A massive anti-terror operation called “Radd-ul-Fassad” (Elimination of terror) has been launched in Pakistan’s most populated province, Punjab, as part of the country’s latest bid to wipe out the so-called “urban terrorism” and terror groups that, according to the official narrative, continue to receive “foreign support” both in terms of financial funding and territorial sanctuaries. Since the start of the operation last week, hundreds have been arrested and many killed. At the same time, a continuation of military courts has also received approval from the parliament. Pakistan, in short, is in full anti-terror swing.
While it is interesting to see Pakistan launching military operations every now and then to curb terrorism, its two immediate neighbours, Afghanistan and India, continue to blame it for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and freedom fighters in Kashmir.
Pakistan, on the contrary, blames India for funding terror groups and blames Afghanistan for providing safe heavens or territorial sanctuaries to the Pakistan-based Taliban and its off-shoot groups, such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuH), which claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack that left at least 14 dead and over 100 wounded on February 13.
A recent wave of attacks in Pakistan seems to have stirred the Pakistan military into action, leading it to launch a new operation and carry out strikes inside Afghanistan, an unprecedented move, that targeted militant hideouts and killed several including the commander of JuH.
Notwithstanding Pakistan’s (apparent) resolve to wipe out terror hideouts and the attention being paid to the problem in the wake of recent attacks in the heart of Punjab, Pakistan’s fight on terror remains skewed at best and selective at worst – something that points out and reinforces unambiguously the fact that terrorism is not just a “home-grown” problem but has wider strategic dimensions and continues to be used as instrument of foreign policy by regional rivals (India, Pakistan and Afghanistan).
It is selective because Pakistan is targeting only those groups that are apparently working on a “foreign agenda” and is protecting those, particularly the Afghan Taliban, who continue to be viewed as vital strategic assets in the larger new “Great Game” being played in Afghanistan.
Even some officials from within Pakistan have claimed that the Afghan Taliban continue to enjoy both territorial and religious sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s biggest province, Balochistan.
In an interview given to the Voice of America, Balochistan’s interior minister claimed that thousands of Afghan Taliban were based in Balochistan and were receiving their (ideological) training from there and that thousands of madrassahs were not registered with the government and these madrassahs were the “teaching grounds and recruiting points for militants and Taliban”.
Hence the question: should Afghanistan conduct a similar strike inside Pakistan to wipe out these sanctuaries?
“Selective targeting” of terrorists both inside Pakistan and Afghanistan points to how sponsorship of terrorism and militancy continues to be looked upon as a tool of foreign policy in this part of the world as in the Middle East (Yemen, Syria, Turkey and Iraq) where the issue of “moderate” and “non-moderate” groups remains largely unsettled and where different groups continue to receive funding from different states. How is it different from what is happening in South Asia where different countries (India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) continue to support different militant groups?
Hence, should we expect what some have started to call a “war of sanctuaries” in South Asia?
While there is always a danger of escalation in such cases of cross-border actions, there is also the question of Pakistan’s cooperation with Kabul that has long blamed “state-sanctioned” sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s frontier regions for the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.
Similarly, while Pakistan may not agree with the contentious allegations that its intelligence agencies are involved in Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan, the fact cannot be denied that the Afghan insurgency could not have been sustained for so long without the Taliban finding safe havens in Pakistan.
It is, therefore, at least surprising to see Afghanistan handing over its own list of 85 insurgents that it says are taking sanctuary in Pakistan, in response to Pakistan’s demand for the extradition of 76 militants hiding in Afghanistan. Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Interior said that last month’s terrorist attack in Kandahar that killed five UAE diplomats was planned in Madrassah in Chaman, Balochistan.
Those wanted by the Afghan government include leaders of the Haqqani network and other Taliban commanders. The alleged Afghan patronage of Pakistani militants is seen as a tit-for-tat action to increase pressure on Pakistan, as Kabul is confronted with a rising Taliban insurgency. According to a recent UN report, 2016 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001, with thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks, many of them women and children.
The stories of innocent people dying in both countries are not materially different. However, what these stories do warrant is the formulation of a joint strategy to confront the challenges of terrorism and violent insurgency, a strategy that must be based upon elimination of terrorism and militancy both as a religious ideology and as state policy.
Unless this factor is taken into account, the vicious cycle of terrorism will continue to spin and consume innocent lives. A mere “war of sanctuaries” between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan would only serve to hinder co-operation and peace in the region.
No military operation either in Afghanistan or Pakistan can and will succeed in eliminating terrorism until it zeroes in on the crux of the matter i.e., deployment of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy.