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Pak targets Lashkar, Jaish with 'intelligence-based ops'

February 23, 2017 09:13 IST

Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad launched to fight terrorism across country, reports Ajai Shukla.

Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Even those sceptical of Pakistan's insistence that it is cracking down on jihadists of every hue are now admitting that something has clearly changed from the days when only token action would be taken against 'India-focussed' groups.

On Wednesday evening, the Pakistan army announced it had launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad across the country.

This includes counter-terrorism operations, aimed at 'indiscriminately eliminating residual/latent threat of terrorism.'

Earlier on Wednesday, Lashkar-e-Tayiba chief Muhammad Saeed, who has been railing at his government for detaining him at 'India’s behest', challenged his January 30 detention in the Lahore high court.

In the past, courts had supinely ordered Saeed's release as also that of his terrorist assistant, Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi who masterminded the 26/11 Mumbai strike.

This time, however, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif'’s federal government, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif's Punjab government and the army under General Qamar Bajwa clearly coordinating closely, the high court in Lahore could well display a stiffer backbone when it hears Saeed's appeal.

The army, particularly, has been unequivocal in backing Saeed's arrest.

The day after it happened, Pakistan's military’s spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor stated: 'This (Saeed's arrest) is a policy decision that the state took in (the) national interest.'

On Sunday, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif termed Saeed a 'serious threat to (Pakistani) society' and said he had been arrested in Pakistan's 'larger interest.'

Numerous theories are being advanced for Pakistan's new resolve. These include pressure from Beijing; and Islamabad's worry of being punished by US President Donald Trump's administration.

In fact, the primary driver of the drive against Pakistan's terrorist proxies is the new army chief, General Bajwa.

As I first reported, General Bajwa believes Pakistan's national security interests lie in ending the spiral of hostility with India.

For that, he is ready to curb the LeT and JeM, long coddled as 'strategic assets' for proxy strikes against targets in India.

Consequently, not just does Saeed find himself in custody, his 'humanitarian' fronts -- Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falaha-e-Insaaniyat -- too have been officially proscribed under the 2nd schedule of the anti-terrorism act of 1997.

This week, the Pakistani government cancelled 44 weapons licences that had been granted to Saeed and his group members.

Earlier, Saeed and 37 members of the JuD and FIF were placed on an exit control list, requiring them to obtain special government permission to travel out of Pakistan.

Tightening the squeeze, the army is facilitating sweeps by the Punjab police's counter-terrorism wing and the paramilitary Rangers across southern Punjab to kill or arrest terrorists, especially from these groups.

These are termed 'intelligence-based operations'.

According to Pakistan army sources, an 'intelligence-based operation' is typically based on specific information about jihadis from the Inter-Services Intelligence or the police's counter-terrorism wing.

It involves cordoning and searching a village or locality by mixed task forces, with the Pakistan army sometimes assisting in cordoning off the area while the Punjab police actually apprehends the terrorists.

The 'intelligence-based operations' are achieving notable results.

Last Friday, a day after a suicide bomber killed 72 worshippers and injured 150 at the popular Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (of Dama Dam Mast Qalandar fame) in the Sind town of Sehwan Sharif, the army retaliated by killing over a hundred terrorists in 'intelligence-based operations'.

Now the paramilitary Rangers will be joining this crackdown. On Wednesday, the federal government approved the request from Punjab Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif, made on Sunday, for 2,000 Rangers to beef up 'intelligence-based operations' in Southern Punjab.

Going back on its traditional reluctance to grant police powers to a paramilitary organisation, the Punjab government has granted the Rangers powers of search, seizure and arrest.

The Pakistan Rangers are more potent than the police, since they are officered by the Pakistan army. Responsible (like India's Border Security Force) for manning the Indo-Pakistan border, Indians know the Rangers as the troops who perform the coordinated flag ceremony at the Wagah-Atari border near Amritsar.

Pakistan seeks to tackle terrorism under the umbrella of a national action plan, which was approved at an all-party meeting after the terror strike in December 2014, when seven Tehrik-e-Taliban terrorists killed 141 people at the army public school, Peshawar, including 132 schoolchildren.

Under the NAP, former army chief General Raheel Sharif had selectively targeted 'anti-Pakistan' groups like the TTP, while protecting 'strategic assets' like the LeT and JeM, the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban.

General Bajwa's unusual conviction on the need to stay out of politics also manifested in Nawaz Sharif's selection of Tehmina Janjua as foreign secretary, sidelining the army's choice, the current High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit.

Janjua is the junior-most of the Pakistan foreign ministry's 13 apex rank (Grade 22) officers, and has no experience in New Delhi.

Yet, General Bajwa quietly accepted Nawaz's choice.

IMAGE: Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

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Ajai Shukla