Friday, June 23, 2017 will vie for recognition as a ‘black day’ in the tragic litany of terrorism in Pakistan. On the day, terrorists struck with devastating effect at three sites across the country. In Parachinar, known for past atrocities by the fanatics on a sectarian basis, bombers struck in a by now familiar manner by first setting off a hand grenade in a busy bazaar and then exploding a big bomb to target people who had gathered to rescue the victims of the first blast. The death toll according to the latest reports has reached 67, which may rise given that about 200 wounded are still under treatment in various hospitals, some in a critical condition. In Quetta, a suicide bomber set off a car bomb after colliding into the sandbag barriers in front of the IG Police’s office, killing at last count 14 people and injuring at least 24. In Karachi, four policemen taking iftari (breaking their fast) were targeted by motorcycle-mounted gunmen and shot and killed at close range. These incidents, not unfamiliar except for their concentration on the same day, were followed by even more familiar responses. Condemnations from the highest to the lowest accompanied international condemnation. Claims of responsibility came from a cast of the usual suspects such as Jamaat ul Ahrar and Islamic State for the Quetta atrocity, but also included a relatively newly emerged group called Ansarul Shariyah Pakistan, said to have Libyan and Syrian connections, who claimed the Karachi attack. There is so far no claim of responsibility for the Parachinar atrocity. What followed the day after was also predictable. A flurry of actions netted some terrorists in different parts of the country, concerns about Eid security led to heavy deployment of security forces in many cities, and the political and military leadership weighed in with its take on the events and developments. While the former reiterated their view that Pakistan was making progress in the fight against terrorism and these incidents reflected the last gasp desperate terrorist efforts against soft targets, the latter repeated their mantra of ‘external’ factors to explain away the recurring phenomenon. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar too focused on the external dimension, particularly stricter control over the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossings to prevent infiltration of terrorists with safe havens on Afghan soil, but had the courage to question why warnings of impending attacks in Parachinar and Quetta were not heeded by the local authorities.
While the country can justifiably celebrate its counterinsurgency successes in Fata under the Operation Zarb-e-Azb, it is the follow up counterterrorism effort that leaves some questions unanswered and provides an opportunity once again to point out the lacunae in this campaign. The National Action Plan meant to guide this campaign has virtually been forgotten and become a dead letter. That means the coordinated effort envisaged under it against terrorism still goes abegging. The National Counter Terrorism Authority meant to act as such a centre with a centralised database fell victim to turf battles and remains a non-starter. Coordination between civil and military intelligence agencies still suffers from mistrust and suspicion, Centre-provinces’ cooperation is at best episodic and subject to the travails inherent in different parties being in power at the federal and some provincial levels. The impact of this uncoordinated and haphazard scenario has grave implications. For one, the absence of a national coordination centre reinforces the inherent tendency towards inertia and complacency creeping in over time every so often and thereby providing the terrorists the openings and opportunities to strike unexpectedly. For example, apart from the interior minister’s highlighting the lack of impact in terms of readiness despite intelligence warnings, these incidents reveal that the standard operating procedures appear weak or remain non-implemented on a consistent, long-term or even permanent basis. No doubt there have been successes despite the uncoordinated effort in terms of preventing terrorist actions. But these have yet to be systematically compiled and revealed for public knowledge to boost national morale at the partial and ongoing erosion of terrorist capability. Nor have the citizens been sufficiently mobilised to act as the eyes and ears of the authorities in support of the counterterrorism campaign. A notable gap here is the absence of a national anti-terrorist narrative that could inspire and evoke a citizens’ response. If Pakistan is to tackle the terrorist affliction, it must eschew the expedient explanation of all terrorism emanating from across the Afghan border, recognise explicitly the presence of terrorist groups and cells within, address the shifting kaleidoscopic breaking up and merging under new banners of these groups, and take measures to coordinate civil-military, Centre-provinces’ efforts under an umbrella central platform.