Pakistan's Counterterrorism Strategy: Beyond Azm-e-Istehkam

Limbering up: Pakistani commandos, who are specially trained in counterterrorism operations, at a parade in 2018. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

With the launch of Pakistan’s latest military counterterrorism operation, how can the country ensure that it does not simply repeat past mistakes?

Amid a surge of violence in Pakistan, the recent decision to launch Operation Azm-e-Istehkam (Resolve for Stability) underscores the government's continued commitment to combatting terrorism and extremism. However, Pakistan must adopt a comprehensive strategy addressing the root causes if it is to achieve lasting peace and security. In the face of growing criticism, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif clarified that it will not be a ‘large-scale military operation’; still, merely launching another military operation will not yield the desired results.

Pakistan's history of counterterrorism operations, including Operations Al-Mizan, Rah-e-Raast, Rah-e-Nijat, Zarb-e-Azb and Rad-ul-Fasaad, has been marked by a series of tactical successes. However, these victories have not translated into a strategic win over terrorism and extremism. Each new initiative, often perceived as a political move, must address the long-term structural issues that fuel extremism.

The core issue underlying the resurgence of terrorism is the failure to formulate and implement a long-term proactive strategy, with a reliance instead on short-term military tactics. A militarised approach and short-term strategies didn’t work in dealing with insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan, and they won’t work in Pakistan either. It is beyond doubt that previous military operations conducted by Pakistan's armed forces involved many sacrifices and achievements, including eliminating several militant hideouts and leaders. However, they failed to dismantle the underlying networks and ideologies driving extremism and terrorism. They were a reaction to immediate threats rather than part of a sustained, strategic effort to address the structural causes of extremism. They often lacked follow-through on socioeconomic development and rehabilitation, leaving voids that militants could quickly fill again.

Operation Azm-e-Istehkam, like its predecessors, is unlikely to bring lasting peace unless Pakistan shifts to a more holistic and integrated strategy

While the military is essential for immediate threat neutralisation, lasting solutions require addressing the root causes of terrorism through socioeconomic development, robust legal frameworks, political stability, and effective community engagement. In 2010–12, while researching the combat experiences and perceptions of Pakistani soldiers during the War on Terror, I explored how even the combatants felt that the root causes of extremism must be addressed through focused and decisive political leadership. The army has done its job and will continue to do so when needed, but delaying a comprehensive, politically led strategy only prolongs the problem.

Moreover, Pakistan’s political, military, bureaucratic and judicial arenas lack impact assessments, especially regarding measures taken to counter extremism and terrorism. Avoiding transparency and accountability and a proper audit of previous operations and projects will prevent the new campaign from bringing victory or sustainable peace. Another critical challenge Pakistan faces is achieving a national and political consensus on counterterrorism efforts; failing to do so keeps the country in a cycle of starting over. Reaching a consensus on national security issues is crucial for continuity across administrations in the fight against terrorism and extremism.

What Needs to be Done?

The current strategy needs a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive. For a very long time, Pakistan has lacked a comprehensive approach focusing on empowering civilian counterterrorism departments to disrupt networks and addressing factors that breed militancy. The National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), the leading agency coordinating Pakistan's efforts against terrorism and extremism, has a responsibility to deliver and adapt to the changing nature of extremist violence. Among other measures, NACTA should conduct national-level research based on primary data and develop and disseminate a robust counter-narrative in local languages to deter the risk of radicalisation and recruitment.

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Integrating military efforts with addressing structural inequalities, focusing on socioeconomic development, grassroots-level education reforms and community engagement is required. Local communities should be engaged in counterterrorism efforts, leveraging their knowledge and support to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies. Maintaining transparent communication and keeping the public informed about the progress and challenges in counterterrorism efforts is also needed to build trust and support for the government’s initiatives. Another critical aspect is ensuring effective legislation and judicial processes to prosecute terrorists and dismantle their networks. On several occasions, due to a lack of evidence, ‘inadmissible evidence’, threat culture’ or improper procedures, many convicts who were captured by the security forces have been released by courts.

In conclusion, Operation Azm-e-Istehkam, like its predecessors, is unlikely to bring lasting peace unless Pakistan shifts to a more holistic and integrated strategy. The military alone cannot win this war; true victory requires the backing of socioeconomic development, robust legal frameworks, political unity, and unwavering public support.

The people of Pakistan are willing to eradicate terrorism and extremism from their society. Working together with the relevant stakeholders, it can be done. But the right step has to be taken in the right direction at the right time; otherwise, it will all be in vain.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Mariam Shah

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