Renewed terrorist attacks in Pakistan have highlighted the country’s urgent need to unite with neighbouring Afghanistan in order to counter the militants, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai.
A new wave of terrorism has hit Pakistan just as people were beginning to relax due to the improved security situation.
The latest terrorist strike on January 20 targeted the Bacha Khan University, named after the revered freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was a practitioner of non-violence and was affectionately called Bacha Khan by his Pashtun followers.
Four militants attacked the university campus—located in Bacha Khan’s hometown of Charsadda, about 30 kilometres from Peshawar—by taking cover in the thick morning fog and the sugarcane fields, and scaling the rear walls to unleash death and destruction. The killing spree ended when the gunmen were eliminated by the police, who were quick to arrive at the scene and were backed by the army. Earlier, the university’s security personnel had offered resistance to the terrorists and saved others while sacrificing their own lives. Even so, 21 innocent people, mostly male students along with two teachers and other employees, were killed and many others were wounded.
This fresh wave of terrorist attacks began about five weeks ago. After several months, a major attack took place on December 29, 2015 when a suicide bomber targeted the offices of NADRA, where computerised national identity cards are made, in Mardan. The blast killed 27 people, mostly young men queueing outside the offices, and injured another 70. The lone security guard, Pervez Khan, managed to keep the bomber from entering the office; otherwise the death toll would have been much higher. Both Khan and the bomber were blown to pieces by the explosion.
Mardan is the second biggest city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after Peshawar and the attack raised questions about the security measures taken by the government to protect its own offices, not to mention its citizens, after claiming that military operations in North Waziristan and Khyber tribal region had broken the militants’ backs and severely affected their capability to launch such attacks. There is no doubt the militants have been evicted from their strongholds in the tribal areas due to such operations, but it is also a fact that most of them survived and managed to escape to Afghanistan to fight another day.
Afghanistan-based Pakistani militants belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been claiming responsibility for some major terrorist attacks, including this latest one at Bacha Khan University. They also claimed responsibility for the horrendous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, which killed 147 people, mostly schoolchildren, and the assault on the Pakistan Air Force base in Badaber outside Peshawar that killed 30 security personnel. Responsibility for the suicide bombing in Mardan was claimed by the TTP’s Jamaatul Ahrar splinter group, whose leaders and fighters are also based in Afghanistan, mostly in eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.
Another recent terrorist attack took place in Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, on January 13, killing 15, including 12 policemen, one paramilitary soldier and two civilians. It targeted the security personnel outside a polio vaccination centre as they were waiting to escort teams leaving for different localities to administer anti-polio drops to children. The militants have killed scores of polio workers as part of their violent campaign to block the vaccination of children due to their claim that the drops are ‘haram’ (un-Islamic) and are intended to reduce the Muslim population by causing impotence. Targeted attacks on police, mostly in Peshawar, have also become routine as militants riding motorcycles shoot them to death at random.
The frequency of these acts of terror has unnerved the people and made the government appear helpless to put an end to the threats. This is exactly what the militants want to achieve as their attacks send a message that the military operations haven’t destroyed their capability to strike back, despite government and military claims. The fact remains that the TTP and other militant groups are still able to recruit fighters and send them on suicide missions to hit targets of their choice and at a time of their choosing. They have been attacking both hard and soft targets, though the assaults on vulnerable schools and universities show that the masterminds of these attacks now prefer softer targets that are easier to hit yet still make headlines.
The attack on the Bacha Khan University has renewed the debate about the effectiveness of policies reflected in the National Action Plan to tackle militancy and terrorism. The 20-point plan was agreed upon by both the civilian and military leadership in January 2015 in the wake of the terrorist strike in Peshawar. It contained points such as undertaking sustained military action against militants without discriminating between the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban; stopping terror financing; reforming the madrassas (Islamic schools); sending back the almost three million Afghan refugees to Afghanistan; carrying out political, legal and other reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where most militants had been based; prosecuting clerics who misuse mosques and promote hate material against other sects; and making glorification of militants an offence. After every new terrorist attack, the government is blamed for failing to implement the plan, even as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his ministers renew their commitment to do so. Such debates are the staple of Pakistan’s mushrooming television channels, which broadcast never-ending, heated discussions at prime time without reaching any concrete conclusions.
As in the past, the terrorist strike on Bacha Khan University has also fuelled verbal sparring between the Afghan and Pakistan governments, making it difficult for the two to overcome their huge trust deficit. Pakistan was quick to claim that Afghanistan-based militants had undertaken the attack and evidence was presented by the country’s military spokesman, Lt Gen Asim Salim Bajwa, to reinforce the point. The Afghan government denied the claim by maintaining that its soil wasn’t used to plan the assault and that the masterminds were not based there.
This is despite the fact that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had conceded in his December 9 speech during the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad that the TTP head Maulana Fazlullah was hiding in Afghanistan and that about 40 military actions had been taken by the Afghan security forces to kill or capture him and his men. Fazlullah and one of his top military commanders, Khalifa Omar Mansoor, were the masterminds of the Peshawar school attack and others, though the former quickly dissociated himself from the assault on the Bacha Khan University. Khalifa Omar Mansoor, however, proudly claimed responsibility for the latest attack on a videotape with the four attackers before they embarked on their mission, and threatened more. In particular, he threatened attacks on educational institutions, claiming that these were producing a secular elite who in time would take the Pakistani state away from Islam and strengthen the country’s ‘un-Islamic’ democratic system. Khalifa Omar Mansoor’s actions show that he has either broken away from the Maulana Fazlullah-led TTP and come close to the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, in Afghanistan, or that Fazlullah denied involvement in the attack on the Bacha Khan University for tactical reasons, as such attacks have deprived the TTP of whatever little public support it had among the people in Pakistan.
The Afghan and Pakistan governments have been blaming each other for sheltering their enemies. Kabul has been alleging that Islamabad is harbouring members of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. Islamabad, for its part, has alleged that Kabul has done little to target the Pakistani militants’ sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan. Despite scores of visits and meetings at the highest level and numerous public pledges of cooperation to fight terrorism, few practical steps have been taken by the two sides to jointly tackle the threat. The blame game by Kabul and Islamabad could also affect the chances of success of their new proposed peace initiative along with China and the US to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table so that they can directly negotiate with the Afghan government on how to end the long drawn out Afghan conflict. These talks haven’t yet started as the quadrilateral coordination group of the four countries is presently busy chalking out the roadmap for the Afghan peace process and the Taliban are still not willing to hold direct talks with Kabul. n