The tragic overhang of the army school massacre was the inheritance 2015 carried from the previous year. However, the silver lining to this dark macabre cloud was not only the collective resolve of the Pakistani nation to not bow to the terrorists and extremist mindsets but also the unanimity of decisions by key stakeholders with regard to a concerted counter-terrorism strategy. The efforts brought forth a 22-point National Action Plan (NAP) that comprehensively covered all areas through which terrorism and anti-state activities could be reduced and ended, such as private militias; financial regulations; border security; legislations; activities of banned outfits; intelligence-sharing; border management; communication and media responses; networks and their activities; banning of hate speech as well as rehabilitation and post-conflict resettlement of displaced people. Consequently, the moratorium on death penalty was lifted and since then, several executions have taken place in both terrorism related and other cases.
Owing to the NAP as well as the military’s counter-terrorism operation, Zarb-e-Azb, 2015 was a relatively secure and calm year in comparison to the preceding years. Yet, the dozen plus major incidents that took place were a reminder that terrorists not only continue to possess the potential to defy the security forces but also to inflict heavy physical losses. Every strike was significant, be it an attack on paramilitary and law enforcement agents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan; attacking religious institutions such as mosques or churches in the heart of Punjab; or the cold blooded murder of daily commuters and pilgrims in Karachi or Balochistan. The non-state actors chose soft targets to deter and terrorise. Each of these incidents drew public debate and criticism over what more needed to be done, and faith in the military’s ability to eradicate terrorism remained very strong.
More so, this unflinching faith and confidence is in the person of the army chief, who according to common people and media, solely holds the answers to all problems.
However, counter-terrorism strategies can never be successful without significant support from allies and neighbouring states. The upswing in Pak-Afghan relations, especially after the December 2014 incident, unsurprisingly plummeted, when like a rabbit out of a hat, the news of the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s death was 'intelligently' reported and ended up predictably collapsing the dialogue facilitated by Pakistan between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.
Notwithstanding the tall claims that the road to peace in Kabul passes through Islamabad, this development left few concerned neighbours and allies deeply relieved, as increasing cosy and congenial Islamabad-Kabul ties were not in anyone’s interests. The second and most concerning issue for keen observers has been the setting up and progress on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which resulted in a lot of debate, speculation, foreign tours by a neighbouring Chief Executive to all possible economic partners, and ironically, once again, a resumption of terrorist activities.
As regards significant diplomatic visits, first was US President Barack Obama’s ‘only-to-Delhi’ trip, which was indeed a fascinating study in its own right, not to be rivalled by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “surprise” 25 December stopover in Lahore to enjoy the double celebration of his counterpart’s birthday and granddaughter’s wedding. One must not underwrite this visit as trivial, given that it was the first in over a decade by an Indian prime minister, the previous being Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s in 2004; and more importantly, Modi’s highly strategic official visits to Russia and Afghanistan, before visiting Lahore. The presence of top Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal in the highly exclusive meeting becomes logical, given India’s heavy investment in copper and iron mines in Afghanistan, of which several of Jindal’s companies hold significant shares. One must note that Jindal played a significant role in bringing about a rapprochement between the two leaders. By no means a small task, as until mid-2015, it seemed that New Delhi had totally decided to ex-communicate Pakistan.
At the onset of 2016, two major setbacks were witnessed: first, very predictably, a terrorist strike at the Indian air force base in Pathankot, India, shortly followed by the attacks at the Bacha Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Once again, accusations were hurled, cross-border complicity immediately voiced and proven, with readily available evidence comprising telephone calls, receipts etc. The immediate casualty was the postponement of the scheduled foreign secretary level talks. Have these two events prophetically set the agenda for the rest of 2016? Can positive developments be optimistically forecast optimistically forecast vis-à-vis key areas? Or should there be a return to the older pattern of moving one step forward, two steps back?
As regards terrorism, many who held faith in the efforts by the government, now appear skeptical, criticising the establishment for being caught napping. The military has also deliberately kept the media’s access to Zarb-e-Azb fairly limited, which has again made people curious about how successful the military has been in weeding out terrorists. However, the adoration and love for General Raheel Sharif remain steadfast, with his popularity enhancing manifold, after the recent announcement of his not seeking extension in military service – a decision that demonstrates that all the admiration did not turn his head, and is reflective of military professionalism. Where on one hand the message is that it is the institution and not an individual who matters, it also puts the military on a timeline somewhat parallel to Obama’s withdrawal announcement from Afghanistan. Would this signify a wait and watch approach by the terrorists, who would, from time to time, carry out signature strikes and keep the situation turbulent?
Although countering terrorism can never be time-lined, 2016 has to be a year where all the stakeholders pool their genuine efforts to realise the goals of the NAP and exterminate terrorism and militancy for good.
Indeed, a very clichéd and naïve wish list, given the umpteen domestic as well as external spoilers, ranging from legitimate political actors to interest groups, friendly, allied, as well as adversarial states, who stand to benefit from a strife-ridden Pakistan, which is never strong and stable enough to actualise and enjoy the benefits of promising projects such as the CPEC. Where on one hand the thrust and continuity of the military’s counter-terrorism strategy will be affected by the next army chief, on the other, the civilian establishment has to take the ownership of, and work hard to realise the NAP’s objectives. Otherwise, Pakistan would continue to remain domestically insecure – a scenario that could be exacerbated by the prospect of new terrorist threats emerging within and beyond the region such as the Daesh or its affiliates.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India
To that end, Afghanistan is extremely critical to achieve domestic stability in Pakistan. The improved institutional linkages with regard to cooperation on terrorism, intelligence-sharing, and other related aspects are welcoming. Yet, more is always better. Would Washington and New Delhi feel comfortable with a stronger Kabul-Islamabad bondage? Logically, no. Yet, with India realising that Pakistan (and more specifically the Nawaz Sharif family enterprise) is critical to its successful access and speedy extraction of iron and copper from Afghanistan, there might actually be an economic route to stability and betterment in relations. Should monumental breakthroughs be expected? Not in the India-Pakistan case. Could there be more Pathankots? Unfortunately, the probability is high. The more these two countries or their leadership move towards rapprochement, more would be such stage-managed episodes, or interventions by spoilers. Furthermore, the chances of the bilateral dialogue remaining a non-starter and conditional, are high.
How would the US-Pakistan relationship progress in the coming months? Islamabad must keenly observe the trends shaping the US’ November 2016 presidential elections. Who the next commander-in-chief would be is important vis-à-vis Islamabad’s Kabul policy, as also the approach the new president and his team will take towards Saudi Arabia, Iran and Daesh. Pakistan is already in an extremely precariously balanced situation, where owing to a multitude of issues, it is committed to support the Washington-backed Riyadh alliance. Yet, it can neither afford to antagonise Iran - as a neighbour or as the custodian of Shia ideology - especially at a time when after decades, the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions have opened chances for economic exchange and energy sale.
The second important factor in the Washington-Islamabad bilateral would be nuclear energy cooperation. Would Pakistan settle for a strategic partnership agreement? Most unlikely; but Pakistan would like to be judged for the positive measures undertaken in safety and security matters, as opposed to constantly be reminded of history.
Obama, in his last State of the Union address, mentioned Afghanistan and Pakistan as likely to remain unstable in the coming decades. Should this be taken as an introduction of new factors of instability ensuring increased American military presence and turmoil for Afghanistan? With Pakistan remaining equally affected?
Despite opportunities such as the CPEC that have the potential to stabilise and enhance Pakistan’s economic potential, be highly instrumental in employment generation, and support infrastructure that will strengthen energy potential and minimise the grounds for extremism, 2016 can either steer Pakistan towards stability and progress or keep it deeply preoccupied with internal as well as external challenges.
With certain aspects such as a further drift in Saudi-Iranian relations, which are beyond its control, Islamabad has and can play a good mediator role. The need is to think prudently, strategise, and implement policies that defeat terrorism, instability and adversarial interests, and move towards the path to progress.