21 April 2017

Pakistan's Next Counterterrorism Campaign

 APRIL 17, 2017 | 

In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks, including the Feb. 16 bombing of a Sufi shrine that killed more than 80 people, the Pakistani army has launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, its 11th counterterrorism campaign since 2007. Unlike its predecessors, Radd-ul-Fasaad puts a focus on the densely populated Punjab province, Pakistan's political and industrial heartland.

So far, the campaign, launched by army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, has focused on coordinated raids conducted by the paramilitary Punjab Rangers and civilian law enforcement. The raids have led to at least 1,300 arrests and the seizure of caches of ammunition, weapons, computers and improvised explosive devices. But though the operations seem to have minimally disrupted civilian life, Pashtuns living in Punjab have complained that they have been unfairly singled out. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah acknowledged that the raids have focused on Pashtuns and unregistered Afghan refugees in Punjab since attacks in the state have been traced to militants operating out of the Pashtun-majority Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

In addition to raising ethnic groups' concerns, the new military operation will likely exacerbate another emerging trend in Pakistan's militant landscape: high-profile attacks by the Islamic State's Afghanistan-based Khorasan chapter working with local groups, including an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban. Khorasan has designs on expanding into South Asia, and since August, the group has claimed at least three big attacks in Pakistan — one in Balochistan, one in Sindh and one in Punjab. The challenge for the Pakistani army, then, is to prosecute counterterrorism operations while minimizing militant blowback. Yet because April marks the traditional start of the annual spring offensive, this development — coupled with the desire to retaliate against the army for Radd-ul-Fasaad — means it's likely that Pakistan (as well as Afghanistan) will experience more Khorasan-linked attacks in the next few months.

Radd-ul-Fasaad fits into the Pakistani army's broad counterterrorism campaign. Ever since it launched Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014, the number of attacks by militants fell by 27 percent in 2016 as compared with 2015. By layering Radd-ul-Fasaad upon the still-ongoing Zarb-e-Azb, the carnage is likely to continue decreasing (though to be sure, this comes at the cost of having fewer troops to devote toward countering India, which is why Bajwa will try to avoid antagonizing New Delhi as long as the operations are underway). 

Still, the army and the government both recognize that an approach based solely on military intervention is unlikely to end the threat of anti-state militancy. Until Islamabad accrues the political capital to pursue other reforms, militancy will endure.

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