Pakistan shifts military strategy to fight ISIS, Taliban

By Javed Mahmood

Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, launched in February, is showing results in the crackdown on terrorism and militancy, data show. But Pakistani forces must shape their strategies to ensure lasting security, analysts say. Pakistani border security forces take part in military drills in Peshawar last November 19. [A Majeed/AFP]

Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, launched in February, is showing results in the crackdown on terrorism and militancy, data show. But Pakistani forces must shape their strategies to ensure lasting security, analysts say. Pakistani border security forces take part in military drills in Peshawar last November 19. [A Majeed/AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad has stifled terrorists' ability to carry out major attacks in Pakistan by targeting terrorists and militant groups over the past three months, say analysts.

Launched in February after an uptick in deadly attacks claimed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and allied militant outfits, such as Jamatul Ahrar (JA), the operation succeeded quickly in stemming the violence.

In early February, JA released a video announcing the start of insurgent "Operation Ghazi", stating that its target would be legislative bodies, the Pakistani army, intelligence agencies, civil society organisations, banks and financial institutions, secular political parties, journalists, educational institutions, and a slew of other targets that reject JA's extremist ideology.

In the video, JA said it would not target crowded places such as markets, hospitals or mosques and other public gatherings.

But staying true to terrorist hypocrisy, "Operation Ghazi" started February 13 with a suicide bombing on Mall Road, one of Lahore's main arteries, at rush hour during a protest. The blast killed 15 people, including 6 police officers, and injured up to 87 others.

Three days later, an ISIS suicide bomber struck the shrine of 13th-century Muslim Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh Province, killing at least 88 people and injuring more than 350, according to local media.

These two deadly attacks were among a string of attacks in February throughout Pakistan, becoming the impetus for the launch of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad on February 22. Troops carrying out Radd-ul-Fasaad mean to solidify the gains of on-going counter-terrorism Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014.

A target on ISIS, JA

"To counter militants' 'Operation Ghazi' and curb the militancy of ISIS and its associated groups in Pakistan, the military launched a pro-active operation ... and killed several militants especially those connected to ISIS, Jamatul Ahrar and their supporters," Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad, told Pakistan Forward.

"Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched against the Taliban while Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad was initiated against ISIS, Jamatul Ahrar and groups supporting ISIS in Pakistan and to consolidate the gains of Zarb-e-Azb," he said.

Since the launch of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, there has been "considerable improvement in the security situation in Pakistan" as militants are "not in a position to carry out bloodshed in the country with the same intensity that they showed in February", said Gul.

Chasing terrorists on the border

"During Operation Zarb-e-Azb, some commanders and hard-core [terrorists] took refuge in the border areas ... from where they used to attack Pakistani security personnel and civilians," senior security analyst Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah of Peshawar told Pakistan Forward.

Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad targeted the militants hiding in these border areas, he said, and either killed or captured militants or forced them to flee.

"The Pakistani army has conducted operations in Mohmand, Bajaur and Kurram agencies in 2017 that left militants with no other choice but to run away to ... Afghanistan," he said.

Additional border security and co-operation with Afghan security forces are essential to eliminate extremism and militancy, he said.

"The Pakistani government and army have urged Afghanistan and NATO to take strict action against militants who have shifted to areas in Kunar Province [Afghanistan]," he said.

"If the Afghan government and NATO forces do not take [more] serious action against militants sitting in Afghanistan, it will lead to more bloodshed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and will strengthen the militant groups," he warned.

Shah welcomed the killing of some notorious militant commanders in air strikes and said that Pakistan, Afghanistan and international forces must develop a joint strategy to crush militancy.

"Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad is moving ahead with success, and we have not seen any major terrorist attack in Pakistan in the past month, which is a breakthrough for this operation," he said.

Lasting security essential

Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad is seeing results, as shown by the CRSS quarterly report published May 9.

The on-going military operation has forced militant outfits like TTP, and TTP allies Lashkar-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, to go into hiding, while ISIS has tried to gain attention by claiming responsibility for major suicide attacks at two Sufi shrines -- Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh and Shah Noorani shrine in Balochistan last November.

Even though militants carried out at least 11 attacks across Pakistan in February alone, they suffered more casualties than did civilians from January-March 2017, says the report. During this period, security forces killed 189 militants and 58 criminals, while 172 civilians were killed by militancy and violence.

During the first quarter of 2017, militants killed 64 security personnel, compared to 104 killed during the same period in 2016.

"No doubt security has further improved after the launch of the new military operation, but it will not last long if the army and other security organisations do not take action against the powerful players of this unending bloody war in Pakistan," Mubasher Mir, security analyst and resident editor of the Daily Pakistan in Karachi, told Pakistan Forward.

"Security organisations should take action against the influential financiers, facilitators and supporters of militants," he said.

Fighting a new threat

As the operation against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is reclaiming territory, the appearance of ISIS or its affiliates in Pakistan is a matter of concern, says CRSS.

Reports indicate that militants from TTP and other proscribed outfits are shifting their loyalties and joining ISIS, and this trend, if continued, could transform the scenario of militancy in Pakistan, the report warns.

Instead of choosing urban centres for attacks, which has been the operational strategy of other militant outfits in the past, ISIS has begun attacking less guarded, less settled areas, reflecting a new strategy and raising questions about the effectiveness of the security operations carried out so far, the report said.

The civil and military leadership must review its policies to come up with a better understanding of what it has missed in its resolve to eliminate militancy from society, report concluded.

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