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And miles to go…

The terrorist attack in D I Khan on July 21, 2019 reinforces this writer’s repeated cautions since the military campaigns against terrorist groups in erstwhile FATA in 2016 that the terrorist hydra has been rocked back, expelled from Pakistani soil (to Afghanistan), but not scotched. The D I Khan attack had all the hallmarks of a well thought out, planned manoeuvre. First, gunmen on four motorcycles opened fire on policemen manning a checkpost early morning, killing two policemen. As soon as the dead bodies of the policemen reached District Headquarters Hospital, a suicide bomber detonated himself, killing six people, two of them policemen, and wounding 28. Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) Khorasani group claimed responsibility. Its spokesman said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of two Taliban commanders by counter-terrorism police about a month ago. Police later arrested 16 suspects and seized some weapons.

When TTP and its affiliates in erstwhile FATA fled across the border into Afghanistan after coming under pressure from the military’s offensives, it became clear they had found safe havens there. Suspicion landed on the Haqqani Network hosting them in areas across the border under their control. The possibility of cross-border attacks persuaded the military to fence the border, something DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor alluded to in Washington DC on the day of the D I Khan attack as one of the major factors in the decline of terrorism in Pakistan since 2016. But given the length and poorly policed character of the Pak-Afghan border, even fencing (expensive, only partially completed) could not guarantee Pakistan freedom from the TTP infiltrating back into the country and continuing its attacks. Nor could the possibility of sleeper cells left behind by the TTP after its exodus resurrecting themselves be ruled out. The D I Khan attack suggests both phenomena are in operation. After all, the presence of gunmen on four motorcycles and the lone (burqa-clad) suicide bomber suggests a support infrastructure without which such operations would be difficult, if not impossible.

The police arrests single out suspects belonging to banned organisations. Whether there remains a nexus between the TTP and such organisations is not known but cannot be ruled out. The police naturally hope some leads can be obtained (by the ‘usual’ methods) from the ‘interrogation’ of these suspects.

Ritual condemnations from the top leadership of the country were to be expected. But the incident may mar Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts to convince US investors to look favourably at Pakistan as a destination for their dollars. The DG ISPR also stressed the improved security situation in Pakistan and said the military is now focusing on Balochistan, the province being key to the success of CPEC. Whether the D I Khan attack’s timing was coincidental or deliberately aimed at queering the ‘all is well’ pitch in Washington DC is not known. But it will certainly resurrect the concerns of US investors regarding safety and security in Pakistan. Such incidents provide the TTP with relatively low cost effectiveness in creating problems of image and perception regarding Pakistan.

The D I Khan incident cannot be viewed in isolation from the strategic/tactical situation that has emerged since 2016. While the US and Pakistan seem entwined in a symbiotic embrace whose sole focus currently is finding a face saving way for the US to retreat from its strategic defeat in Afghanistan, Imran Khan’s visit to the US (claimed in media reports to have been swung by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman) carries a broader agenda of US investment, trade enhancement, and, if CoAS General Bajwa’s efforts bear fruit, restoring relations (and military aid) between GHQ and the Pentagon. In a few days the results of these efforts will be known. Washington and Islamabad may have exchanged ‘favours’ before the visit to improve the atmospherics before Imran Khan meets Trump. The US designated the Balochistan Liberation Army a global terrorist group, and Pakistan ‘reciprocated’ by arresting Hafiz Saeed. These two ‘gifts’ may have lubricated the wheels of the troubled Pak-US relationship somewhat, but essentially the whole gamut of relations depends on Imran Khan’s ability to convince Trump that Pakistan is sincere in helping the US get out of Afghanistan with as much face as possible. It should not be forgotten that the US blames Pakistan for its defeat in Afghanistan because of alleged policy of giving the overthrown Afghan Taliban safe haven on Pakistani soil to continue their guerrilla struggle, while making noises about being with the US (and gleefully pocketing the aid thrown in its direction).

The battle against terrorism is reduced, but far from over. The TTP and other terrorist groups can still revive and cause havoc on a greater or lesser scale. One terrorist attack, given the history of terrorism in Pakistan, can undo years of patient confidence building in the perception of Pakistan being terror-free. That militates against according to Pakistan the status of a destination of choice for investment dollars. While Pakistan from time to time makes noises about welcoming US and other foreign investment in CPEC, the Chinese have been discreetly silent on the issue.

Chinese interest in CPEC can arguably be best served by a more nuanced policy in Balochistan, through which the western corridor of CPEC passes and where the port of Gwadar is located. Such nuance would involve abandoning the ‘one size fits all’ approach towards non-state actors. While the TTP and other religious extremist terrorist groups owe their origins and trouble making capacity to the misdirected efforts of the military to use jihadi groups in Afghanistan, Balochistan is an old and festering political problem that cries out for a political settlement. Since the armed resistance groups and their leaders in exile do not at present seem inclined towards any such dialogue (thereby betraying the deep mistrust between the two sides), the Balochistan National Party-Mengal’s (BNP-M) efforts for the rights of Balochistan will be watched keenly. If the politically risky alliance with the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf does not work out, it will not be a very different pattern to what has repeatedly happened post-Musharraf. If the BNP-M gambit does not come up to expectations vis-à-vis missing persons, reconciliation and peace in Balochistan, the low level insurgency seems destined not only to continue but target CPEC even more.

E-mail: rashed.rahman1@gmail.com

rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Rashed Rahman, "And miles to go…," Business Recorder. 2019-07-23.
Keywords: Social sciences , Terrorism , Terrorist attack , Suicide bomber , Religious extremist , Foreign investment , Political settlement , Gwadar location , BNP-M