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Quetta attack shows gaps remain in anti-terror masterplan

Pakistan’s spirited battle against terrorism is far from over. On Sunday, attackers struck a Methodist church in Quetta, the capital of the country’s largest province, Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. There were dozens of casualties, with at least nine dead and more than 50 injured, but officials said the number of victims could have been much higher if the two attackers wearing suicide vests were not successfully gunned down in their attempt to enter the main hall, where more than 400 faithful were attending mass. The attack was claimed by the Khorasan Province chapter of Daesh.
The attack on a religious gathering and a religious minority is nothing new but is a grim reminder of the scale and complexity of the long-running challenge of terrorism that Pakistan faces. While the country has come a long way from the peak period of 2008 to 2014, a victory parade would be premature, as the latest attack proves. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), which tracks terrorism across the world’s most populated region, 2017 has been the least violent year in Pakistan since 2006. The data shows a total of approximately 60,000 people, including civilians and security forces personnel, were killed in Pakistan in terrorist acts between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 10, 2017. More than 1,000 have been killed this year, prior to the attack in Quetta on Sunday.
The roots of Pakistan’s current terrorism problem lie in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US and Washington’s swift military response in Afghanistan, which continues, having morphed into different states, to date. Sharing a 2,600km, mostly porous, border with Afghanistan, with the same ethnic Pashtun stock on both sides, meant that Pakistan was quickly drawn into the conflict. It snowballed into a major problem for Islamabad, with movement by militants across the border posing a containment challenge. With Pakistan’s civilian forces being tested and overrun in places, including the country’s loosely governed tribal heartland bordering Afghanistan, and casualties mounting, in 2009 Islamabad invoked the military into its first ever deployment and crackdown in the area under then-military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
While this operation produced relatively good results, the turning point in Pakistan’s fight came at the end of 2014, when the worst terrorist act in the country’s history occurred. This was when a school was attacked in Peshawar, with a group of armed men murdering 136 students, stunning Pakistan and the world. The attack, which was claimed by the Taliban, resulted in Pakistan formulating its first ever official counter-terrorism National Action Plan and the formidable Operation Zarb-e-Azb that resulted in a near-crippling of the terrorism infrastructure and capacity in the country.

Pakistan has come a long way since 2014 school massacre but state must do more to protect the nation’s religious minorities.

Adnan Rehmat

Pakistan on Saturday marked the third anniversary of the school attack and a stock-taking of the successes of the operation revealed it has resulted in more than 7,000 terrorists killed, and terrorist attacks and casualties reduced by two-thirds, as confirmed by SATP. The successes of the operation have been hailed by former US President Barack Obama and the leadership of the Pentagon, the US Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, US Central Command (Centcom), and NATO.
The backlash against the largely effective and successful military operations has been a spate of attacks between 2009 and now against the religious minorities, including Christians and Ahmadis. These attacks have been terrorist in nature rather than part of an inter-religious conflict, which historically has not been uncommon in Pakistan. Hundreds have been killed in attacks claimed by the Taliban or Daesh that were aimed at Pakistan’s underbelly. In September 2013, at least 127 were killed and 250 injured in an attack on a church in Peshawar. In March 2016, at least 70 died and more than 200 injured on an Easter festivity in Lahore. And in May 2010 at least 93 were killed and more than 120 injured in an attack on an Ahmadi congregation in Lahore.
The unfortunate attack on the church in Quetta on Sunday may appear to take the sheen off Pakistan’s significant recent strides against terrorism, which have boosted business activity and social life in even former trouble spots such as Swat, Peshawar, Waziristan and Karachi, but it also serves to highlight the gaps and shortcomings that still remain. The National Action Plan, adopted in 2014, has helped uncouple the state’s religious narrative from its nationalism and thereby generate popular public support for its beefy counter-terrorism policy. However, as the Quetta attack demonstrates, the next logical step for Pakistan staying the course for a better counter-terrorism outcome is removing the vulnerabilities of religious minorities, who remain a target of terrorists. Keeping its religious minorities safe is a key litmus test of Pakistan’s spirited fight against terrorism.
• Adnan Rehmat is a journalist, analyst and researcher based in Islamabad. His work focuses on politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1