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Apr 12, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

Tackling Terrorism in Pakistan's Heartland

Militancy in Pakistan
(ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad will lead to high-profile retaliatory attacks by the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar as South Asian militant groups launch their annual spring offensives in April in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Though there are many factors involved in a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy for Pakistan, madrassa reform is part of its ideological front.
  • As Punjab's governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz prepares for the 2018 national elections, it will be reluctant to press madrassa reform for fear of alienating conservative constituencies.

The Pakistani military has opened yet another front in its battle against militancy in the country. 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 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. The apparent early successes, however, have been accompanied by accusations that some ethnic groups have been indiscriminately targeted.

Pitfalls of the Military Plan

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 the al-Alami faction of the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, 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. (In fact, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar named its string of February attacks Operation Ghazi after a slain cleric and claimed they were staged in retaliation for the army's Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the FATA.) 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.

Pakistan militancy map

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).

The Fight Against Militant Ideology

Of course, military operations form just one prong of the country's counterterrorism strategy. A second component targets militancy's ideological underpinnings and involves reforming the thousands of madrassas scattered across the country. After the December 2014 Army Public School assault that killed more than 140 people, many of them children, in the deadliest act of terrorism in Pakistan's history, the government put forth a comprehensive National Action Plan to tackle terrorism. Among its key provisions was the registration and regulation of madrassas, Muslim educational institutions, to monitor their curricula and sources of funding.

Some estimates suggest that of the 35,000 or so madrassas in Pakistan, 95 percent are benign. They offer a religion-based education that caters to a wide segment of the population, including the poor, who are attracted to free or reduced-price tuition and boarding. But the emphasis on madrassa reform in the plan evinces government concerns about those schools teaching extremist interpretations of religion (in fact, many of the first generation of Taliban fighters were educated in Pakistani madrassas).

Thanks in part to political factors, the pace of madrassa reform has been slow. In 2001, the government established the Pakistan Madrasah Education Board with the aim of building "model" madrassas. But 16 years later, the board has established only three madrassas in the country. Madrassa reform is not popular among the conservative and politically powerful religious groups that make up key support for the governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Since the party needs that bloc to retain power, it has been reluctant to tackle the issue. Especially as the PML-N is beginning its campaign for 2018 national and state elections, the party likely will not prioritize madrassa reform this year, either.

The political calculation becomes apparent in Punjab, which has the most madrassas of any Pakistani province. Since the National Action Plan was introduced in 2015, only two of the almost 14,000 madrassas in the province have been shuttered, compared with at least 2,300 madrassa closures in Sindh, a province governed by the opposition Pakistan People's Party.

Military operations such as Radd-ul-Fasaad and ideological measures such as madrassa reform are only two components of Pakistan's extensive and complex counterterrorism strategy. 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. But until Islamabad accrues the political capital to pursue other reforms, while militancy will diminish, it also will endure.

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