Muted blowback

Moeed Yousaf

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

THE high casualty figures in the Wagah terrorist incident in Lahore confirm that the perpetrators have scored a major victory. That said (and not to downplay the barbarism they have displayed), the real policy puzzle remains the relative absence of the massive terrorist backlash everybody said would afflict Pakistani urban towns because of the North Waziristan operation.

I raised this issue previously but it was too soon then to say how things would pan out. Enough time has elapsed to be sure that the spike in violence has not occured, at least not in the phase that has marked the peak of the operation. Why?

First, there seems to have been significant progress on the preventive side. Of course, major attacks have been attempted in urban metropolises against sensitive installations in the summer, eg the naval episode in Karachi, the coordinated attacks on air bases in Quetta, and now Wagah, among others. However, the number of these has been surprisingly low.

One theory could be that the TTP and its affiliates are deliberately lying low. But still, producing such limited backlash in the face of an all-out operation makes little strategic sense from their perspective. It has only allowed the state to gain the upper hand, psychologically and physically.

More likely, the relative lull is attributable foremost to the disruption of the TTP’s physical sanctuary in North Waziristan. With the TTP’s centre of gravity challenged, its ability to plot, plan and execute with impunity is gone.

The TTP’s internal disarray is quite apparent.

Add to this the major intelligence and law-enforcement effort in parts of the country prior to the operation that targeted sleeper cells and neutralised the urban militant networks. We have no specifics on these in the public domain but there has been enough chatter privately to be certain that a significantly large sweep involving multiple successful raids over a period of time was undertaken.

Next, the state has played the good old game of breaking enemy ranks from within. Multiple strategies were operating simultaneously. The upshot is both a split within the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban’s decision to disavow violence against Pakistanis (at least for now). Of course, the state was not the only factor here but it was a significant one.

The TTP’s internal disarray is quite apparent. The Punjabi Taliban’s stance, however, is more surprising. As far as I can tell, it is a combination of the state’s guarantees for temporary relief and their own calculation that they could unnecessarily get sucked into a fight for their survival at a time when they are not the state’s principal target. Their announcement that they will focus their activities on Afghanistan is highly problematic for a number of other reasons but this topic must be left for another day.

The preventive side seems to have been complemented by an improved response to terrorist incidents.

The terrorists’ success ratio is down significantly. No longer are attacks succeeding at will as they used to in the 2008-10 period.

The Wagah attack did pay off for the militants but even here, the final security parameter was not breached and the bomber was forced to strike a soft target rather than the symbolic one (the parade venue) he was likely after.

More importantly, the terrorist reaction to the attack — by multiple claims of responsibility — points to their realisation that they don’t have much to show for their efforts in recent months. And thus, it makes perfect sense for each group to try and claim whatever has worked — as if to suggest that they are still capable and relevant.

To be sure, and notwithstanding the above, not for a second should my positive take be construed as sanctioning a victory parade for the state.

For one, we have only focused here on one slice of the terrorism problem. There is much more to deal with.

But even within this space, the state ought not to discount the possibility of the TTP and its affiliates reinventing their strategy and forcing the state to go through a fresh learning curve. We also know that splits within militant groups and deals between them and the state are seldom permanent. In fact, the history of deals tells us they end up making things tougher to manage in the long run.

Finally, the current situation calls for deep introspection within the security establishment. Do they not owe an explanation to Pakistanis as to why they constantly used the backlash bogey to avoid the operation for nearly four years? Are they going to learn any lessons from this for the future? Or can we write off all those Pakistanis who lost their lives to TTP-affiliated attacks traceable to their Waziristan sanctuary during this time as mere collateral damage?

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