Bacha Khan Attacks: A Recurring Pakistani Nightmare

Despite the concerted efforts of the Pakistani military in the past year, the terrorist attack on Bacha Khan University on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, shocked the nation and the world. In a scene eerily similar to the Peshawar school massacre of December 2014, four gunmen entered the campus in the northwest town of Charsadda, killing 22 students with hand grenades and automatic weapons. In order to address both the domestic drivers of terrorism and the international systems that allow for the resilience of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the official title of the Pakistani Taliban), the government of Pakistan must push for agreements with the Afghan government to create mechanisms for border control and bilateral anti-terrorism cooperation. Domestically, revisions to the National Action Plan are necessary to encourage greater protection and inclusion of the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of the country.

Revisions to the National Action Plan is an an essential step in improving relations between FATA and the rest of Pakistan. Wednesday’s attack calls into question the logic and efficacy of Pakistan’s National Action Plan, its military strategy aimed at counteracting widespread terrorism through institution of military courts and the death penalty for terrorist-associated activities. Launched in January 2015, in response to the Peshawar school attack, NAP created a military court system and sanctioned executions of suspected terrorists. This strategy has resulted in the death and capture of hundreds of suspected terrorists, but also the displacement of many tribal groups in the FATA. FATA, as a sparsely populated, semi-autonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan, is inherently vulnerable to terrorist activity and instability. In order to counteract the continued resilience of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani government must expand its efforts to create buy-in from FATA residents, not alienation through forced displacement.

Additionally, further steps are needed to incorporate FATA, including greater political representation and regulation, training indigenous forces, engaging youth through job training and education, and decreasing tensions between tribal peoples and the Pakistani military. Currently, the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) gives the Parliament of Pakistan a limited role in governing FATA. Repealing the FCR would incorporate the region within the larger Pakistani political landscape and decrease feelings of alienation within the region. Providing more rigorous training to the FATA paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, would be an additional step to empower FATA residents and encourage greater investment in anti-terror initiatives. Furthermore, the central government of Pakistan should provide educational and job training services to FATA youth, who are among the groups that most vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.

A related challenge for the Pakistani anti-terrorism strategy is Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan. As a longstanding legacy of British colonial rule, the so-called “Durand Line” is a central cause of instability in FATA and the continued TTP influence. As such, crafting a border agreement and anti-terrorism mechanism are interdependent processes and must be addressed through bilateral negotiations. Without these steps, enduring solutions to terrorism in FATA will prove challenging. Currently, the Pakistani Taliban operates primarily along the northwestern areas and across the border in eastern Afghanistan. Denying TTP access to bases in Afghanistan is a key step in cutting off supplies and personnel. The self-proclaimed perpetrator of the Bacha Khan and Peshawar attacks, Omar Mansoor, has taken sanctuary in Afghanistan, making it difficult for Pakistani military forces to locate him. In order to address the issue of Pakistani terrorists seeking refuge in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government must establish an effective bilateral border and anti-terrorism agreement. Establishing a consistent bilateral border mechanism will be tremendously challenging. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is largely unregulated, and thus the site of smuggling, violent crime, and terrorist activity. However, without a border agreement, this long held source of tension will continue to be a security and diplomatic concern. If border issues can be resolved, a bilateral terrorism protocol will assist both nations in crafting unified, cohesive, anti-terrorism policy.

Terrorism and insurgency within Pakistan are enduring problems that necessitate complex solutions. While the National Action Plan has produced some encouraging change, recent attacks on Bacha Khan University demonstrate that continued vigilance and flexibility are needed to eradicate violence and instability. Cutting off support from Afghanistan and increasing incorporation of disenfranchised peoples in northwestern Pakistan are key steps to prevent tragedies like Peshawar and Bacha Khan becoming accepted events or foregone conclusions.

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