Terrorism, elections, and geopolitics
Pakistan has just experienced another bloody wave of terrorism ahead of the general elections. Last week, more than 170 Pakistanis lost their lives when three different elections rallies were targeted in the provinces of KP and Baluchistan. In these unfortunate terror attacks, two prominent nationalist leaders, ANP’s Haroon Bilour and BAP’s Siraj Raisani, embraced martyrdom. The suicide attack on BAP’s election rally in Mastung was the deadliest among these attacks which alone claimed more than 140 lives. This is also the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan since the tragic 2014 APS Peshawar incident. This wave of terror apparently aims at sabotaging the upcoming general election in Pakistan. In fact, there have been certain intelligence reports that some anti-Pakistan international forces would try to sabotage the scheduled general elections in the country. Secretary Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also expressed his similar concerns about the upcoming polls while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Interior two months ago.
ISIS (Daesh) has claimed the responsibility for the recent terrorist attack in Mastung. This Middle Eastern terror organization is also considered responsible for a number of other major terror attacks in Pakistan, namely the 2015 Karachi bus shooting, 2017 Sehwan suicide bombing, 2017 Quetta military truck attack, and 2017 Quetta church attack. Similarly, ISIS also claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Pakistani consulate in the Afghan city of Jalalabad in 2016. Though the Islamic State has no significant organizational presence inside Pakistan, it has succeeded in establishing a foothold in Afghanistan. Indeed, this development in Afghanistan is a matter of serious concern for Pakistan. Reportedly, Pakistan also hosted a ‘secret’ meeting of the heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran in Islamabad last week. This quadrilateral spy chiefs’ meeting discussed the counter terror cooperation while particularly focusing on the build-up of Islamic State in the volatile Afghanistan.
A typical blame game is usually played after every major terror incident in Pakistan. The civilian government is severely criticised for the insufficient or non-implementation of National Action Plan in the country. ‘Security lapse’ and ‘intelligence failure’ are alleged in a knee-jerk reaction. At the same time, the institutional capacity of our security and civilian law enforcement agencies to tackle terrorism is also openly questioned. So we observed similar things after the series of recent terror attacks in the country. In fact, no intelligence agency in the world can precisely anticipate and pre-empt every single terror attack. Similarly, every terrorist attack is not necessarily a result of security lapse. Indeed, it is not humanely possible for any country to secure every nook and cranny against all potential terror attacks.
Pakistan’s domestic counterterrorism policy includes a number of kinetic military actions (Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, IBO’s, Combing Operations etc.) besides some preventive measures in the form National Action Plan. There is a visible reduction in the intensity of terror incidents in the country as a result of Pakistan’s domestic counter-terror measures. However, these measures have yet not succeeded in completely eliminating this menace from the country. As a matter of fact, a hostile Afghanistan, sharing more than two thousand Kilometers long but porous border with Pakistan, is currently posing the greatest threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Most of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan are planned in Afghanistan under the very nose of anti- Pakistan intelligence agencies. Therefore, the provinces of KP and Baluchistan have been more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Pakistan is also an important component of the US “China containment policy” since the CPEC, a flagship project of China’s One-Belt One-Road (OBOR) initiative, is just situated in Pakistan. The US is currently playing a game of run-with-the-hare-and-hunt-with-the-hound in this region in the name of War on Terror. In fact, the broader US strategic interests have somehow converged with India’s security doctrine in this region. Therefore, we can observe both ‘strategic partners’ jointly calling the shots in Afghanistan to the disadvantage of Pakistan. It is a fact that militancy has mushroomed in Pakistan since the US invasion in Afghanistan.
Afghan government has officially confirmed the death of TTP chief Mullah Fazal Ullah. He was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s remote Kunar province last month. He was the most wanted terrorist in Pakistan who has been hiding in Afghanistan for many years. This instant killing of Mullah Fazal Ullah in Afghanistan would trigger a bloody backlash in Pakistan ahead of the general elections. Therefore, this US move is not being viewed so positively by many in Pakistan. Probably, now the terror organization TTP is going to be replaced by ISIS in Afghanistan to achieve some similar strategic goals in the region with an improved strategy.
Considering Afghanistan and Pakistan a single war theatre, the term “AfPak” has been coined by the US military strategists and formulators of foreign policy. Now The Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been established in the US to safeguard the US broader strategic Interests in both countries. Probably influenced by this US geographical division, the Islamic State militants have also recognized Afghanistan and Pakistan a single region- “Khorasan”. Therefore, Afghanistan and Pakistan are now the ‘Area of Responsibility’ of ISIS-Khorasan.
ISIS is trying to establish and consolidate its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2014. Omer Khalid Khorasani, the chief of Jamaat-ul-ahrar (a splinter group of TTP), pledged allegiance to ISIS many years ago. He was entrusted with the task of organizing ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He established close links with anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities inside Pakistan. Former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan has also revealed that he received medical treatment in India after sustaining injuries in an attack in Afghanistan. In May this year, the US just actively blocked Pakistan’s move at UN Security Council Sanctions Committee to designate Khalid Khorasani as globally recognized terrorist.
In December last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally announced that Iraqi forces had driven the last remnants out of the country. Earlier, ISIS had lost the strategically important cities like Mosal and Fallujah in Iraq, and Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria. It is a fact both the US and ISIS have been having a common strategic goal in Iraq and Syria i.e. the containment of Iran and pro-Iran elements in addition to topple the Assad regime in Syria. Thousands of Islamic State militants, who have fled Iraq and Syria, are likely to be given new ‘assignments’ in the AfPak region. Therefore, Pakistan needs to be cautious and careful.
It is really unfortunate that while the country’s enemies were busy in spilling the blood of Pakistanis in Mastung and Bannu on Friday, there was a coup-like situation at Lahore airport to arrest former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The city of Lahore was paralyzed by the law enforcement agencies to stop PML-N supporters from reaching the airport to show solidarity with their convicted leader. These extraordinary arrangements to apprehend a single person, who was already arriving in Pakistan to surrender before the law, was absolutely uncalled-for.
The prolonged civil-military tension in Pakistan has badly impaired the country’s ability to actively face terror-related geopolitical challenges in the region. The military in Pakistan seems to have focused on the domestic politics rather than the geopolitics. So, there is a perception that it is trying to punish ‘internal enemies’ instead of countering our external enemies. In order to nip terrorism in the bud, Pakistan seriously needs to evolve a comprehensive external strategy in the region in addition to its current domestic counter-terror manoeuvring.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.