By Abdul Basit

In February, Pakistan suffered the worst wave of terrorist violence since the tragic Army Public School attack in Peshawar in December 2014. Three terrorist groups – Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaatul Ahrar and the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) carried out these attacks, targeting Pakistan’s major cities.

The spate of attacks shattered the brief lull in violence, indicating the fragility of peace, the realignment of Afghanistan-based anti-Pakistan militant groups and an urgent need to revisit the existing counterterrorism policies.

Notwithstanding the fresh wave of violence, Pakistan hosted the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Summit in Islamabad and the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final in Lahore. The fortitude and enthusiasm with which the Pakistani nation welcomed the return of cricket, despite the security threats, reflects that if the twin challenges of extremism and terrorism are fought with the right approach and policies, it is possible to overcome them.

So far, Pakistan has responded to the latest wave of terrorism by closing down its border with Afghanistan, claiming that these attacks originated from Afghanistan. It has bombarded terrorist hideouts in the Afghan border areas, launched Operation Raddul Fasaad (elimination of discord) to consolidate the gains of previous military offensives and extended the duration of the military courts for two more years.

Against this backdrop, it is instructive to reassess the nature and scale of the evolving terrorist threat as well as the efficacy of the proposed counter-measures. In addition, there is a need to take a broader and long-term view of the threat from terrorists and extremists. Correspondingly, state responses have to be more holistic and comprehensive, moving beyond the standard securitized and militarized responses.

Given the outreach and scale of violence, it is clear that the terrorist threat has become diffused, decentralized, cell-structured and, as such, no single Pakistani militant group dominates the existing terrorist landscape. Moreover, it is externally managed and operated and quite consistent with the changing geopolitical trends in South and Central Asia. Arguably, the variable of proxy warfare seems to have replaced the ideological fervor of the terrorist groups in the region. The external funding and sanctuaries afforded to the Pakistani terrorist groups in Afghanistan have offered a new lease of life to these groups.

The terrorist threat in Pakistan has shifted from its north-western tribal areas to south-western Balochistan province. In 2016, according to the annual security report of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Balochistan was the most volatile region in Pakistan in terms of number of terrorist attacks (approximately 110). More astonishingly, three militant groups – the TTP, the Jamaatul Ahrar and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami – carried out these attacks as opposed to the Baloch separatist groups.

Traditionally, Balochistan – which was known for the nationalist-separatist insurgency – is now witnessing a new wave of militancy. Three factors account for this new wave of terrorist violence in Balochistan. First, owing to Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, some TTP militants fled to Balochistan. These TTP remnants have now re-emerged after two years of hibernation and are making their presence felt. Second, commanders and fighters of the TTP, Jundullah and Lashkar-e- Jhangvi Al-Alami – who defected to Daesh to become part of ISKP – kept a base of operation in Wadh, Balochistan along with Nangarhar, Kunar and Helmand in Afghanistan. Ever since, they have carried out a number of attacks in the province to stamp their presence.

Third, Balochistan is at the centre of the changing regional geopolitics in South and Central Asia that now revolves around CPEC and the emerging alliance between Russia, Pakistan and China. Over the last three months, Russia has hosted two meetings on Afghanistan outside the ambit of US-led, Western indicatives on Afghanistan. This has given birth to two rival military and diplomatic blocks. The first comprises India, Afghanistan and the US while the second consists of China, Russia and Pakistan. The new goals, strategies and plans of the Afghanistan-based anti-Pakistan militant groups are consistent with these changing geo-political trends. Terrorism evidently continues to be a sub-set of the geopolitics in South Asia and not the other way round. As long as geopolitical trends remain entrenched in the existing framework, overcoming terrorism will remain an elusive dream.

The existing Pakistani quest for a state-centric solution to a regional threat is self-defeating. Along with overhauling and improving the implementation of its local responses to counter extremism and terrorism, Pakistan will have to explore the diplomatic ways and means to open a dialogue with neighboring countries on how to tackle terrorism. No doubt, this is easier said than done. But the hot pursuit of terrorists on the foreign soil has its limitations and complications that will only benefit the terrorist outfits. A frank and candid dialogue is required at the regional level to deal with the terrorist threat. Alarmingly, in a span of less than two weeks, Daesh has killed an intelligence operative in Pakistan, attacked a hospital in Kabul and targeted a passenger train in India. The group is emerging as a new common threat to the region and the lack of regional dialogue and consensus will further strengthen and embolden it – as noted in the Moscow Meeting Declaration in December 2016.

At the same time, the academic and policy discourse on terrorism in Pakistan needs to be broadened and expanded beyond its violent manifestations. It is time that the discussion on non-violent extremism – no matter how controversial it is – should be initiated. This form of extremism sustains violent extremism in the society and keeps up with the demand and supply side through the proselytisation and construction of the extremist worldview.

Unlike violent extremist groups – which are violent by goals and actions – non-violent extremists are violent by goals but not by action. The former is action-based extremism while the latter is value-based extremism. However, both share the same value system and objectives. Both are self-righteous, exclusivist and discriminating and claim to know the absolute truth.

Non-violent extremists do not renounce the violence per se. They use it as a matter of tactic not as a matter of strategy. As long as the Pakistani policymakers, the strategic community and the intelligentsia continue to shy away from these tough and controversial issues, extremism and terrorism will survive in one form or the other and our fight will remain circular.

The scholarship on extremism and terrorism in Pakistan will have to evolve within a full-fledged discipline along scientific lines. The aim should be to come up with indigenous models and tailor-made frameworks that define and conceptualize extremism and terrorism in the Pakistani context instead of relying on borrowed conceptual frameworks. The aim of scholarship is not to cater to policy debates but to the broader field of knowledge. A terrorism study is a complete discipline, not just a course or a diploma. It will produce the future leaders who will help Pakistan emerge out of this morass.