On the 16th of December, the second anniversary of the APS attack, the airwaves and print media were full of memorials and tributes to the 144 schoolchildren who were killed by terrorists on that terrible day. Amidst the grief and the sadness, leaders from across the political and military spectrum solemnly vowed that Pakistan would never forget or forgive those behind the attack, and that the government and armed forces remained resolute in their commitment to end militancy and terrorism once and for all.

That these words are little more than mere lip service was demonstrated in the report, produced by a commission headed by Justice Qaez Faez Isa, investigating the attack that killed 74 people, mostly lawyers, in Quetta earlier this year. In a damning verdict the Commission declared that in the two years since APS, despite Zarb-e-Azb, military courts, the National Action, and the Protection of Pakistan Act, there still appears to be little political will or drive to effectively counter the threat posed by the violent extremists plaguing the country. The report blamed a number of actors for the lack of progress in dealing with this problem, including the media for irresponsibly glorifying, and providing a platform to, the purveyors of hate and bigotry, but singled out the Interior Ministry, headed by Chaudhry Nisar, for its utter failure to take the concrete steps required to end terrorism in Pakistan.

There are a number of possible explanations for why countries sometimes fail to effectively deal with armed groups that seek to challenge the state, be they terrorists, separatists, or other kinds of rebels. While it is important to remember that any state would find it difficult to prevent a terrorist attack perpetrated by a determined individual or group, the literature on this subject suggests that armed groups are most likely to succeed in mounting systematic, as opposed to sporadic, campaigns of violence when the state’s ability to counter them is weakened. Given that most modern states command an array of resources – economic, political, and military – that far outweigh those possessed by even the most sophisticated insurgent groups, it is only when states lose the capacity to marshal and deploy these resources that they begin to cede ground to their otherwise outmatched adversaries.

State weakness of this kind can be triggered by a variety of processes; military defeat can weaken a state’s security forces, economic stress can impede the ability to acquire the means through which to mobilise against a threat, and a loss of popular support and legitimacy can raise the costs of maintaining order. It is not coincidental, for example, that ISIS has been able to thrive in Iraq and Syria, two states that have essentially been eviscerated by conflict, nor should it be surprising to find the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, where decades of war have left the central state bereft of power and authority.

Following this logic, one explanation for why Pakistan continues to fail in its attempts to rein in the armed groups that threaten it internally is that the state is simply too weak, and too lacking in capacity, to do so. This is an intuitively plausible view; Pakistan’s consistent appearance on lists of ‘failed’ states lends credence to this idea, and it is not difficult to find evidence of the very real limits to the state’s power. One need only look at Balochistan and FATA, or recall the Taliban takeover of Swat in 2009, to see the difficulty the state has in establishing its writ. Indeed, it could even be argued that the presence of armed groups in major urban centres like Karachi, and the proliferation of extremist training camps and organisations in South Punjab, suggests an even more widespread loss of control than is often recognised.

It is tempting to believe that Pakistan’s ongoing economic woes, poor governance, and justifiably vilified government combine to create a situation in which the state simply cannot take on militants. The country’s institutions are simply too dysfunctional to make fighting terror a realistic possibility and so, Pakistan has little choice but to wait and see, engaging in a long war of attrition with its internal enemies until something finally gives.

The problem with this view, appealing as it might be, is that Pakistan is not the same as Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Contrary to the perception that is often created by indices of ‘failed’ states, Pakistan actually possesses a reasonably robust and far-reaching state apparatus which crucially includes a highly competent, well-equipped, and professional military. Even when taking into account the myriad ways in which the authority of the state is eroded at the local level by corruption and patronage politics, the problem Pakistan faces is one of efficiency and direction, rather than capacity; rather than lacking the institutions through which to assert itself, the state in Pakistan simply does not use them as well as it might. To put it differently, Pakistan possesses the means to fight terrorism effectively but chooses not to.

This is not difficult to demonstrate. When Swat was taken by the Taliban in 2009 most observers at the time agreed, that this was made possible by the capitulation of the state rather than a military or ideological defeat. The government at the time simply chose to cede control of that territory, and was able to reclaim it in relatively short order when the decision was finally taken to do so. Similarly, if the military’s claims about Zarb-i-Azb are to believed, the state in Pakistan has been able to successfully deploy its coercive might to dismantle an extensive terrorist infrastructure in FATA. Most people would agree that the very idea of Pakistan’s militants defeating the state in battle, as ISIS did in Iraq and Syria, is simply ludicrous.

As such, if Justice Isa is correct (and there is little to suggest he is not) in saying that the government has been negligent in its approach to dealing with terrorism, it must be asked why this is the case. Why is that an enraged mob of people, incited to violence by a Canada-based Pakistani named Haji Malik Rasheed Ahmad, can lay siege to an Ahmadi place of worship in Chakwal and demand it be handed over to them without any fear of punishment? Why is it that organisations supporting this blatant attempt at land-grabbing can threaten the government with dire consequences if their demands are not met? How can a member of a proscribed militant organisation be permitted to contest and win a by-election in Jhang? Why do sectarian attacks across Pakistan continue to be perpetrated by groups whose leaders and activists are public figures who receive simpering, sycophantic adulation when they appear on television shows chaired by fawning anchors? Why is it so difficult to believe that our children, cloistered behind barbed wire fences and sniper towers every time they go to school, are any safer than they were before the APS attack happened?

The answer is simple. There is a lack of political will to solve these problems. Whether it is due to unhinged geostrategic calculations, misguided ideological orientations, or craven attempts at appeasement, those at the helm of affairs simply do not understand the gravity of the challenge Pakistan faces, and do not care enough to reflect on the inadequacy of their decisions.

‘Never again!’ was the cry that erupted after the APS attack, ‘the lives of all those children will not have been lost in vain’. History has shown this to be a lie on both counts.