This week’s brutal attacks in Quetta were an indictment of everything Islamabad has been doing to fight terrorism.
he terrorist attack on a police training academy in Quetta, Pakistan, on Tuesday was a horror of epic scale. Sixty-one people died, most cadets, and many of the injured are in critical condition. The attack was only the latest in a series of atrocities in Quetta and not even the worst. But the scale of the failure that allowed the attack to happen, especially for a country in the midst of a war against terrorist groups, was shocking.
The December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar, in which terrorists killed more than 130 children, was supposed to be Pakistan’s 9/11. It generated deeper than usual navel-gazing in Pakistan’s brutally self-critical national discourse. For a few months in 2015, a new energy was across the airwaves and on the street. The army, freshly empowered to convict and hang terrorists, together with law enforcement authorities unleashed offensives nationwide (ongoing as we speak), killing hundreds of people, capturing thousands, and injecting a new confidence into Pakistan’s domestic gait. After years of wishy-washy responses to the existential threat of terrorism, Pakistanis thought they were taking back their country.
It would be unfair to judge the coffins of dozens of young cadets in Quetta as evidence of the utter failure of those hopes. But the cries of mourning come from a series of failures: operational, tactical, and strategic.
If Pakistani decision-makers, especially the all-powerful army and intelligence chiefs, don’t soberly examine these failures, the only long-term outcome will be utter defeat at the hands of Pakistan’s inability to assess and eliminate threats to the nation.
The Quetta attack represents an operational failure because a facility with a known vulnerability — a low and incomplete boundary wall — was left so unprotected that a group of just three well-armed men could pull off an assault on more than 700 recruits. That will give terrorists the confidence to single out other exposed targets for similarly disproportional attacks.
The attack was a tactical failure because the two groups involved, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Islamic State, are both known enemies of Pakistan, with a track record of successful attacks. Pakistan has scored several notable successes of its own against them, including the killing of LeJ founder Malik Ishaq by police in July 2015. But every operational victory for these groups — especially one as spectacular as this — gives them a wider tactical advantage. That these groups, facing the most robust and brutal campaign ever against them, can still mobilize the will, the resources, and the technical capacity to execute an attack on this scale is the very definition of tactical success. Pakistani soldiers still fighting the war across the country need the encouragement and support of a grateful nation. Attacks like Quetta undermine that confidence and erode not only public trust in the course of the war but also the army’s morale.
Most of all, Quetta was a strategic failure. The entire basis of the terrorists’ campaign is to degrade the statehood of Pakistan, as they’ve explicitly stated. Pakistan continues to be the crucial front line of modern statehood. Its survival and success symbolize the resilience and endurance of statehood in an era when nonstate actors’ power is growing. A single attack doesn’t undercut a country’s statehood. But this attack, in that city, at this time, against these victims? It poses a serious challenge to Pakistani leaders.
The majority of the victims were Baluch, a local minority group. This is significant because recruiting young Baluch men to put their lives on the line for the country was a major win for a state that has been irritated by archrival India’s recent flirtations with Baluch separatists.
The attack took place in Quetta, a garrison city that is growing weary of constant suffering. These feelings are complicated by Quettans’ sense of disenfranchisement due to long-standing economic and political marginalization, compared with the other provincial capitals of Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar.
And the attack was perfectly timed, coming soon after the emergence of a split between the army and the prime minister on how to deal with India in the aftermath of the Uri attack in Indian-administered Kashmir. Any intelligence and security failure of this scale legitimizes asking tougher questions of the army leadership. Challenging the army is controversial even in tranquil times, and given the current toxic discourse, such questions could elicit strong reactions from a military that often feels besieged by both external enemies and internal critics.
Finally, consider the target. Although it was a vulnerable area, this wasn’t a soft target of the kind struck by terrorists before, like a school, hospital, or park. This was a symbol of the state, of the foundation of state capacity, a place where young men are transformed into the pillars that hold up the nation. The police, like the army, represent that most basic element of any state — the monopoly of violence. If Pakistan can’t protect the very people charged with protecting common citizens, what chance do ordinary folk have? The more nights Pakistanis spend awake pondering these fears, the bigger the victory for the terrorists.
So what can Pakistan do to prevent this cancerous set of failures from metastasizing into a broader defeat? The operational front has to be addressed by elected civilian leaders. If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif does not have confidence in his party’s leaders in Baluchistan, he needs to have the courage to sack them. If he is confident that elected leaders can deliver, he needs to extract a lot more effort from the ruling party’s leaders in the province. Allowing civilian facilities to be sitting ducks for terrorist attacks can’t be blamed on anyone but the civilian authorities. The lives of at least some of the young cadets killed in Quetta could have been saved if Baluchistan was being governed better, so at least some heads need to roll. But going by the track record, none will. The failure to hold the right people accountable will convert an operational failure into a tactical defeat.
On the tactical front, Pakistan’s intelligence and military operations have to assess whether enough is being done to degrade, disrupt, and dismantle groups like LeJ. The constant allegations of selective justice — targeting some groups while tacitly ignoring others — will not go away. And every domestic failure will cause them to grow in volume and intensity. Here, too, military leaders need to examine why the canopy of security they are charged to provide in Baluchistan is so often shredded by terrorists’ shrapnel. Without deep introspection and accountability, the tactical failure in Quetta has the potential to evolve into a strategic threat.
Finally, Pakistani leaders need to decide whether their contest for power and control over resources is more or less important than the country’s survival as a viable and respectable entity. Opposition leader Imran Khan’s threats to have his party workers lay siege to Islamabad next week have not been affected by the tragedy in Quetta. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s consistent refusal to pass legislation that would satisfy Khan’s demand for transparency exacerbates the current crisis. Both men are callously pursuing narrow political agendas at a time of deep national insecurity.
Compounding their quarrels is the larger structural contest between the elected government and the military. Much of the political challenge faced by the prime minister is believed to come from generals who want him to grant soon-to-retire army chief Raheel Sharif an extension of service. As ever, the discussion about Pakistan’s future ends where the military and intelligence establishment’s control begins.
The attack in Quetta was concerted, calculated, and reasoned. For one moment, on one day, in one place, the terrorists beat Pakistan operationally, tactically, and strategically. They are smart. Making the same old mistakes in countering the terrorists is not smart. Stupid never wins wars. Pakistan needs to get smart.
Photo credit: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images