The monster of terrorism stalks the nation. The latest example of this menace was the gruesome attack by the TTP on the army public school in Peshawar on 16 December, which led to the loss of 141 precious human lives including 132 innocent children. It was soon revealed that the attack had been organized by the TTP fugitives on the Afghanistan side of the Pakistan-Afghan border. The brutal attack, which was in violation of the principles and teachings of Islam as well as of the values that civilized people hold dear all over the world, has been widely condemned both within the country and outside.

The whole nation is united in the demand for punishing the elements responsible for this tragedy, which has caused so much grief and anguish, and eradicating the menace of terrorism. The meeting of the political leaders of the country, chaired by the Prime Minister, decided on 17 December to set up a committee to work out a national action plan for countering terrorism. The same day, the COAS in a visit to Kabul got assurances from the Afghan government and the ISAF commander of action against the group which was involved in the Peshawar attack. The government has lifted the moratorium on the execution of the death penalty to ensure that the terrorists get the punishment that they deserve.

We must devise effective policies both at macro and micro levels for eradicating the scourge of terrorism. For this purpose, an understanding of the root causes for the spread of religious extremism and terrorism in the country is a must. Zia, who exploited religious sentiments to consolidate and prolong his dictatorial rule, must share a lot of the blame for sowing the seeds of religious extremism. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a godsend for him as it enabled him to secure wider support both within the country and outside by developing jihadi infrastructure in the country in support of the Afghan jihad with the help of the US, other Western countries and most of the Muslim world. Our support to the Afghan jihad may have helped in liberating a neighboring Muslim country from foreign occupation and saving us from the combined Indian and Soviet threat to our security on our eastern and borders. But it also promoted religious extremism and klashnikov culture in the country, thus, laying the foundation for sectarian terrorism in 1990’s and TTP-related acts of terrorism during the past decade or so.

The Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan could have acted as a watershed in Pakistan’s internal and external policies enabling us to reverse the tide of extremism in the country. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead, our flawed Kashmir and Afghanistan policies of 1990’s, designed and supported primarily by our military establishment, further strengthened the infrastructure of militancy in Pakistan instead of dismantling it in line with international trends. Undeterred by international censure and growing isolation, we continued head long on our ill-conceived pro-Taliban policy of the 1990’s until it brought us to a precipice in the aftermath of 9/11. It was only then that Musharraf, in the face of the US ultimatum, brought about a U-turn and joined forces with Washington in overthrowing the ideologically retrogressive Taliban regime in Kabul which we had supported to the hilt previously. Our subsequent military action against the Taliban remnants in our tribal areas under the US pressure, diverted their fury against both the Pakistan state institutions and people in the form of acts of terrorism.

TTP-related terrorism, therefore, has a close connection with our Afghanistan policy and the situation in Afghanistan. The end of the ISAF combat mission in Afghanistan is another watershed offering the opportunity for a review of our Afghanistan policy. While we must take decisive and forceful action against the TTP because of its terrorist activities in Pakistan, we must also follow a policy of strict non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The Afghan Taliban on our soil, whether belonging to the Haqqani network or others, must be told categorically that they have the choice either to return to Afghanistan or to stay in Pakistan as refugees for a limited period on the condition that they refrain from any militant activity in Afghanistan. They must be told in no uncertain terms that they will not be allowed to use Pakistan’s soil for militant activities in Afghanistan. In return, we must seek credible assurances from the Kabul government that it will not allow the TTP fugitives, the Indian agents, or the Baloch separatists on Afghanistan soil to use it for terrorist activities in Pakistan.

Realistically speaking, however, we and the Afghan government must recognize that as long as the armed conflict in Afghanistan continues, our tribal areas and Pakistan-Afghanistan relations will remain disturbed because of cross-border ethnic, tribal and cultural links. Therefore, we should facilitate the commencement, as early as possible, of an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban in pursuit of the goal of national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan. The dialogue should take place free of foreign interference to lend it legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans. However, the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue in the form of a political settlement must be guaranteed by the regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, as well as major powers to add to its credibility.

The modifications in our Afghanistan policy must be supplemented by a domestic educational and media campaign to promote moderation and tolerance in accordance with the teachings of Islam and the recognized international norms. Our political parties, religious scholars, educational institutions particularly madrassahs, and the media would have to play a crucial role for the success of this campaign for eradicating religious extremism and sectarianism. The federal government and the provincial government in Balochistan must also undertake concrete steps in political and economic fields to overcome the legitimate grievances of the Baloch dissidents. In view of the seriousness of the situation, no time should be lost in engaging the Baloch dissident elements in a dialogue and launching a well-considered program of action to meet their justified concerns. We must also carry out an in-depth review of our Kashmir policy. In view of the current global and regional realities, it would be in our long-term interest to eschew any support to Kashmiri militants and extend merely moral, political and diplomatic support to the struggle of the Kashmiri people for self-determination as was the case, generally speaking, prior to 1989.

Finally, the government must undertake economic reforms to accelerate economic growth and improve the living conditions of the common man in Pakistan. This is desirable not only for the long-term strength and prosperity of the nation, but also for eradicating the scourge of terrorism in the country. After all, poverty breeds ignorance and potential recruits for terrorism. Those of our opinion makers, who are calling for exclusive attention to security to the neglect of the requirements for economic progress and welfare in the fight against terrorism, are wide off the mark. At the same time, the performance of our intelligence and security agencies needs to be upgraded through better training, organization and equipment so that they are able to identify, infiltrate and neutralize terrorist cells in the country. The foregoing steps must be reinforced by well-considered measures at the micro level through the mobilization of the people and the state institutions at the local levels.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs. He can be contacted at javid.husain@gmail.com