Pakistan continues to be a major target of terrorism, most recently demonstrated by the attack on Bacha Khan University, which killed 20 people.
Only a week before, three attacks in close succession at a UN-backed polio clinic in Quetta, a local broadcaster and the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad killed at least 20 people and injured more than 30, which included civilians and security personnel.
Slowly but surely, Pakistan’s terrorism crisis has morphed into an existential nightmare, one that is threatening to unravel any semblance of stability. As the country finds itself at the crossroads of prosperity and failure, its fight against terror is more important now than ever.
Pakistan is one of the main victims of terrorism, a fact often ignored in the West. To put matters in perspective, Pakistan’s terrorism-related deaths from 2007 to 2014 numbered 1,592 – a 940 percent increase from 1998-2006, according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index.
The same study also ranks Pakistan fourth out of 124 in a list of countries most affected by terrorism with the tragic Peshawar army school attack in late 2014 serving as an ominous exclamation point.
The Afghanistan connection
Many of Pakistan’s problems stem from the political upheaval in Afghanistan. The US invasion after 9/11 turned the lawless border between the two countries into a breeding ground for terrorist activity.
Nestled between three volatile borders, Pakistan is also situated in one of the most geopolitically sensitive areas of the world, with different players vying for competing interests.
Ongoing US drone campaigns have radicalized segments of the local population and mobilized groups such as the Pakistani Taliban to carry out attacks against civilians and military targets. These attacks only exacerbate sectarian tensions between Pakistan’s Sunni and Shia communities and continue to bring into question the integrity of Pakistani statehood. With ISIL now in the mix, the situation can only degrade further.
The military and … the ISI must take fundamental efforts to cease the practice of using terrorism as a foreign policy asset and avoid domestic blowback.
External factors aside, Pakistan must also take a genuine stance against terrorism within its own borders, root out internal terrorist sympathies and take a leadership role in ending the use of proxies.
The military and particularly Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, must make fundamental efforts to cease the practice of using terrorism as a foreign policy asset and avoid domestic blowback.
With a projected GDP growth of over 5 percent for the next three years, an improved currency and recent consolidation of its three stock exchanges into the new Pakistan Stock Exchange, the country might be showing signs of economic progress after years of volatility.
The $46bn China Pakistan Economic Corridor project, linking the Gwadar port to the Chinese city of Kashgar, has the potential to turn Pakistan into a strategic trading hub.
Also given Iran’s post-sanctions reintegration into the world economy, a rekindling of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to address the energy shortage also becomes a real possibility.
Peace with India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit last month also signals that peace with India, although difficult, might not be as elusive as some believe. Similarly, Afghanistan’s new President, Ashraf Ghani, has also shown signs that he is not willing to give up on improving ties with its eastern neighbor despite pressure from within his government.
History has shown that Pakistan’s military remains the de facto power within the state. However, the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, General Raheel Sharif, has shown restraint by focusing on Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Northwest Pakistan and rooting out political mafias in Karachi rather than plotting coups.
Nawaz Sharif’s civilian government continues to govern after what marked Pakistan’s first peaceful democratic transition in the country’s 68-year history.
Often viewing India as a territorial threat, even the ISI might also be on board with improving relations.
In a 2008 research report for his master’s degree at the US Army War College, the now Director-General of the ISI, Rizwan Akhtar, had argued that Pakistan should “aggressively pursue rapprochement with India”.
Given that the recent Pathankot attack on an Indian army base is unlikely to deter ongoing dialogue, it seems that a substantial shift in the bilateral relationship based on cooperation and goodwill is under way. A similar approach with Afghanistan in the form of an inter-intelligence accord has both nations bolstering their fight against a shared threat.
With these positive internal and external developments, it is imperative for Pakistan to capitalize on the political environment and continue to focus on the fight against terrorism in an effort to maintain economic and diplomatic momentum.
Pakistan’s future, and its very soul, depends on it.