Former interior minister and chief of his faction of the PPP Aftab Khan Sherpao suffered the third suicide attempt on his life on Saturday while returning from addressing a public rally in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The lone suicide bomber, apparently unable to access the rally because of stringent security arrangements, walked out of an open field and into the path of Mr Sherpao’s returning convoy and blew himself up. The blast killed a policeman and wounded eight other people, including MPA Muhammad Ali Khan. The injured are believed to be out of danger. Sherpao’s son Sikandar Sherpao also received minor injuries. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility, justifying the targeting of Sherpao for his role as interior minister in Musharraf's regime, during which the Taliban were attacked by the security forces. The TTP spokesman vowed to try again and again until they achieved their goal. The incident reflects the inherent difficulties attendant upon safeguarding political personalities and their supporters, especially in public appearances. While the security agencies can be commended for their foolproof security arrangements at the venue of the public rally, which did not allow any unwelcome elements to gain access, the fact that the returning convoy could so easily be targeted is cause for concern. Admittedly, guarding each and every inch of the route the Sherpao convoy was taking is a near impossibility, and cannot be considered the answer to the conundrum of preventing terrorist attacks. Strictly speaking, as we have argued repeatedly in this space, there is little if any chance of stopping a suicide bomber once he has embarked on his mission. The only possibility is if he can be pre-empted from starting his deadly journey. Pre-emption implies good prior intelligence information. That in turn implies not just keeping an eye from the outside on potential or actual terrorists, but the capacity and ability to infiltrate the terrorist groups to have insider information in a timely manner. So far the track record in this regard does not inspire much confidence.
One of the reasons why the intelligence agencies appear helpless to lay hold of potential terrorists before they wreak their bloody project is that the military establishment continues with its ambiguous policy vis-à-vis banned and underground terrorist groups. The banned groups are operating freely, holding public rallies and generally making a nuisance of themselves after reinventing themselves under different social welfare banners. The shadowy underground groups, basically headquartered in FATA, appear to enjoy freedom of movement, selection of relatively vulnerable targets, and the ability to strike where and when they choose, both inside the tribal areas as well as the settled parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Indications are that the military is reluctant to mount an action in North Waziristan, the headquarters of most Taliban groups, including the Afghan Haqqani network, because of the apprehension that this might lead to an all-out tribal uprising. Piecemeal military offensives in various FATA Agencies such as Orakzai, Khyber and Khurram have failed to yield the desired results because in the absence of an effective encirclement that cuts off the terrorists’ retreat, the militants simply melt away and move to other parts of FATA or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the face of irresistible force applied by the military. The militants are simply practising Mao’s dictum: “When the enemy attacks, we retreat; when the enemy tires, we attack.” So far, the strategic and tactical thrust of the military’s campaigns in FATA have failed to achieve any sustainable success. This in itself is a tactical victory of sorts for the militants. The security forces will continue to ‘chase shadows’ until they are able to improve their intelligence gathering and wrinkle out the ambiguities and contradictions in their approach to terrorist groups.
The attack on Sherpao’s convoy has grave implications. Mr Sherpao’s public meeting was of the nature of a build up for the expected general elections some time later this year or early next. When viewed in conjunction with the attack on the ANP rally the other day in the same region, genuine fears have arisen about the threat to the election campaigns of all political parties, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular and all over the country in general. Public gatherings inherently offer temptations to the terrorists to inflict massive damage and casualties. To prevent the terrorists from holding the democratic process hostage, a process they clearly see as their greatest political challenge, the country’s security agencies must revisit their existing strategy and tactics against terrorism and work out plans for the especially challenging task of safeguarding the political leaders and their supporters from the unwanted attentions of the mayhem mongers.