Any hope that 2010 would be a more peaceful year in Pakistan were blown away on New Year's Day, when a suicide bomber detonated an SUV packed with explosives at a volleyball tournament, leaving more than 90 people dead. It was but the latest in an a steady stream of brutal attacks that have escalated along with the Pakistan Army's three-month-old offensive against the Pakistan Taliban in South Waziristan. And it reinforced a growing perception across the country that the government is in no position to mount a robust response. Stopping determined terrorists is difficult for even the most able governments, but analysts say that Islamabad whose government is in growing disarray has failed to take basic steps toward a counterterrorism strategy in the heartlands.
The attack on the volleyball tournament, says retired army brigadier Mehmood Shah, a former head of security in the tribal areas, was an attempt by militants fleeing the South Waziristan offensive to punish the civilian population and apply pressure on Islamabad to negotiate a truce. "But it is making the people more adamant, more convinced in what the army is doing against the militants," he says. Still, for that resolve to hold, the government will have to do more to stem the tide of terror.
So far, says Shah, authorities have been "passive," favoring only "defensive measures" such as checkpoints the layers of concrete blocks and razor wire at the entrance of each of Pakistan's major cities and athwart all their major thoroughfares, where a handful of policemen peek into vehicles and perfunctorily inspect trunks before waving them through. At best, these checkpoints are a visible deterrent designed to reassure the public. But for months now, they have for the most part failed to keep out gunmen, suicide bombers and vehicles laden with explosives.
The worst-hit city in the wave of terror that has killed over 500 innocent people since October has been Peshawar, the frontier city that skirts the tribal areas to the north. It has suffered some 20 attacks in that period, with targets ranging from the local offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency to a women's bazaar where over 100 people were slaughtered in late October. To protect the city, the government "should take offensive action and launch operations around Peshawar," says local resident Shah. "What is also needed is for ordinary people to be more vigilant. They need to look around their neighborhoods, take note of people who may be hiding in safe houses and preparing for attacks. They need to inform the government of their presence."
A key problem throughout Pakistan, as even the country's interior minister recently conceded, is that the police are ill-trained and poorly equipped to counter terrorism. There is a shortage of bulletproof vests and communication-intercept equipment. Although the U.S. has in recent years provided extensive training programs for Pakistani law-enforcement agencies, these have mostly enhanced their ability to protect senior government officials from assassination attempts and to investigate bomb sites, rather than to preemptively thwart attacks.
"The police are not trained to tackle terrorism," says independent security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. In the capital, Islamabad, which has seen some two dozen bombings in recent years, including the spectacular 2008 attack on the Marriott hotel, the police role has largely been to protect VIPs, she says. "Now they have to deal with a major threat, but have no expertise." Relative to the size of the population, the police are understaffed. And they enjoy little public confidence amid widespread allegations of venality. Other problems listed by Siddiqa include a lack of coordination between various intelligence agencies, poor pay and the dedication of élite units to the "protection of the powerful instead of the country's heartlands."
Last month, the Ministry of Interior established the National Counterterrorism Authority, a partly European Union-funded civilian government body. Even though it is headed by Tariq Parvez, one of the country's most esteemed former police officers, analysts such as Siddiqa worry that it will be toothless. "It was set up far too late, there are many bureaucratic problems holding up progress, and there are pressures on the Ministry of Interior that are not allowing it work freely," she adds.
Some analysts believe sections of the armed forces could provide a more effective alternative to civilian law-enforcement agencies in combating terrorism. The army, air force and navy all have élite units, known collectively as the Special Services Group, that are currently being underutilized. But others dismiss that suggestion as an intrusion into civilian affairs that will only delay the development of more effective law-enforcement institutions.
Whichever institutional arrangements are adopted to mount a defense against terrorism, analysts believe the deeper problem will only be tackled through more far-reaching methods such as the overhaul of Pakistan's education system, the development of alternatives to the hard-line Islamist message that resonates in growing parts of the country, and vast development funds that will create jobs and a future for those potentially lured by the call of jihad. Right now, says Siddiqa, "there is no such policy, and nobody is keen to do anything."