Just over two years since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, last month’s suicide attack in Mohmand Agency – killing 36 worshippers on a Friday afternoon – is an unkind reminder of terrorism’s moving finger. However, rather than serving to jolt the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz government out of its counterterror stupor, the aftermath of the attack has only driven home the fact that the noise from our collective response to endemic violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) continues to be dulled by two worrisome tendencies: urban bias and counterterror triumphalism. Both are deeply problematic.
Federal apathy towards the loss of lives in the attack in Mohmand Agency is an indicator of the challenges facing the state, as political parties begin the difficult task of bringing Fata into the political, legal and constitutional mainstream. This detachment must be reversed, if only to ensure that expressions of collective anger towards terrorist attacks do not continue to be biased towards terror that strikes in urban centres alone.
The government should also take note of the fact that the vulnerability of the tribal agencies is only heightened by displaced families.
Secondly, as the army looks to consolidate its hard-won gains in Zarb-e-Azb, the state needs to urgently galvanise a national response against the Jamaatul Ahrar, which seems to be outperforming its Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) predecessors in lethality and reach, presenting a growing national threat to soft targets across the country. While Zarb-e-Azb may have downgraded the terrorist threat, a patchy application of the 20-point National Action Plan means that the enemy is far from defeated. With groups such as the Jamaatul Ahrar still able to choreograph attacks with impunity, questioning the state’s response to terrorism must continue to get space in the national discourse.
Part of an effective response will, of course, require greater coordination with Kabul, given the Jamaatul Ahrar’s operational subservience to the TTP high command in eastern Afghanistan. But there are other kinetic and non-kinetic options for Pakistan’s counterterror strategists to explore — beginning with a uniform application of the National Action Plan against militant groups across the four provinces, and re-examining counterterrorism strategy in vulnerable parts of the country. Pakistan must also do a better job at communicating its continuing fight against terror globally. Two years on, the country continues to single-handedly wage a difficult inland counter-insurgency operation with little international support. Continued attacks only serve to remind the world that the fight is far from over.
Furthermore, attacks that are a product of intelligence failures should be thoroughly probed: terrorist groups continue to misappropriate cellular networks and digital lines of communication, including cross-platform mobile messaging apps. The call for greater intelligence coordination or joint intelligence directorate is neither new nor groundbreaking, but ensuring this will form a critical pillar in Pakistan’s counterterror defence architecture. Pakistan’s schools, courts, mosques and churches, and other such soft targets are inherently vulnerable to terrorism. Intelligence sharing must be streamlined to circumvent terrorism’s force multiplier effect every time such soft targets are attacked.
The state needs to urgently galvanise a national response against the Jamaatul Ahrar, which seems to be outperforming its Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) predecessors.
The government should also take note of the fact that the vulnerability of the tribal agencies is only heightened by displaced families hoping to move back and rebuild their lives and livelihoods before winter sets in.
Finally, within the tribal areas, relying on the collective action of neighbourhood watch patrols against militants raises troubling questions about governance deficits in the hinterland. The Jamaatul Ahrar admitted the Mohmand attack was carried out in retaliation to such patrols, known as peace lashkars, that had been hunting TTP militants. This leaves the peace lashkars to fend for themselves (without adequate civilian and military support) and only risks putting more tribesmen and their families in the harm’s way. For their sake, the state must recommit itself to guarding its citizens.
This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a PhD student at Yale University.