LAHORE:With ties between extremists and Islamabad on the decline, militants are now faced with a more resolved and committed effort to eliminate them.
The recent revelations that the San Bernardino shooters had extremist ties to Pakistan might appear to confirm the narrative that Pakistan is consumed by a downward spiral of extremist violence.
But over the past year, it has quietly made some important, costly, and under-appreciated strides in its counter-militancy efforts.
Individually, none are groundbreaking, but together they point in a more promising direction for Pakistani society, regional stability, and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
First, the Pakistani army has pursued more comprehensive military operations in tribal areas than initially expected. Although it has not directly targeted the Haqqani Network as the United States hoped, Pakistan has actively targeted a wide array of militant groups, not just the Pakistani Taliban (TTP).
Second, Pakistani security forces have expanded their counter-militancy operations, not only against assets once under state purview that have now turned rogue, but also against a wider range of sectarian militant groups. Pakistan adopted a strategy of leadership targeting, or “decapitation,” against the once formidable Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian militant group with strong links to the Sunni extremist political group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Over the past year, LeJ leadership — once described as “untouchable” and “invincible” — has been systematically wiped out in a series of extrajudicial killings, possibly because it was drifting toward the Islamic State.
The counter-sectarian campaign could expand beyond LeJ. The Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) estimates that the state has conducted 20 major search operations that have netted nearly 100 key leaders from the militant-linked Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Chipping away at sectarian groups is important, because they feed other militant organizations like al Qaeda, TTP, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Third, Islamabad has augmented the military’s kinetic actions by denying extremist and militant groups the social space they have utilized and operated in for decades. It has begun to seriously enforce regulations on hate speech, on the misuse of mosque loudspeakers or amplifiers to prevent public incitement, and on weapons sales. Tempering sectarian mobilization with these tools was not new, but its enforcement is.
Finally, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority prohibited media coverage of banned organizations, specifically LeT and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, though there appears to be confusion and bureaucratic infighting over this judgment. Even critics of government shortcomings acknowledge “the space for pro-extremist mindset has gradually shrunk.”