Halt Operation Istehkam until…


By: Qamar Bashir

In 2014, I was posted in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as Director of Internal Publicity when Imran Khan’s dharnas were in full swing. The entire ministries were cordoned off by PTI and PAT activists, who had established checkpoints and were controlling access points to all the ministries. I was assigned the task of assisting Mr. Irfan Siddiqui, who was tasked with countering the dharna narrative in the media. However, gathering for meetings was an uphill task due to the situation.

The dharnas came to an abrupt halt following the tragic and heart-wrenching Army Public School incident, which shook the very foundation of the nation. This served as a wake-up call for all those at the helm of affairs. The Army Chief, taking a decisive role, brought together all politicians and stakeholders, including arch-rivals PTI, PML(N), PPP, and all religio-political parties, to secure their unconditional consent for the 14-point National Action Plan.

The comprehensive plan addressed all aspects of extremism and violent terrorism and made surgical operations on all elements supporting abetting, facilitating execution of the act of terror. The results were stunning. On the part of the Ministry of Information I was tasked to recommend a counterterrorism narrative which was appreciated by NECTA.

Before NAP, Pakistan experienced high levels of terrorism, with 1,717 incidents and 2,451 fatalities in 2013. Post-implementation, terrorist incidents dropped from 1,206 in 2014 to 319 in 2020, and fatalities decreased from 1,781 to 169 in the same period. The Karachi operation saw a 98% reduction in terrorist activities by 2019. Key measures included blocking 98.3 million unregistered SIMs, establishing special counter-terrorism units, and improving the regulation of religious seminaries, collectively enhancing national security.

The National Action Plan was not the only program which was launched with consensus, but the government achieved consensus for launch of Operation Rah-e-Haq (2007-2009) in Swat Valley and Operation Rah-e-Rast (2009) to re-establish control in Swat against the Talibans after achieving unconditional and undivided public and political support. A media campaign highlighting Taliban atrocities, failed peace agreements underscoring the need for military action, and extensive political dialogue was launched which prepared the entire nation for the operation. 

Success factors included a comprehensive military strategy, coordination with the civilian government, local support, and international assistance. The operation successfully restored government control, improved regional security, initiated rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, and launched de-radicalization programs, significantly reducing Taliban influence and violence in the Swat Valley.

The government of Pakistan had launched several other key military operations to counter terrorism with stunning success, including Operation Rah-e-Nijat (2009) in South Waziristan, and Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014-2017) in North Waziristan, which significantly disrupted militant networks. Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (2017-present) aims to consolidate previous gains through nationwide intelligence-based operations.

Other notable operations include Operation Khyber (2014-2017) in the Khyber Agency, Operation Black Thunderstorm (2009) in Buner and Lower Dir, and Operation Sherdil (2008) in Bajaur Agency. Collectively, these operations have substantially reduced terrorism and improved security across Pakistan.

In 2023, Pakistan faced a surge in terrorism, with nearly 1,000 fatalities, marking the highest toll in six years. Most incidents occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, primarily perpetrated by groups like TTP, ISKP, and BLA. By mid-2024, fatalities decreased to 810, indicating some improvement but highlighting persistent challenges due to evolving threats from cross-border attacks and militant regrouping. This situation underscores the need for continuous adaptation of counter-terrorism strategies to address the changing dynamics of terrorist threats.

Unlike all other programs which were mostly welcomed by the entire nation,  the recently launched Operation Istehkam-e-Pakistan has met with resistance from the very beginning. Mainstream political party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is offering discreet opposition, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with tacit opposition and PTI  and JUI openly and forcefully have  expressed skepticism, suggesting the operation might be politically motivated and used to suppress opposition. Whereas, religious political parties are concerned about potential targeting and discrimination against their members.

Intellectuals and civil society activists worry about human rights violations and the lack of a comprehensive strategy addressing the root causes of extremism and militancy. They call for a more inclusive approach that respects civil liberties while addressing security concerns.

However, all political parties agree that there is an upsurge in acts of terrorism in 2023 and 2024 that needs to be countered, but the government has miserably failed to exploit and cultivate this realization to a level where they willingly agreed to unconditional support for the operation.

The government should have followed the steps it applied before launching other such operations. Instead, without preparing the nation, the operation was announced, perhaps even without taking into confidence its closest allies in the government. In all impropriety, the government should halt the launch of the operation, until it achieves its complete buyout by all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, the government should ensure transparent communication, engaging in dialogue with all political parties, both in government and opposition, religious leaders, and civil society organizations to achieve consensus. It should clearly define the operation’s objectives and scope, targeting only militant groups confined to national borders and criminal networks. The government should specify what new legal instruments are required to achieve operational objectives and launch a public awareness campaign to educate citizens about the operation’s importance and benefits.

Above all, the government should clearly delineate the operation from curbing, ceasing, curtailing, and abrogating any fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the people of Pakistan. These include the right to life and liberty (Article 9), equality before the law (Article 25), freedom of speech (Article 19), assembly (Article 16), association (Article 17), movement (Article 15), and religion (Article 20). It also prohibits slavery, forced labor, and trafficking (Article 11). Citizens are entitled to a fair trial and due process (Article 10A), access to information on matters of public importance (Article 19A), upholding dignity, protection from discrimination, and access to justice for all citizens of Pakistan.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC