Why extremism still haunts Pakistan

Story highlights

  • At least 19 people were killed during a militant raid on a Pakistani university on Wednesday
  • Michael Kugelman: Pakistan may be killing terrorists, but it has not killed off ideology that fuels them

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)In recent months, Pakistani officials have boasted of major counterterrorism successes. They cite, for example, the scores of militants killed in an ongoing military operation in the North Waziristan tribal area, and point to the considerable reductions in terrorist violence. And it's true that last year, the number of civilian deaths from terrorist violence was down about 50% from 2014.

Still, let's be clear: Despite the counterterrorism triumphs over the last year, militancy has not been muzzled in Pakistan, a reality made painfully clear on Wednesday morning, when terrorists stormed Bacha Khan University in the town of Charsadda in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 19 people.
Michael Kugelman
It would also be wrong to suggest that the Bacha Khan University attack shattered a relative lull in terrorist violence. On the contrary, it came soon after two other mass casualty attacks elsewhere in the country -- one on a government office and the other at an outdoor market.
    None of this should be surprising.
    Pakistan may be killing off terrorists on the battlefield, but it has not killed off the ideology that fuels them. Indeed, the reality is that the Pakistani state has failed to craft a counternarrative to combat the hardline rhetoric deeply entrenched in Pakistani society. This ideology emphasizes themes of Islam being under siege, and of India and the United States as being responsible for Pakistan's afflictions. It is propagated by religious leaders, parroted by wildly popular television news anchors, and published in school textbooks.
    It also galvanizes the poor and rich alike. Saad Aziz, the man implicated in the murder of a prominent human rights activist last year in Karachi, came from a well-off family and was educated at one of Pakistan's most prestigious universities.
    In addition, this hardline ideology is deeply conspiratorial. So it's little wonder that in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Bacha Khan University, some prominent Pakistani media personalities and even former government officials suggested that India and a broader "international conspiracy" were responsible for the tragedy.
    Combating extremist ideologies is a tall order under any circumstances, and even more so in Pakistan, where the security establishment has a long history of harboring links to terror groups, such as the Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These are groups that don't stage attacks inside Pakistan, and Pakistan's much-ballyhooed military operation in North Waziristan has spared these organizations, which are regarded as strategic assets that can be unleashed against archenemy India and its interests in Afghanistan. The North Waziristan operation targets only those groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban -- the likely perpetrator of the Bacha Khan University attack -- that do target Pakistan.
    But by applying a selective policy to militant groups, Pakistan is playing with fire. These groups are all cut from the same ideological cloth, and in many cases -- particularly those involving the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban -- they often collaborate operationally.
    So the upshot is this: Pakistan offers a highly enabling environment for extremism. And so long as there is extremism, the likelihood of radicalization -- and its violent byproducts of militancy and terrorism -- is strong. It's as simple as that, and it means that no matter how many militants are killed on the battlefield, more will materialize in rapid succession.
    It's a sober realization, and one that cries out for an immediate corrective: better security measures to protect against future attacks.
    Wednesday's attackers were able to strike despite the presence of several dozen security guards on campus -- and despite earlier warnings of an attack in the broader region that prompted parents to keep their kids home from school in recent days. To be sure, all those guards likely prevented greater loss of life. But some 19 people still died.
    More stringent security measures are of course needed, and quickly. In a country like Pakistan, there is a ready supply of terrorists poised to strike -- from sectarian militants targeting the Shia Muslim minority and anti-state Pakistani Taliban forces to unaligned radicals inspired by ISIS.
    But until Pakistan is willing to make life more difficult for all extremists operating within the country, ordinary Pakistanis will continue to suffer tragedies like Wednesday's attacks.