The spate of terrorist attacks in various parts of the country earlier this month has once again underscored the gravity of the menace of terrorism confronting the nation and the urgency of a well-considered strategy to counter it. The ease with which the terrorists were able to strike at targets of their choice causing huge losses of precious human lives and material destruction highlighted the absence of an effective counter-terrorism strategy and the failure of security agencies to defeat the diabolical forces behind the terrorist attacks. It is also a reflection of an inadequate understanding of the factors, which are responsible for the monster of terrorism that stalks the nation.

Terrorism as we know it now was a rarity in Pakistan till the end of 1970s. The seeds of this problem were sown in 1980s when Pakistan under Ziaul Haq supported the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation with the active support of the US, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries. Our Afghanistan policy of 1980s indirectly encouraged religious extremism and Kalashnikov culture in Pakistan, and laid the basis for sectarian terrorism from which the country suffered grievously during the 1990s and continues to suffer even now.

The 1990s also saw the evolution of Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy starting from 1994 when the Taliban initiated their military campaign to wrest power from Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance. The US ultimatum in the aftermath of 9/11 forced Pervez Musharraf to bring about a U-turn in our pro-Taliban policy. In fact, we became a partner of the US in its attack on Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime, and replace it with a regime of its own choice. The later US efforts to subdue the Afghan Taliban through the use of brute force sucked their tribal brethren on the Pakistan side of the border into the armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Our government’s positive response to the US demands to prevent cross-border support to the Afghan Taliban diverted the fury of their Pakistani supporters to targets in Pakistan in the form of terrorist attacks. Thus, while the burden of fighting of the US forces and their allies in Afghanistan was lightened to some extent, Pakistan became the victim of terrorism that has caused the loss of thousands of precious lives besides inflicting enormous damage on our economy. The problem may have been aggravated by the joining of forces by some of the jihadi elements fighting in the Indian occupied Kashmir with the disgruntled elements in our tribal areas.

In addition to the sectarian, Afghanistan and Kashmir related dimensions of the problem of terrorism, the country is also suffering from terrorist attacks in Balochistan because of the Baloch militancy. This is the result of decades of neglect of the province by successive Pakistani governments in the past and Pervez Musharraf’s misguided policy to rely on the use of force to overcome the discontent in Balochistan leading to the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti. As for Karachi, the militant wings of different political parties have also been responsible for several terrorist attacks.

Thus, the roots of the menace of terrorism in Pakistan can be traced to our flawed internal and external policies in the past. What we need is a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, which should cover adequately the various dimensions of this problem. A partial approach simply would not do.

To begin with, we need to recognise that there is a virtual international consensus against the menace of international terrorism. While our declaratory policy condemns terrorism in any form or manifestation, we need to ensure that our operational internal and external policies do not leave any room for ambiguity. So we must act resolutely to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. We should also realise that the fact that Osama bin Laden was found living in a Pakistani cantonment before he was killed by the US special forces team has badly damaged our credibility internationally. We cannot afford the repetition of this experience in the future.

As for the fighting between the US led forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan, we must tell the Americans that while we will fully support their efforts to dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban despite their obscurantism are a legitimate part of the political spectrum in Afghanistan. Therefore, we cannot be a party to their fight against the Afghan Taliban that amounts to blatant interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Certainly, it does not make any sense for us to destabilise our own country, as we have done in the past to help the Americans pull their chestnuts out of fire in Afghanistan. However, we should make offer of full cooperation in encouraging and facilitating an intra-Afghan dialogue, inclusive of the Taliban and other Afghan parties, aimed at national reconciliation and a political settlement to ensure durable peace and stability in Afghanistan.

In the case of Kashmir, we must maintain our principled policy of seeking a peaceful solution of the dispute in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Our operational Kashmir policy should strictly reflect our declaratory policy. No group in Pakistan should be allowed to go beyond the limits of our declaratory Kashmir policy.

Internally, we need to improve the performance of our intelligence agencies, which have failed miserably in overcoming the problem of terrorism. Their capability to penetrate the terrorist cells and eradicate them must be enhanced significantly. Strict control should be exercised on the sale and purchase of any materials, which can be used for terrorist activities. The decision of the government to establish a joint intelligence secretariat to ensure coordination among the various intelligence agencies, announced by the Interior Minister, is a step in the right direction and must be implemented without any delay.

The government should also engage TTP and its affiliates in a dialogue in an attempt to find a peaceful solution of the problem of terrorism within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution and law. While the government should show its willingness to remove their legitimate grievances, they should also be told unequivocally that they would not be allowed to impose their views on the rest of the country through the use of violent means. Therefore, we should adopt a judicious mix of dialogue and force in interacting with TTP. It may be worthwhile trying a mutual ceasefire, while negotiations take place with TTP.

The policy of dialogue, reconciliation, and development should be adopted to restore peace and stability in Balochistan and to bring the alienated elements back into the mainstream of national and provincial politics. Political parties should be firmly told to dismantle their militant wings in Karachi and elsewhere. Strict action should be taken in accordance with the law of the land against those who refuse to do so. Finally, the federal and provincial governments should adopt well-considered educational and cultural policies to encourage and promote moderation as against religious extremism. Strict action should be taken against any groups involved in sectarian terrorist activities.

Our counter-terrorism strategy should incorporate all of the above elements in a cohesive policy framework, which should be adopted after careful deliberations among all the stakeholders, both civilian and military. It is critically important that there is unity of purpose and action among all the relevant organs of state in the fight against terrorism. Once the counter-terrorism policy is approved by the government, it should be made public, both within the country and outside, so that there is no misunderstanding of its essential elements or ambiguity about its main thrust.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.