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Op Azm-i-Istehkam: Pak Bites the Made in China CT Bullet

After protracted deliberations and attempts to resist China’s demand for the launch of a major counter-terrorism operation, the Pakistani government finally approved Operation Azm-i-Istehkam on 22 June according to multiple media sources. The campaign was reported to be a national resolve to eradicate extremism and terrorism from the country.

The Central Apex Committee on the National Action Plan (NAP), chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, initiated the move to launch the campaign, which was reported to have the support of all relevant stakeholders.

In a press release, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) stated that the Azm-i-Istehkam campaign would integrate and synergise multiple lines of effort to combat extremism and terrorism in a comprehensive and decisive manner.

The operation is purportedly based on the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) for countering terrorism and extremism, which was formulated by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in consultation with stakeholders and approved by Parliament on 24 December 2014.

The necessity for the launch of another special operation to counter terrorism is indicative of the fact that the NAP 2014 was given mere lip service and never implemented, due to the political flux in the country and the lack of support from parties in Khyber Pakhtunwa, such as Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf.

However, the uptick in terrorist attacks, particularly those targeting Chinese personnel working on the CPEC project, has led to China demanding the launch of a large-scale operation.

The annual security report issued by the Centre for Research and Security Studies indicates a clear rise in violence. In 2023, Pakistan witnessed 1,524 fatalities and 1,463 injuries resulting from 789 terror attacks and counter-terror operations, representing a record six-year high.

On 26 March, a convoy of Chinese nationals travelling from Islamabad to the Dasu Hydropower Project site in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohistan district was attacked by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists.

In a statement released on the forum, the Pakistani Prime Minister's Office (PMO) reiterated that the fight against extremism and terrorism is a national priority and is essential for the nation's survival and well-being. The forum resolved that no one will be allowed to challenge the writ of the state without exception.

The Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, asserted at the meeting that a soft state cannot hope to gain the trust of investors. He further stated that the responsibility of the fight against terrorism is a collective duty and the primary obligation of all state institutions. He emphasised that the fight against terrorism is not about the individual, but about the collective.

However, the prime minister believes that the matter has been left to the armed forces and the provinces and governments are absolved of responsibility.

This is a dangerous practice that has become a custom in recent years, whereby the army is expected to take the lead and its officers are held responsible for eradicating extremism and terrorism. Operation Azm-e-Istehkam is reportedly designed to eradicate extremism and terrorism "decisively and comprehensively".

In order to achieve this objective, an all-of-government approach is being planned, which will include the introduction of legislation to facilitate the prosecution of terrorism-related cases. The kinetic campaign will be complemented by "socio-economic measures aimed at addressing the genuine concerns of the populace and creating an environment that discourages extremist tendencies".

This may appear to be an iteration of an existing approach, as previous operations were launched with a similar objective but lacked a comprehensive response that could eradicate the roots of terrorism – radicalisation of society. This time, there is an additional focus on Taliban support for terrorism in Pakistan.

The lack of political consensus and even the necessity to take the opposition on board was evident when the opposition stiffly contested the decision made by the apex committee without taking the parliament in confidence when the august house was in session.

Opposition leader PTI MNA Gohar Khan said, “It is our demand […] that if there is any operation — whether intelligence-based or full-fledged or in certain districts or villages or tehsils — it is necessary to take this Parliament into confidence.”

Chinese Insistence on CT Operation

The visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to China immediately preceding the declaration of the new plan had security of Chinese personnel as the one of the core agenda.

The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir and Chinese President Xi Jinping engaged in an introductory handshake, with General Munir attired in civilian attire. The fact that the General was afforded a public audience is indicative of China's mounting concern over the security of its citizens in Pakistan, particularly in the wake of the Dasu dam attack in March of this year.

It remains unclear whether Army Chief General Munir engaged in any form of interaction with the PLA top brass. It is likely that such an interaction did occur, and that an assurance has been provided to the Chinese regarding the safety of their citizens.

Post the visit, Pakistan has vowed to provide foolproof security to the Chinese citizens working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other projects in the country. The assurance was conveyed during a meeting between Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi and Chinese Ambassador Jiang Zedong at the Chinese Embassy in the federal capital.

There was a forceful reiteration of the demand for launch of the CT operation by Liu Jianchao, Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (IDCPC).

“In a world characterised by rising uncertainties, stability within the country is essential for development. Pakistan is navigating carefully through turbulent rivers, confronted with complex internal and external challenges” Liu Jianchao said as he co-chaired the third meeting of the Pakistan-China Joint Consultative Mechanism (JCM) of the Political Parties on the CPEC, together with Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar.

The event was attended by leaders representing all major political parties in Pakistan, including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Liu Jianchao also met with Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Syed Asim Munir at the General Headquarters (GHQ). COAS reaffirmed Pakistan’s unwavering commitment to its strategic partnership with China, pledging full support for implementing CPEC as per the Pakistan military media arm.

On June 23 in a meeting to review security of Chinese personnel Minister for Interior Mohsin Naqvi, seen close to the Army said that there is no room for negligence in providing security to foreigners in Pakistan while chairing a meeting at the Ministry of Interior to review security measures for foreigners, especially Chinese citizens.

Pak Experience of Large Operations

Op Azm-i-Istehkam is not the first major counter terrorism operation launched by Pakistan,e Earlier too, Pakistan has initiated counterterrorism operations at the behest of China.

The Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in 2007 commenced subsequent to Chinese President Hu Jintao's communication with General Musharraf.

In 2014, Pakistan's military commenced Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan in response to international pressure.

In fact, successive Pakistan Army Chiefs have launched unique counter terror operations. Zarb-i-Azb was launched in 2014 by Gen Raheel Sharif, Raddul Fasaad was launched in 2017 under Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and now seven years later under General Asim Munir, Op Azm-i-Istehkam

The past operations have been successful in managing terrorism but failed to eliminate the same. This time around Pakistan was reluctant to undertake a significant military operation; employing Intelligence Based Operations (IBOs) to address the terrorist threat.

Pakistan has expressed reservations about such an operation due to the financial implications. For instance, the Zarb-e-Azb operation is estimated to have cost the Pakistani military approximately $1.9 billion.

Possibility of Success of Op Azm-i-Istehkam

The success of Op Azm-i-Istehkam  will be assessed based on elimination of root causes of terror in Pakistan society particularly in the restive tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtoonwa and ethnic separatism in Balochistan.

Success will be contingent upon not just the efficacy of the security forces in combating terrorism but the extent to which the State can control the radicalisation and intolerance that pervade Pakistani society.

The modernisation of education, including within the madrassas, will be a crucial aspect of this endeavour. Furthermore, the philosophy of state support for terrorism across borders may also require a re-evaluation. Azm-i-Istehkam has proposed a comprehensive approach that engages the entire government apparatus, thus how far other state institutions contribute to the same in the social, political and religious domain will determine success.

Another dimension is the support by the Afghan Taliban. As per Khamaa Report an Afghan news media site, Afghan Taliban are planning to relocate members of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from border areas to other provinces in Afghanistan. This decision is said to be evolved months of discussions between the Taliban, Pakistan, and China.

There are too many variables thus and legacy of failure suggesting a negative outcome so at best a neutral trend is indicated.


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