Mardan attack highlights flaws in security strategy
PESHAWAR, Feb 10: The suicide bombing at Punjab Regiment Centre (PRC) in Mardan on Thursday was the deadliest on a security installation since Pakistan Army launched an operation against militants in the Mehsud heartland of South Waziristan in late 2009.
This was the third attack in the region on major installations of the Punjab Regiment. The first attack, more devastating than the one on Thursday, took place in the regiment`s base in Dargai and claimed the lives of 40-odd recruits in late 2006.
The second attack was more brazen as three armed militants, two of them wearing suicide vests, tried to penetrate deep into the PRC in Mardan in July last year. All three assailants were gunned down.
That a teenaged boy, wearing the school uniform of the army school situated on the premises of the PRC, was used to carry out the suicide attack on Thursday hardly came as a surprise. The militants have used teenagers as bombers in the past.
Indeed, there have been at least two incidents involving women bombers, including the one who killed 45 non-combatants queuing up for rations at a World Food Programme outlet on Dec 25.
However, the way militants continue to plan and execute attacks, despite claims by government and security forces that the back of militancy had been broken, has come as a surprise.
The PRC bombing has all the footprints of the Swat Taliban, who are now reportedly safely ensconced in the border region of and Mohmand, along the border with Afghanistan.
The area now is the target of a military/paramilitary operation and some security officials believe that the recent surge in attacks is the result of the push to flush out militants from their last remaining sanctuary in the region.
This may well be true in the context of the recent spate of attacks in Peshawar and Charsadda, the two districts adjoining the Mohmand tribal region.
But the attacks are more sporadic and more widespread. Since mid-January, the militants have carried out numerous attacks, bombings, suicide bombings and target killings of policemen, military and paramilitary personnel and non-combatants in the districts of Kohat, Hangu, Karak, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and several parts of the tribal areas.
Security officials discern a tactical shift in the militants` strategy as terrorists increasingly target policemen in the settled districts by way of bombings and assassinations.
Several factors may be behind the surge in these attacks following a longish pause that brought a semblance of normality in the once volatile region. Complacency may be a reason, apparently emanating from the feel-good environment and the belief within the security establishment that the tough battle had been won.
However, the picture may not be rosy at all. There is a stalemate in Bara sub-district in Khyber tribal region for close to two years now, with no durable solution in sight. Darra Adamkhel and the Frontier Regions of Peshawar and Kohat, too, are not fully under control.
Lack of fighting personnel and other resources is being cited as one of the major reasons for the security forces` inability to finish their work in the areas around Peshawar and some southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This may be true. But while it was clear that militants would sneak into the urban areas after being driven out of their tribal sanctuaries, no steps seem to have been taken to expand the human intelligence network to catch those trying to find new nests to roost.
The most important piece missing from the military`s Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy — which is described as Clear (the area of militants), Hold (the area), and Transfer (it) — seems to be the last factor mentioned (transfer the area).
Had the military been able to transfer to the civilian administration an area after clearing it of militants, it would be in a position to carry on the fight in some other area.
The existing strategy may be working in Swat but not so much in other areas. Lack of vision and that of clear benchmarks has contributed to the prevailing situation.
So, unless those formulating the strategy sit up and begin to gather the necessary tools to make it work, what has been won and regained after tremendous sacrifices may be lost.