least 112 people were killed in several incidents over just a few days, including 88 deaths and hundreds wounded in one attack by a suicide bomber at a shrine in the southern city of Sehwan.
A team collecting census data were apparently targeted in an attack in Lahore which killed at least six people
An attack in Lahore on 5 April also claimed five lives and apparently targeted personnel involved in carrying out the first national census in the country in two decades.
As well as providing an up-to-date head count and collecting data on faith groups and ethnic communities, the census could result in changes to electoral constituencies and the share of finances received by its provinces.
Having long been stalled by political strife, 200,000 soldiers will be deployed to accompany 118,000 civilians tasked with collecting census data.