EARLIER this month, an American drone struck a house in Kabul, killing the head of Al Qaeda, a UN-designated terrorist organisation. The chatter within the international community centred on how another Al Qaeda member was eliminated. But in Pakistan, the debate focused more on whether the American drone had used Pakistani airspace. Ordinarily, one would have thought that the weakening of Al Qaeda would be welcomed in Pakistan, too. After all, Pakistan has suffered deeply from terrorism since 2004 and continues to do so.

This is a familiar predicament our country faces. For years, while the world was struggling to forge a consensus on what constitutes terrorism, Pakistan was part of a group of countries which felt that violent acts committed during freedom struggles should not be treated as terrorism. Indeed, international law (specifically, UNGA resolution 45/130) allows people struggling for self-determination to use “all available means, including armed struggle”. However, bringing this into the scope of the definition of terrorism has clouded the debate in Pakistan. Extremists and terrorists have used this ambiguity to deepen their roots in Pakistani society. Many sanctioned entities have openly raised funds, creating the impression that the government was either unwilling to, or incapable of, reining in UN-sanctioned terrorists.

As such, on the external front, ever since 9/11, Pakistan has been blamed for inaction against terrorists. India first made common cause with the US in projecting itself as a victim of religiously motivated terrorism from Pakistan and then used the Mumbai and Pathankot incidents to diplomatically isolate Pakistan. The US also ramped up its rhetoric that Pakistan was not doing enough to rein in terrorists. The FATF was dexterously used to keep Pakistan on the grey list, despite the considerable progress made by the country to curb money laundering.

The reality is that Pakistani forces have demonstrated laudable capability to counter terrorists in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009, and in North Waziristan in 2014 through the Zarb-i-Azb operation. Intelligence-based operations launched through Raddul Fasaad in 2017 were also successful in eliminating terrorists on Pakistani soil. Efforts have also been made to control sectarian terrorism, eg, in recent years, Muharram has passed peacefully.

Pakistan needs a narrative that terrorists deserve no sympathy.

Having defeated the forces of terrorism on ground, it is time to remove the conceptual ambiguities. A good starting point is to build a national consensus that non-state actors shedding innocent blood cannot be justified in any ideological terms. It is outright terrorism, and must be condemned without any ifs and buts. True, there is a category of state terrorism, against which people have struggled during the decolonisation process and continue to do so in Palestine and occupied Kashmir. However, it is important to not confuse these two separate categories of terrorism. Otherwise, terrorist entities will continue to engage in broad interpretations, and will capitalise on this conceptual confusion to further deepen their roots in Pakistani society.

Pakistan needs a clear national narrative that terrorists deserve no sympathy, whatever ideology they may profess or pretend to project. Pakistan should continue to work, through intelligence support (but no bases), with the US or any other country as long as the objective is to rid the country and the region of terrorist elements.

Let us be clear. Pakistan, as indeed our region, once again faces a real threat. Terrorist entities are making a comeback in Afghanistan. With a serious humanitarian and economic crises unfolding rapidly in Afgha­nistan, there is a high risk that the country might des­cend into another civil war. The ungoverned spaces that will be created would attract even more militants and terrorists in the world to Afghanistan. Pakistan and the regional countries must persuade the Afghan Taliban that it would be in their own interest to not host terrorist groups like TTP, BLA, IS-K and others, which indulge in shedding innocent blood. The Afghan Taliban should know that unless they demonstrate a commitment to counterterrorism and respect women’s rights, the international community is not likely to extend formal recognition to their government. By hosting the Al Qaeda leader and terrorist elements like TTP, they are sending the wrong signal.

According to Islam, taking a life (“unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land”) is tantamount to killing entire humanity. That indicates that if an individual or a group engages in indiscriminate killings or creates disorder that leads to shedding innocent blood, these acts cannot be condoned. Other religions provide similar guidance.

The writer, former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2022

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