Is Pakistan unable to defeat terrorism?
In the early hours of Friday (September 18), Pakistan's Badaber air base in Peshawar was stormed by around 10 heavily armed militants belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP): close to 50 people ended up losing their lives.
The attack is seen as a retaliation to the ongoing Pakistan Military operation in the terror-torn country's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a decisive military onslaught, was kick-started by Pakistan last year to flush out the terrorists after years of appeasing the terror elements and dilly-dallying.
The decision to take on the TTP and defeat it at any cost was taken after the Pakistani state realised that there was no point in negotiating peace with an ideologically motivated entity that had no interest in talking reconciliation with the state, and because the attacks on the Pakistani state was becoming more and more audacious as the days passed by. In one instance, Lieutenant General Sanaullah Niazi was killed in 2013 by TTP while the former was spearheading the operation in the KP province. In another socking incident, TTP beheaded 23 Pakistani soldiers in 2014. And then there was the attack on the army school in Peashawar, which shocked the Pakistani state and the people alike. It was when their own kith, kin and colleagues became the TTP's target, that the Pakistani military decided to go after the TTP – with conviction, vengeance and vigour. Today, Operation Zarb-e-Azb is widely regarded as a successful anti-terror campaign undertaken by the Pakistan military, overseen by the Army Chief Raheel Sharif himself. The Pakistani state has proved that it is able to fight terrorism if it wants to. And we must all wish the Pakistani state good luck in fighting terror.
I narrate this to call into question the oft-repeated Pakistani argument that they simply do not have the material and military capacity to defeat terrorism emanating from within the country. Indians have always responded to the Pakistani 'inability pledge' by stating that the Pakistani establishment does make a sharp and disturbing distinction between anti-Pakistan terror groups, and anti-India terror elements like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). That is, while the Pakistani state is often genuinely unable to fight the TTP, it does not even want to take on the LeT due to two reasons: it is costly to fight terrorism, and secondly, some of the anti-India terror organisations are nourished by the Pakistani establishment in furthering its military/political agenda against India.
So the question – "if the Pakistani establishment is able to wage a successful military campaign against the TTP, why can't they do the same with TTP?" – is a valid one and it is important that Pakistan gives a satisfactory answer to India. If there is no convincing Pakistani answer to this question , it would also mean that Pakistan's so-called U-turn on terrorism has at best been a tactical one, and not a strategic one.
On the other hand, one has to admit that there is also a certain path dependency built into the use of non-state actors for the pursuance of state policy – once you begin a certain intelligence/sabotage/sub-conventional campaign against an adversary, the human and military resources geared to achieve those objectives tend to get deeply entrenched within the system and it is often difficult even for the sponsoring state to demolish it all in one day. Reining in the unleashed devil takes time.
But sometimes shocking incidents, like the Peshawar school massacre, make the demolition process quicker: once the societal pressure builds up, the state decides to act in a decisive manner. Also sometimes the political recognition of the need to undertake something on war-footing can also make a difference. The question then becomes an existential one.
In that sense, the Pakistani unwillingness to fight the anti-India terror groups based out of Pakistan are not seriously tackled by Islamabad/Rawalpindi for two reasons. One, the Pakistani army has not yet made that critical strategic decision to clamp down on anti-India elements inside Pakistani territory. Whenever the pressure builds up to do something about such groups, the army puts some curbs on their activities only to ease the pressure later on. The terror groups continue to be an anti-India asset for the Pakistani establishment despite the many denials to the contrary. There may have been some change in this mindset, but there is no metanoia yet.
The second reason is more important: today there is hardly any incentive for the Pakistani establishment to act against these elements, positive incentives or negative. Let me explain this. As far as negative incentives go, Pakistan-based anti-India terror groups have not yet become a problem for Islamabad/Rawalpindi. They are still subservient to the military masters and the latter can use the former as a low-cost weapon against India. The problem with this is what the former US Secretary of State correctly identified: "you can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard".
There are also no positive incentives for Pakistan to completely eliminate the anti-terror elements, at least from the Pakistani strategic perspective, however narrow that perspective may be. Since Kashmir is the cause of Pakistan's biggest grievance towards India, when New Delhi refuses to talk Kashmir with Pakistan, the latter believes that it has no incentive in controlling anti-India terrorism. If it indeed controls/curbs them, Pakistan believes, it would end up losing its strategic advantage vis-à-vis India on the Kashmir question: India would never want to talk Kashmir once the terror issue is settled. There is indeed some strategic logic to that argument and by refusing to talk Kashmir with Pakistan, New Delhi is only making life difficult for itself and the people of Kashmir. But the real sufferer in the longer term would be Pakistan and its people: after all, snakes could turn back and bite that hand that feeds them.