Can Pakistan's Imran Khan take tougher stance against terrorism?

  • Abdul Shakoor Khan
  • 7 Aug 2018

As suicide bombings and militant assaults claimed the lives of many politicians, impacting the recent election campaign nationwide, a general consensus to eradicate terror networks has emerged from across party lines.

A man mourns the death of his family member at the site of a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. A suicide bomber struck outside a crowded polling station in Pakistan's southwestern city of Quetta, killing dozens of people as Pakistanis cast ballots in a general election. ( Arshad Butt / AP )

Imran Khan is close to holding the reins of power in Pakistan following the July 25 vote, the eleventh parliamentary elections in the country’s 71-year long and chequered political history.

For Khan, the path ahead is full of challenges and obstacles, many experts argue.

He has to fix issues ranging from a sinking economy to growing unemployment and longstanding energy and water crises. 

But there is one bigger monster – terrorism – that needs to be tackled head-on.

It even haunted the recent elections. 

Islamabad-based senior journalist Mati Ullah Jan said that several terror strikes across the country impacted the election campaigns of almost all the political parties.

“It was the level of threat that made the election commission to request for a heavy deployment of the Pakistan army on the polling day,’ Mati Ullah told TRT World. 

The move drew criticism from some political parties and rights groups as they saw it as an effort to undermine the sanctity of elections. 

“It shows how big was the threat of terrorism and how it’s going to be a challenge for the new rulers,’’ Mati Ullah said.

For regular Pakistanis, the scale of terror attacks witnessed during the elections was yet another chilling reminder that terrorists could wreak havoc on the country at any time.

Pakistan will remember July 13  as one of the deadliest days: a Daesh suicide bomber blew himself up at a campaign rally in Mastung district of southwestern Balochistan, killing at least 150 people including a candidate for the provincial assembly and wounding several others.

The street in Yakatoot area of Peshawar city where the blast took place on July 12, killing 21 people.(TRTWorld)

Pakistan was already mourning the deaths of 21 civilians, who had been killed in yet another suicide bombing a day earlier, when a member of the outlawed terror group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan blew himself up at a political gathering in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. 

Haroon Bilour, a candidate for the provincial assembly from Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party(ANP), lost his life in the incident. 

Bilour was not new to terror attacks. His father and former senior provincial minister Bashir Bilour was killed in a similar attack in December 2012 while he was campaigning for the next year's elections. 

A friend of Haroon’s said that Haroon foresaw the fatal terror attack but because of his responsibilities as a political heir of his family, the threat did not deter him from taking up the job.

The ANP, which governed the KPK province between 2008 and 2013, has a long history of being targeted by militants. It endorsed the first major military offensive that drove militants out of the picturesque Swat Valley.

In retaliation, militants engaged in revenge killings, assassinating several hundred members of the ANP in the Swat. 

Danial Bilour, 21, with his party comrades,(TRTWorld)

When Haroon Bilour was attacked, his son Danial Bilour, 21, a former University of Sussex student, was about to join him. "I was on my way to join the corner meeting my father was supposed to address, I was on his side during the campaign trail for last two months,’’ Danial told TRT World at his Peshawar residence.

While Danial exudes passion for leading the people of his constituency, he also understands he may be risking his life over politics.

“We are the prime target because when my grandfather was alive there was a debate in Pakistan about the good and the bad Taliban. We were the only one to say that any form of extremism was not acceptable,’’ Danial said.

Teenager Jameel who lost his father Gul Dad Khan in the July 12 blast.(TRTWorld)

Jameel, a teenager who lost his father Gul Dad Khan, 50, in the blast has eight siblings. Khan was the lone breadwinner in the family. Jameel and his siblings have no one to rely on. Their uncle too was critically injured in the attack.   

‘’My father was not following any political party and he was just here as a resident and came out to see the ANP leader Haroon Bilour as almost everyone in the street did,’’ Jameel said. 

He said that they had no idea that a bomb could strike the rally. 

Peshawar is not only at the forefront of Pakistan's war on terror but also became a key position for the US-backed war against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s in neighbouring Afghanistan. The state has suffered ever since. 

The Peshawar city police have lost many of its senior and well-trained officers to terror attacks.  

Kamal Hussain Toori is a superintendent of the Peshawar police. 

He described the 2014 attack on an army public school in Peshawar that killed more than 150 people, mostly students, as  "the worst attack" on the country. 

The Pakistani military perceived the attack as an unforgivable transgression, leading the government to formulate what they called The 20-Point National Action Plan, which included death sentences for convicted terrorists and a detailed map for counterinsurgency operations. 

Peshawar, a northwestern city of Pakistan, became the centre of the military action. According to the police superintendent Toori, the city was exposed to a serious security threat emanating from across the Afghan border.

Toori recalled the time when almost every member of the police felt vulnerable to militant attacks.  Toori, a Pashtun from the tribal area Kurram, said he's survived at least three attacks and yet he sounds optimistic about the future. He believes that the government's recent decision to merge tribal northwestern tribal areas with the KPK province would bring peace to the region. 

Kamal Hussain Toori, a superintendent of police in Peshawar, says he has survived two militant attacks while performing his duty.(TRTWorld)

Prior to the merger, Pakistan's seven tribal areas, commonly known as agencies, were semi-autonomous with the presence of Pakistani state being almost negligible.  As a result, such areas turned into sanctuaries for extremist elements who later rallied against the state.  

Toori hopes the merger would help the Pakistani state to keep the extremist elements at bay. 

“Because of administrative constraints the militants were exploiting these areas but now the situation will change there soon after its merger with the KPK province.’’

Imran Khan’s Party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf PTI has become the first political party to rule the KPK province for the second consecutive term. As the PTI is in the preparation to run the central government too, many observers argue that people in the KPK province are likely to have a period to respite from violence, poverty and unemployment.  

Even the PTI couldn't steer clear of violence. A suicide bomber killed a PTI leader Ikramullah Gandapur along with 20 other people just a few days before the polling. 

Gandapur was elected as a member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly from Dera Ismail Khan after the seat fell vacant following the death of his brother Israrullah Gandapur, a former law minister, who was also killed in a suicide attack in October 2013.

Contrary to the position of many PTI supporters that Imran Khan will fill the security and economic vacuum in the region, Danial Bilour urged caution, "We all know there are some madrassas involved in creating and brainwashing militants, and Imran Khan has been soft on them.’’

Bilour referred to the grant of about $250,000 issued by the PTI government to a religious school named Madrassa Darul Uloom Haqqania, which is known for some of its Afghan students who later became top commanders in the Afghan Taliban. Bilour said it proves that Imran Khan has a "soft corner" for the Taliban supporters.

Imran Khan defended the move in 2016 saying the funds were allotted to tackle social alienation of the seminary students and bring them closer to the mainstream government. 

Khan's approach toward the Taliban, which also includes his advocacy for opening a Tehreek-e-Taliban office in Pakistan, has earned him a nickname "Taliban Khan." His critics, however, refuse to show any sympathy toward the militant group that has been waging a war against the Pakistani state for over a decade.

Fielding criticism on being soft on terrorism, PTI spokesman Fawad Chaudhry told TRT World that eliminating terrorism is one of the top priorities of the party.

"We have sacrificed a lot to get rid of this menace," Chaudhry said. "Our brave army men have been fighting relentlessly to defeat terrorists and laid their lives for the cause.’’ 

But Danial finds Khan's stance unconvincing. “Terrorists are created in madrassas and they are brainwashed there while no system of checks and balances are available," he said, "It's his (Imran's) call. Because today it's us facing terrorism, tomorrow it could be them. That's why he should eliminate the [extremist] mindset once and for all.”