“War against terrorism and extremism is

being fought for future generations.”

– General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army Staff

Command and Staff College, Quetta, 21st May, 2015

Contemporaneously, violent extremism has emerged not only as one of the most daunting challenges faced by Pakistan, but is in fact amongst the most formidable of challenges that bedevil the global community today. There is no easy remedy for a narrative that hinges on verge of insanity, and finds its following in appeals to frustrated, impressionable minds by creating a perverse connection between social taboos/extreme ideologies and a ‘difficult but righteous’ path.

Today, Pakistan is fighting a war for its very survival against this faceless enemy. It is working hard to overcome its wounds from the atrocities committed by extremists under various guises - atrocities that have shocked the world - be it in the form of the innumerable suicide attacks on government buildings, the taking hostage of innocents, as in the 2009 Police Academy attack or the culminated horror of the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School, where 132 innocent school children were ruthlessly massacred along with other nine members of the school staff.

Pakistan has now been tackling the menace of extremism - specifically violent extremism - for decades. In the aftermath of 9/11 and as a repercussion of the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan, extremists in this region gained much strength and the state of Pakistan suffered great setbacks as well as perhaps one of the worst crises in its history. The invasion in a region where governance was not at its strongest inadvertently created a vacuum which provided space for these resurgent non-state actors to occupy, enabling them to better propagate their skewed narratives.

Instability in the region reached its peak when these elements felt confident enough to issue ‘diktats’ to the state. Of these non-state elements, one particularly difficult group which emerged was the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP, with its anti-state agenda, came into the limelight in 2007 and has since been involved in most of the terrorist activities inside the country in some form.

As a result the country has suffered some major set-backs. Political leaders and workers as well as military officials have been specifically targeted. Benazir Bhutto, the leader of one of Pakistan’s largest popular political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was also assassinated in one such cowardly attack.

The first real headway against these groups only came as late as 2009 with ‘Operation Rah-e-Rast’, when Pakistan Army reclaimed the area of Swat. An even greater success, and on a larger scale is seen by the mega operation launched by the Army in 2014 - Operation Zarb-e-Azb. This operation has destroyed the communication lines of terrorists and today, for the first time in over a decade, relative peace prevails in the country.

Furthermore, to support the military operations, a focused de-radicalization project was launched by the Army in Swat, which aimed at rehabilitating confirmed militants. This project was the first to acknowledge the sensitivity required when attempting de-radicalization at this scale by working separately with various segments within a militant group. ‘Sabawoon’ is a facility that focused mostly on juveniles while ‘Mishal’ comprised work with adult detainees, and ‘Sparlay’ worked with the family members of detained militants. The programme has been fairly successfully and many former militants have been rehabilitated.

It is important to note here the vital role the de-radicalization project has played in preventing a resurgence of militancy in Swat, as the fact remains that unless the root causes behind emergence of extremism and its turn towards violence are identified, no permanent progress can be made towards fighting and eliminating it.

The use of violent acts for the pursuit of vested interests is the tactic most often employed by extremists groups, either for politically motivated aims or for ideological objectives. Recently, two major attacks occurred that once again highlighted this fact; the Safoora Goth incident and the suicide attack on Punjab’s Home Minister Shuja Khanzada.

The Safoora Goth incident, which claimed lives of 45 people - mostly Ismaili Shias, was perpetrated by an engineering student and his group of friends, who had been systematically brainwashed into getting radicalized by elements with political agendas that have the know-how for specifically targeting such vulnerable youth. These same students were also involved in killing a prominent Karachi based activist.

Understanding the phenomenon from an un-skewed perspective therefore is very important. For the most part, groups that are at the root of events like the Safoora Goth incident do not have any ‘return address’ or a specific territorial identity. This transnational character along with easy access to mass media outlets eases the path for the propagation of their agenda, while simultaneously making decisive action against them a formidable task.

Violent extremism knows no borders, religion, or cultural boundaries. It is a global enemy. It is also multi-faceted, and as such demands a broad and comprehensive approach to tackle it.

Although there is a realization that exists today at the global level to identify the ideologies, the infrastructure, the recruiters and funders of violent extremists, it should also be understood that if discriminatory policies continue to exist across international platforms, such factors and factions will continue to thrive. Policies need to be reevaluated; long standing issues lead to long term grievances and provide a raison d’etre for manipulative extremist groups, providing them with the material to manipulate people with and incite them to violence in the name of some misplaced ideal of social justice.

It is vital, now more than ever, to agree on what the root causes are behind this menace in order to effectively tackle them. A coordinated response from all the stakeholders is our best bet in this fight. To build upon the successes achieved by Operation Zarb-e-Azab, it is vital to engage all affected parties in dialogue that transcends sectarian and religious divides. Moreover, resilience must be built into local communities to resist radicalization at the grass-root level alongside efforts towards the economic integration of the population that feels isolated or deprived. Most importantly, a counter-narrative that promotes tolerance is critical while concurrently working to curb the dissemination of hate speech and extremist ideas. The use of force has been shown to be insufficient on its own. In this era of globalization, only a common strategy devised with international consent can effectively meet this transnational threat. Today we face an enemy that is dynamic and evolves with the strategies we pursue to counter it. Only a broader and more creative approach will help eradicate this menace permanently.

The writer is the President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and Member Senate Standing Committees on Defence, Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Human Resource Development & Overseas Pakistanis.