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27 January 2016

Stamping out militant networks is an incredibly complicated job – as Pakistan has discovered

The death toll from recent attacks in Pakistan are still shocking, but it does represent an improvement.

By Samira Shackle

On 1 January 2016, General Raheel Sharif, the head of the Pakistani army, declared that 2016 would see the end of militancy. “With the support of the nation, we will root out terrorism, crime and corruption and will make peace and justice prevalent in the country,” he said.

It was a bold statement, the kind that is all too often followed by a horrific event. Sure enough, on 20 January, gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, north-western Pakistan, killing at least 22 people, most of them students. Security guards and police killed the attackers before they were able to detonate their suicide vests.

The death toll was lower than in the last notable attack on an educational institute: the December 2015 massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar, a major city not far from Charsadda. In that assault, over 150 people died, most of them children. The tragedy was credited with turning the tide against militancy. After the attack, the military operation in Pakistan’s north-western region, codenamed Zarb-e-Azb (literally, “Sharp Strike”) ramped up. Officials claim over 3,400 militants have been killed. (Human rights groups dispute that all of those killed are militants). Across the country, the frequency militant attacks have reduced.

But they have certainly not been stamped out. The Charsadda attack gained international headlines, perhaps because of the shocking symbolism of attacking an institute of learning, perhaps because of the painful resonances of the Peshawar attack a year earlier. But it was not the only major terrorist incident in 2015. On 18 September, Taliban militants killed 29 in an attack on an air force base in Peshawar. On 13 May, gunmen slaughtered 45 Ismaili Shia Muslims on a bus in Karachi. On 13 February, militants attacked a Shia mosque in Peshawar with guns and grenades, killing 20. The death tolls would be shocking in any other context; here, they are seen as tragedies, yes, but also an improvement.

Of course, it was always going to take more than a year of military force to truly end terrorist violence, which has killed tens of thousands of innocent Pakistanis in the last 15 years. Crucially, stamping out militant networks is an incredibly complicated job, particularly given that many of these networks have been operational for well over a decade, two decades or more in some cases. The military claims that it has effectively dismantled these networks by attacking more than 800 safe havens in the tribal region that borders Afghanistan. Yet the sheer organisational aspect of a major attack such as that on the university demonstrates that groups such as the Pakistani Taliban are more than capable of regrouping.

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The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is one of the most porous in the world. The Pakistani Taliban was born after militants sought refuge over the border after Afghanistan was invaded by the US in 2001. There is nothing to stop Pakistani militants from doing the same; a group of Pakistani militants is behind the worrying new faction of Isis in Afghanistan. Secondly, the military operation in the north-western part of Pakistan has not been matched by effective policing and intelligence across the country. This has allowed militants to use areas of mainland Pakistan – parts of Sindh, Balochistan, even Peshawar – as bases for their activities. This is fragmentation rather than dismantling. Thirdly, there is the persistent problem of the Pakistani security service’s inconsistent approach to militancy, allowing those groups who serve their interests abroad to flourish while clamping down on others. Many in Pakistan point the finger of blame at India and Afghanistan, but they would do better to look at their own military institutions.

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The military has firmly pushed the line that terrorism is being defeated, and little space is left for dissenting voices. Mohammed Taqi, a writer for the Daily Times, wrote about the potential risk of Isis to Pakistan late last year. Editors cancelled his column that week under pressure from the military. Reducing the space for debate does not further the cause of eliminating militancy; on the contrary, in such a complicated situation, a well informed public debate can be immensely useful. Speaking after the Charsadda attack, Barack Obama said that “Pakistan has an opportunity to show that it is serious about delegitimising, disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks.” Improvements in the situation, fewer deaths at the hands of militants, should certainly be celebrated, but that is not a reason for complacency. It is a complicated, deep-seated problem that requires a long-term, multifaceted approach.