Quetta Attack: Will Pakistan Army General Raheel Sharif go home?
Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif isn't going out in a blaze of glory as he would have liked or even expected.
In January 2016 he had vowed that the year would see the end of terrorism and that it would be a "year of national solidarity" with the nation witnessing the birth of peace and justice.
In many speeches thereafter, General Sharif and the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) have touted the success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in 2014 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) supposedly against terrorists of all hues.
However, the last three months have seen the unraveling of General Sharif's assertions.
Terrorists struck at a Quetta hospital killing 73, mostly lawyers.
There was another attack in Quetta, followed by twin blasts in Peshawar and Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) on 2 September. One died in Peshawar and 14 were killed in KPK while scores injured in both places.
A suicide bomber injured a dozen in Shikarpur, Sindh, while two were killed and 10 injured in a blast in Quetta on the same day.
30 were killed and dozens injured in a suicide attack in the Mohmand Agency.
Four Hazara Shia women were dragged from a public bus and shot dead on the road.
While minor intermittent attacks have continued unabated, it was on 24 October, that the latest major terrorist attack took place.
Three terrorists stormed the New Sariab Police Training College near Quetta where some 700 recruits were sleeping. They killed more than 60 and left over 150 wounded.
Apart from the police training academy attack, there were at least five other terrorist attacks of minor significance on 25 October in KPK, Balochistan and Sindh.
Too battered to be strong?
What the latest Quetta attack showed is that despite the proclaimed 'success' of Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan's fight against terrorism is a long way from being over and 2016 is certainly not going to be the year when it ends.
The post-mortem of the event will no doubt reveal intelligence failures, inadequate safety standards - including lack of adequate perimeter security - in this case mud walls and a solitary guard, possible inside information etc.
In its wake there have been the usual commitments to wipe out terrorism, solemn promises of further intensify action against terrorists, assurances that nobody will be spared and so on.
The fact of the matter is that despite repeated attacks, these lapses have continued apace. More people will continue to die and the post mortem process will be repeated till such time as the leadership comes to grip with the elephant in the room.
The lesson that Pakistan still has not learned is that it cannot fight terrorism selectively. Both the civil and military leadership are guilty of such duplicitous policies.
Not a lone fight
It is a well-known fact that Zarb-e-Azb has not been across the board, despite the assertions of General Sharif. The army has not acted against 'strategic assets' like the Haqqani network, the LeT and the JeM.
Either the General does not consider these groups as terrorists or is misrepresenting facts.
The civilians have been equally guilty. The National Action Plan (NAP), formulated in the wake of the December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar notwithstanding, the Interior Minister openly met on 21 October with a delegation of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council that included leaders from banned groups like Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) and Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil of Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM).
The international terrorist Hafiz Saeed is allowed to spew violence on TV talk shows even as the LeT publicly acknowledges that one of the terrorists who carried out the Uri attack was their own. Is the government signaling that terrorism is par for the course?
However, in the Quetta case a larger portion of the blame would have to be accepted by the General. For one thing, the law and order machinery in Balochistan since at least 2005 has been under the effective control of the Army/Frontier Corps rather than the civil police and administration.
Second, it is obvious that the success of Zarb-e-Azb is questionable. If indeed the back of the terrorists has been broken, as the General proclaims, then what accounts for the spate of terrorist incidents, with several major ones taking place in quick succession? '
Quite likely the terrorists have simply dispersed, gone underground and are biding their time, attacking targets of opportunity.
Tragically for the General, on 23 October, a day before the Quetta attack, he had stated "Having overcome the heartless enemy, we are set to march forward on the road to progress," and described Operation Zarb-e-Azb as an example of 'war for peace'.
His claim that by eliminating terrorist networks from the far reaches of Pakistan-Afghanistan border, an environment of peace and prosperity was flourishing sounded hollow the very next day.
To be fair to him, the General has been repeatedly emphasising that the NAP needed to be implemented comprehensively and has been critical of the civil government not pulling its weight.
Against the backdrop of continuing terrorist violence, the coagulation of at least three other crises becomes significant. These are:
- The forthcoming 1 November 2016 Supreme Court decision on the maintainability of a petition alleging corruption against Nawaz Sharif a la Panama Papers.
- The 2 November 2016 shutdown that Imran Khan is planning in Islamabad that could well turn violent.
- The on-going controversy over the Dawn story about a high-level security meeting that goes to the heart of the civil-military tensions. With the Army wanting the culprits of the 'national security breach' to be brought to book and the government wanting to close the chapter without any enquiry, a confrontation is brewing.
What has added grist to the rumour mill is the scheduled retirement of General Sharif at the end of November and Nawaz gearing up to choose his successor anytime now.
Given the spike in terrorist attacks that have eroded the credibility of General Sharif will he walk into the sunset with his reputation tarnished and his grand design of an end to terrorism in 2016 badly mauled?
Or will he, in the 'supreme national interest' leverage the terrorist attacks, street protests and the confrontation with the civilian government to gain more time to restore his moniker as the most popular army chief in recent memory?
Pakistan and the rest of the world will not have to wait long for the answer.
The author retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is being released shortly. He tweets as @tilakdevasher1.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen