The >attack by terrorists on Bacha Khan University in northwestern Pakistan, which left at least 21 people dead, raises serious questions about Islamabad’s anti-terror strategy. The assault demonstrates that despite a year-long enhanced counterterror offensive by the Army, >Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) retains the capacity to inflict lethal harm. The attack in Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (the old NWFP) comes over a year after the TTP stormed an Army school in nearby Peshawar, killing 134 children. That massacre had prompted widespread anger, forcing the Army to launch a massive crackdown on Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions, detained thousands of suspected Islamist militants, and stepped up attacks on the TTP. This had fractured the Taliban organisationally, and there were fewer attacks in big cities last year. But, as the latest attack shows, the crackdown failed to neutralise the security challenges the TTP poses to the Pakistani state.
This is mainly owing to two reasons. First, Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy is heavily reliant on its security establishment. To be sure, the army plays a vital role in any campaign against terrorist groups, but its focus would obviously be on the terrorist infrastructure. But Islamabad needs a broader, more comprehensive strategy to deal with the issue at the grassroots level. It has to identify and break up local terrorist networks, counter radical ideology, and more important, take adequate measures to address lawlessness and extreme poverty in the northwestern mountainous region, a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists. Second, Islamabad’s dual policy towards terrorism is self-defeating. Even as it fights groups such as the TTP, the Army is deeply involved with the Afghan Taliban, >the Haqqani Network and anti-India terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Using jihadists for strategic gains has been a deliberate strategy for Pakistan’s military establishment for decades. That strategy has been proven counterproductive over the years. Unfortunately, Pakistan has continued this double game for geopolitical gains. Even after the Peshawar attack, the Army’s focus was only on the TTP factions, while it kept intact its good ties with the Afghan Taliban, who control huge swathes of territory in the neighbouring country. As a result, the TTP, even if it is beaten by the Army, can retreat to Afghanistan, regroup there and move back to Pakistan to carry out strikes. Pakistan is aware of these fault lines. But it still won’t amend its strategy because it looks at the Afghan Taliban as a strategic vehicle to expand its interests in South Asia. This dual policy has weakened the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, while making Pakistan’s own campaign against extremism ineffective. Thus Pakistan remains caught between its own growing internal security challenges and a flawed geopolitical strategy. The way forward for Islamabad is to come out of this mess and join other regional powers in a consistent fight against all forms of terrorism.