FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 33

Azm-e-Istehkam: Need to develop a national consensus

After a meeting of the Central Apex Committee of National Action Plan (NAP), the government announced plans for a new national counterterrorism campaign, with support from the armed forces and all law enforcement agencies. The decision came in response to a sharp increase in terrorist attacks in KP and Balochistan in recent months.

The announcement of Azm-e-Istehkam follows severe security challenges facing the country, including nearly 1,000 casualties from almost 700 incidents of violence in 2023 alone. It is relevant to add here that the regions most affected by violence, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, are also key areas for CPEC projects and valuable mineral resources.

The timing of Azm-e-Istehkam is significant. It comes in the wake of a recent high-profile visit to China by PM Shehbaz Sharif and Army Chief General Asim Munir. During this visit, the security of Chinese nationals and investments in Pakistan, particularly those related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was a key agenda item. This visit was quickly followed by a trip to Pakistan by a senior Chinese official, who emphasized the need to enhance security for Chinese interests.

China is naturally concerned over recent attacks on its installations and personnel in Pakistan, including a deadly assault in March that resulted in the death of five Chinese engineers. With $62 billion invested in CPEC, China is keen to protect its investments and urging Pakistan to launch a military operation.

The launch of Azm-e-Istehkam has met with strong opposition from major political parties, including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Awami National Party (ANP), and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). These parties have expressed concern about the lack of parliamentary consultation and emphasized the need for developing a national consensus on the issue. On the other hand, the PTI-led Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government has withheld support for the operation pending clarity on its details and procedures. ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman have both opposed the operation, calling it a destabilizing initiative. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who is very vocal on the issue, has said the apex committee’s decision would make the country “weak”. Similar concerns have been voiced by the ANP, which has said that they would not support the move unless their reservations were addressed.

In response to these misgivings, the PM’s Office (PMO) clarified a few days ago that the campaign would not be a kinetic large-scale military operation, nor would it entail the mass displacement of the local population. The PMO pointed out that “previous kinetic operations were conducted to physically dislodge terrorists from their known locations which (became) no-go areas and compromised the writ of the state. These operations required mass displacement of the local population and systemic clearance of affected areas”. But this time no large-scale military operation is being planned where displacement of population will be required.

Although government spokesmen have clarified that there are no political aims of this operation which is designed to end the rising wave of terrorism ongoing since the past few months, the opposition parties are not convinced. The government looks at Azm-i-Istehkam as a “multi-domain, multi-agency, whole of the system national vision” to ensure stability in Pakistan. To quote, “It is meant to reinvigorate and re-energise the ongoing implementation of the Revised National Action Plan, which was initiated after the national consensus across the political spectrum. The proposed operation would energise intelligence-based operations to decisively root out terrorists, the crime-terror nexus, and violent extremism.”

It may be added here that Azm-i-Istehkam is the latest in a series of counterterrorism operations launched by the Pakistan Army since the mid-2000s. More recent operations include Zarb-i-Azb, launched in 2014 to combat militants in North Waziristan, and RaddulFasaad, initiated in 2017 under Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa to eliminate what was then described as latent terrorist threats in the country.

While these operations achieved tactical successes, including the reduction of terrorist incidents and the elimination of high-value targets, they did not completely eradicate militancy from the country. The ANP has said that the National Assembly, the Senate and the stakeholders should be taken on board. Some critics are of the view that Pakistan’s decision to comply with Chinese demands should not be at the cost of national interests. The operation also risks escalating tensions with Afghanistan, especially if cross-border strikes against militants in Afghanistan are conducted, which could lead to broader regional conflict.

The lack of transparency surrounding Operation Azm-e-Istehkam is another issue which has created suspicions among the public and opposition parties, especially because details about the operation’s duration and methodology have not been divulged yet. Further, the decision to launch this operation without proper parliamentary consultation raises serious questions about democratic norms and the balance of power within the country.

It has rightly been said that to be successful operation Azm e Istehkam, while using kinetic measures, must also address the underlying social, economic, and political factors that fuel extremism. Additionally, the potential environmental and social impacts of increased resource extraction activities following the operation could further weaken Pakistan’s fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities. The best way to go about this new anti-terrorist plan is to discuss the matter thoroughly in parliament and develop a national consensus so that all stakeholders own it and throw their full weight behind it.