Pakistan OKs Military Cross-border Ops Against Terrorists; Experts Say Pakistan Needs Counter-Narrative

Irshad Salim (MAMOSA Report) — Pakistan’s civilian government has reportedly authorized the army to conduct cross-border strikes against terrorists based in Afghanistan on its west and north-west.

“This is a clear-cut decision of the government, and the military is authorized to take action within the country or across the country, that where there is terrorism, they will have to take action,” said Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to VOA News.

Some have questioned whether the government in Islamabad is going too far including the wisdom behind launching more military operations without launching a holistic counter-narrative against extremism, sectarianism and bigotry.

Sen. Shahi Syed of Pashtun-dominated ANP party told Voice of America’s Deewa service that “Terrorism needs a joint approach by both the countries. Pakistan should take care of terrorists on its soil first and then go somewhere else.”

But Michael Kugalman, Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said it isn’t quite that simple.

He said extremist groups are plotting attacks from Afghanistan, “But their enablers and suicide bombers are still people in Pakistan. Pakistan (also) has an extremist environment where schools, religious leaders and some journalists promote the extremist ideologies. It provides the environment to induce suicide attackers and terrorists.”

There has been a new wave of terror attacks in Pakistan which has shaken the country’s leadership– the army has launched a fresh counter-terrorism offensive called “Radd-ul-Fasaad,” an Arabic word that translates roughly to “elimination of discord.” But experts say that instead of more military operations, Pakistan needs a change of narrative.

For over a decade now, Pakistan has been grappling with Islamist militancy. Just ten days ago, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a rally in Lahore and killed more than 13 people.

On February 16, a jihadist affiliated with the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” terrorist group attacked one of the most beloved Sufi shrines in the southern Sindh province, killing more than 90 people.

Although attacks perpetrated by militant Islamist groups are not a new occurrence in Pakistan, but prior to the first Lahore bombing there had been a relative lull in violence in the country — after operation Zarb-Azb undertaken by the former army chief Raheel Sharif who retired in November.

Zarb-i-Azb was launched against jihadist outfits across the country after the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar in December 2014, massacring over 140 children.

Gen. Sharif’s successor General Qamar Javed Bajwa has vowed to continue with the military action against jihadist organizations. After the attack in Sehwan on Lal Shahbaz Qalander’s shrine last week, he launched “Radd-ul-Fasaad”, an offensive which appears to be more serious and wide-ranging than his predecessor’s. China on Friday supported the Operation saying, “China understands and supports necessary measures taken by Pakistan to consolidate its position in counterterrorism operations and maintain domestic security for the safety of its people.”

For the first time, a military drive covers the central Punjab province, of which Lahore is capital, which is seen by many as a recruiting ground for extremist groups fighting the state and aiding insurgents in Afghanistan.

The province had previously remained immune from such action by paramilitary forces, in contrast to army’s aggressive role in other provinces.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been reluctant to allow the military to operate in Punjab – Pakistan’s most populous province and also the premier’s political stronghold – for the reason that it would prove his administration’s incompetence in dealing with the issue. Some analysts also say that some members of Sharif’s Muslim League party have close ties with banned Islamist organizations and that is why he didn’t want the army to interfere in the province.

“It is safe to assume that a year ahead of likely general elections, the governing PML-N was apprehensive of the repercussions if the Rangers targeted any of its members or allies in extremist religious parties whose support it deems vital to a win in the crucial, numerically superior Punjab,” wrote Abbas Nasir who is former editor of Pakistan’s most influential English newspaper Dawn.

But the deteriorating situation forced the government’s hand as inaction was not an option anymore. “The government would also have been reassured that the army command was now in the hands of a man it sees as apolitical and so gave the go-ahead,” Mr. Nasir added.

“The good thing about General Bajwa’s ‘Radd-al-Fasaad’ is that it will focus on the Punjab province, which has been spared by other army chiefs. Punjab is a major breeding ground and a supplier of militants to Sindh and Baluchistan provinces,” Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani analyst and senior journalist, told DW, adding that Pakistan needs internal cohesion as well as the support of the international community to put an end to a violent insurgency that has severely harmed the country.

“To me, a larger battle will be the one to somehow move society to a ‘live and let live’ state from the current intolerant, even bigoted, environment,” Nasir wrote.

The analyst underlines that in the past, the army, too, didn’t want to include Punjab in its anti-terror campaign because most of its cadre comes from the province. Despite several US demands that Islamabad acts against Punjab-based jihadist groups, the military generals had obstinately refused to comply, Farooqi pointed out.

Security experts say that one of the reasons behind the recent surge in violent attacks in Pakistan could be the apparent change of the military establishment’s policies. But rights groups are of the view that military operations alone will never eliminate militancy from Pakistani soil. For that, they say, the state has to adopt a narrative that does not support jihadism.

According to them, a rapidly increasing presence of “Islamic State” in Afghanistan and Pakistan could threaten the stability of both the countries — Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the whole region. Military operations won’t resolve the conflict as long as a jihadist narrative exists in South Asia.

It could even rankle the 56-billion-pound elephant at our doorstep. Pakistan’s prime minster said Friday there’s no threat to CPEC from US or the West, but some ‘regional powers are not happy.’

“It is (therefore) incumbent, then, on those who are elected to step forward and make sure that Quaid-i-Azam’s plural Pakistan is a reality…no military operation can achieve that,” the former editor wrote in his op-ed today.

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