By Ajit Kumar Singh*
‘Revengeful’ and ‘regrouped’ terrorists are again on the rampage across Pakistan. During a span of just seven days (February 13, 2017 to February 19, 2017) Pakistan accounted for at least 205 fatalities [100 civilians, 21 Security Force (SF) personnel, 84 terrorists) in 22 terrorism-related incidents.
In the worst attack, on February 16, 2017, at least 88 civilians were killed and more than 343 were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a historic Sufi shrine in the Sehwan town of Jamshoro District in Sindh Province. The shrine, built in 1356, was dedicated to Syed Mohammad Usman Marwandi, better known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. This is the worst attack, in terms of civilian fatalities, recorded in Pakistan since the December 16, 2014, Peshawar Army Public School attack which resulted in 150 fatalities, including 143 civilians. Daesh (the Islamic State) claimed the attack.
On February 15, 2017, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a government office in the Ghalanai area of Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing five civilians. Another attacker was killed by the guards before he could explode his suicide vest.
On February 13, 2017, at least 14 persons, including eight civilians and six policemen, were killed and another 85 were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Punjab Assembly Building on Mall Road, Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. The attack was carried out during a protest by a large group of chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers opposing a Government crackdown against the sale of illegal drugs. The dead included Captain (Retd.) Ahmad Mobin, Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Traffic, Lahore, and Zahid Gondal, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Operations, Punjab Police. There was a significant presence of SFs in the area to manage the protest. The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for both the February 13 and February 15 attacks.
Earlier, on January 21, 2017, in the first major attack of the year, at least 25 civilians were killed and more than 87 were injured in a bomb blast at the Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market) area of Parachinar in the FATA’s Kurram Agency. In a text message sent to journalists, the al-Alami (International) faction of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ-A) claimed that it, along with the TTP-Shehryar Mehsud group, carried out the attack. The Shehryar Mehsud group did not independently claim the bombing.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since the beginning of 2017, at least 284 terrorism-related fatalities (141 civilians, 32 SF personnel, 111 terrorists) have been recorded across Pakistan (data till February 19, 2017). In just these 50 days, at least five suicide attacks have been executed, resulting in at least 112 fatalities.
The dramatic surge in violence during the early days of the current year is significant, given the fact that through 2016, Pakistan had managed to maintain the declining trend of overall fatalities, on year on year basis, since 2010, barring 2014. [2014 recorded 5,496 fatalities as against 5,379 fatalities in 2013]. There were 1,803 fatalities (612 civilians, 293 SF personnel, 898 terrorists) in 2016, as against 3,682 (940 civilians, 339 SF personnel, 2,403 terrorists) in 2015. The number of major attacks (involving three or more fatalities) and resultant fatalities fell from 322 and 2,923, respectively in 2015, to 172 and 1,369, respectively, in 2016. The number of sectarian attacks and related deaths also declined – 276 fatalities in 53 incidents in 2015, as against 131 fatalities in 33 incidents in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, on December 21, 2016, a buoyant Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Federal Minister of the Interior, claimed (inaccurately) that Pakistan was the only country where the terrorism graph had recorded a sharp decline. He further boasted, “I can say with complete responsibility that as of now no terrorist networks exist in Pakistan.” On the same day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had declared that there was no presence of Daesh in Pakistan. More recently, referring to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council on February 13, 2017, “This comprehensive approach has succeeded in expelling terrorist organisations from our territory and greatly constrained their ability to carry out lethal attacks, as evident from the dramatic decline in the number of such attacks, despite the cowardly attack in Lahore.”
These assertions were evidently premature and imprudent. Pakistan remains an extraordinarily dangerous place. Indeed, recent incidents demonstrate that several terror networks continue to thrive across the country, prominently including Daesh, JuA, and LeJ-A, among the domestically active formations, not to mention the many state-backed terrorist groupings that operate across international borders, into Afghanistan and India.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that the large number of TTP ‘commanders’ who were operating out of the tribal areas in Pakistan when the Operation Zarb-e-Azb [Sword of the Prophet] was launched and who had managed to cross over into the bordering areas of Afghanistan, have decided to come together and form a ‘united front’, joining hands with other terrorist outfits. These ‘commanders’ of rival factions of TTP were fighting each other to establish dominance in their respective areas of influence. In November 2016, leaders of eight terrorist groups held a meeting in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province for this purpose. Arranged by Yousaf Mansour Khurasani, chief of LeJ-A, the meeting was attended by Javaid Sawati, a close aide of former TTP ‘chief’ Mulla Fazlullah (who was killed in March 2015); Wajid Mehsud of Jandullah; Maulvi Khatir of TTP-Sajna group; Shahryar Mehsud of TTP- Shahryar group; Abdul Wali of JuA; Mufti Ghufran of TTP-Khalifa Mansour group; and Mullah Daud of TTP-Qari Hussain group. On February 2, 2017, TTP-Sajna merged with the TTP-Fazlullah group.
In fact other parameters of violence registered in 2016 demonstrate that the crackdown against terrorists has failed to secure the nation beyond a point. Launched by the Pakistani forces in the aftermath of the attack on Karachi Airport on June 8-9, 2014, in which at least 33 persons, including all ten attackers, were killed, the crackdown has repeatedly been declared a success, but has also been repeatedly extended. Significantly, though overall civilian fatalities in Pakistan declined through 2016, Balochistan and KP registered increases in fatalities in this category. In the SF category, fatalities increased in the Punjab Province. The number of suicide attacks in 2016 remained the same, 19, as recorded in 2015, but the resultant fatalities recorded a sharp increase – 161 in 2015, spiking to 401 in 2016. Further, though Pakistan recorded 139 incidents of bomb blasts in 2016, as against 216 such incidents in 2015, the resultant fatalities increased from 495 in 2015 to 502 in 2016. Five suicide attacks resulting in 112 deaths have already been recorded in 2017.
On several accounts, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been overhyped, and only targeted a few terrorist formations that had turned ‘rogue’, while allowing a multiplicity of other terrorist formations that operate out of Pakistani soil to thrive, with the attendant problem that there is little possibility of controlling one set without constraining the other. A more serious allegation, according to Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on political Islam, is that “actually, it [Operation Zarb-e-Azb] was aimed at weakening political parties and not eliminating terrorists.”
Meanwhile, the favorable environment provided to ‘pro-Government’ terrorist formations has resulted in a further radicalization of Pakistani society, helping groups like Daesh to mobilize and recruit. Daesh’s spread, in turn, has helped rogue terrorist outfits to regain lost ground, as most of these have now established some linkages with Daesh, resulting in a measure of unity, consolidation and effective coordination.
SAIR has repeatedly highlighted the fact that the Pakistani establishment has, for long, provided open support to terrorist formations which has served its purported strategic interests. Most recently, Islamabad, in connivance with Beijing, opposed the imposition of an international ban on the Jaish-e-Mohammad ( JeM) chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, who openly operates out of Pakistan. JeM has been one of the most lethal terrorist groups operating in India, particularly in the State of Jammu & Kashmir, and has been responsible for a large number of major attacks . The group is closely allied al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, and has been notionally banned in Pakistan since 2002, though it faces no visible restraints. On the other hand, there is no conclusive proof to suggest that any action has been taken against Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban terrorists operating out of Pakistani soil and targeting the Afghan as well as Indian and other countries’ interests inside Afghanistan. Indeed, Abdul Raouf Ibrahimi, Speaker of National Assembly of Afghanistan, stated on February 18, 2017,
Terrorism remains a threat to the South Asian countries, including Pakistan but unfortunately rulers of Pakistan have always supported terrorism. This policy of Pakistan is not in the interest of the South Asian region. In the future it is going to be a big threat to Pakistan.”
It is widely believed that the aid which flows from the U.S. is one of the main sources of the Pakistani establishment’s capacities to carry on its with policy of exporting of terrorism. Indeed, a report titled A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions Without Cutting Ties released by the Hudson Institute and The Heritage Foundation in February 2017 observed,
“The new Trump Administration must review its policies toward Pakistan in order to more effectively contain, and eventually eliminate, the terrorist threats that continue to emanate from the country… Accordingly, the objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals… It no longer makes sense to waive the counterterrorism conditions on U.S. aid to Pakistan. The U.S. can and must better leverage U.S. military aid to encourage tougher policies against terrorists who operate from within Pakistan. While a grace period may have been merited for Pakistan seven years ago, it would be foolish to keep giving the Pakistanis a pass when it comes to taking action against terrorist groups that are directly undermining U.S. regional interests, not to mention killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Whereas U.S. government agencies were divided seven years ago over the nature and extent of Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban and other terrorist and extremist groups, today no one in the U.S. government disputes that Pakistan provides such support.”
Regrettably, there is no immediate reason to believe that there has been any dramatic shift in U.S. policy towards Pakistan, though the broad theme of official pronouncements from the fledgling Trump administration suggests that such a shift is in the offing. In the absence of genuine and overwhelming international pressure, Pakistan is unlikely to alter its policy of ‘export of terror’ in its immediate and extended neighborhood, while it targets domestically active terrorist formations within Pakistan. Pakistani strategists continue to believe that such a policy has served the country’s strategic interests, and are inclined to ignore the devastating repercussions this policy has caused within the country.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management