A Complex War

By: General (R) Raheel Sharif
Published: December 1, 2017
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General (retd.) Raheel Sharif, Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, recently delivered a keynote address at the Middle East Military Alliances and Coalitions (MEMAC) Conference held in Bahrain. Extracts from his paper exclusively for Narratives…


Our World today is evolving at a faster pace than ever before due to the current geo-political shifts, technological advancements and new economic realities. Nations across the globe are experiencing strategic changes, forming new alliances to better counter individual as well as collective threats.

The biggest challenge in the 21st Century, especially for the Muslim World is confronting the most dangerous phenomenon of terrorism. Here, terrorist organisations have distorted the notion of Jihad and try to cloak their horrendous activities in the legitimacy of Islam. These non-state actors have evolved over the years and now take advantage of tensions between global players, regional power play and weaknesses of the smaller states. These groups threaten international peace and security and propagate fear through ruthless terrorist acts, choosing place and time for maximum glorification. This menace needs to be uprooted through joint effort.

The challenge

Terrorist organisations no longer use centralised planning or execution for their operations. They rely on smaller cells operating independently within the general guidance of their leadership. Despite concerted efforts to foil terrorist attacks it is very difficult to prevent them all. Terrorist groups collaborate mostly to release pressure on each other despite their differences in ideologies and goals.

The point is that there is a method to this madness. There are facilitators, financiers, abettors, sympathisers and sleeper cells. They work for each other and the foot soldiers are mostly mercenaries and money plays a major role. As an example, a foot soldier of Al-Qaeda gets around $300 to $400, whereas Daesh offers $600 to $700. Many countries have suffered from internal conflicts at the hands of the non-state actors, and also due to foreign involvement or the lack of international support, collapsed unless their institutions, particularly Armed Forces, were able to sustain the conflict. Syria and Libya are most recent examples. In Iraq after many years we are finally seeing improvement with the gradual recapture of Iraqi land from Daesh.

The Pakistani experience

Coming to Pakistan, what we as a nation have faced and achieved over the last several years, I am sure is of interest, utility and relevance to all (nations facing the challenge of terrorism). Our counter terrorism campaign, the largest that any single country has undertaken employing over 200,000 strong force, has turned the tide in Pakistan.

Let me give you a sense of the scale and scope of the challenge we faced. Since the start of the War on Terror, over 25,000 Pakistanis from all walks of life have laid down their lives. This figure includes over 6,000 martyred security personnel, including a three star, two star and one star generals. Over 48,000 Pakistanis have been critically wounded.

The complexity of our challenges was compounded by the fact that threats in the form of Al-Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Indian   Subcontinent, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Tariq Gidar Group, Daesh, and others, resided in geographically shifting spaces maintaining a self-reinforcing presence in ideological, social, information and financial domains.

While the terrorist recognised no boundaries, and moved freely across our porous borders especially with Afghanistan, we operated within our national borders without much coordinated support from across. Pakistan Army had to operate against cold-blooded fanatics, criminals and mercenaries. While several geographically limited operations were launched, the threat kept ballooning.

In 2013 over a hundred terror attacks on average happened across the country per month. Our markets, schools, mosques, government institutions, military installations, airports – all were attacked. We gave an honest try to peace talks but our efforts were seen as weakness, and the attacks became more brazen.


Realising that we have had enough, the only solution was to declare all-out war against these terrorists. Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb across the country, which was conceived as a holistic and multi-dimensional concept through indiscriminate action against terrorists of all hue and color, along with their abettors, financiers and sympathisers.

In addition to the military operation in North Waziristan and Khyber, over 25,000 intelligence based operations were carried out across Pakistan.

This was supported by a comprehensive national effort that envisioned strengthening prosecution of terrorists, effective policing, regulating madrassas, curbing terror financing and an equally important effort to build an effective counter narrative to defeat the terrorist ideology and propaganda.

With a yearlong concerted effort, all terrorist networks were unearthed and their linkages to hostile intelligence agencies, especially RAW, were effectively seized and exposed.

I must commend our intelligence agencies for capturing RAW operative Kulbhushan Jadhav in Balochistan – a serving Indian Navy officer.

Instability in Afghanistan

As we dealt with terrorism, continuous instability in Afghanistan impacted and still affects Pakistan’s efforts. The only road to a peaceful and prosperous region runs through a stable Afghanistan which is achievable through a comprehensive and coordinated approach and the sincerity of all stakeholders.

Zarb-e-Azb took over two years to reach its military objectives. During this time, an approximate area of eight-and-a-half-thousand square kilometers was cleared. Three hundred and thirty-eight thousand families living in this area had to be moved out before launching the operation. Nevertheless, all terrorist sanctuaries and hideouts were destroyed and complete government writ was established in the Tribal Areas with unflinching politico-military resolve. By the conclusion of the operation, 90 percent of the temporarily displaced people had moved back to their houses after clearance of the area – a great and unparalleled achievement of the Pakistan Army.

Thousands of terrorists, many from transnational outfits were killed, obviously some fled across the porous border. Most importantly, the terrorist narrative and their ideological mentors have been utterly discredited in Pakistan. I take a lot of pride in saying that I have commanded the most battle-hardened army of the world. I salute the martyrs and extend my gratitude to the resilient people of Pakistan for their full support.

The most evil act

Terrorists tried their utmost to break our will. I must mention here, the most horrendous and evil act was the attack on Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 147 individuals, including innocent children, their teachers and principal were brutally murdered. The day the school reopened, the brave mothers of our beloved children had just one demand that these savages should be apprehended and hanged. Over 160 hardcore terrorists have been given death sentences to create the much needed deterrence.

We built stability in Pakistan bit by bit. From hours to days, to weeks, to months, and by the end of 2016, the terror incidents dropped down to an all-time low.

Karachi, our biggest city declared 6th most dangerous in 2013 was ranked 31st in the world in 2016. And finally, as a testament to our success, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project has become a reality.

Huge sacrifices

But these successes came after huge sacrifices. Our young officers and brave men led from the front and gave unparalleled sacrifices for their nation. I feel Pakistan has contributed more than its weight to regional security and global peace.

Building on the achievements and lessons of Zarb-e-Azb, I am confident that through the ongoing operations and efforts of my successor and the Government of Pakistan, we will soon achieve enduring peace, stability and prosperity.

Learning from Pakistan

I sincerely believe that several elements of Pakistan’s national response can be replicated worldwide especially by countries physically involved in the fight against terrorism.

In 2016 approximately 11,000 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 25,000 deaths and around 33,000 people injured. These terrorist attacks were heavily concentrated geographically in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Daesh was responsible for more attacks than any other group.

In addition to Boko Haram, in West Africa and Al Shabab in Somalia, the most active of Daesh affiliates are located in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. As we have not been able to control the spread, be it ideological or kinetic, more decentralisation is expected. Divisions and acrimony amongst nations is also exploited by terrorists. Poorly coordinated strategic messaging and perfectly avoidable blame-game, ends up directly strengthening the terrorist narrative.

Complex conflicts

Existing conflicts have become more complex and overlapping than ever before in history. Kinetic action is not enough as problems are regional, transnational and deep-rooted in political and socio-economic spheres. Hence, the international community will eventually have to help resolve regional conflicts and disputes especially the crises in Palestine, the Genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the Indian brutalities on Kashmiri Muslims where tens of thousands have lost their lives. The international community and especially the Muslim World needs to play a constructive and urgent part in resolving these issues.

The fight against terrorism has become extremely complex and resource intense. Traditional forces and law enforcement agencies have to fight a faceless enemy demanding a high level of preparedness and continuous vigilance.

While individual nations have built tremendous capabilities in various fields, especially in intelligence and surveillance domains, there is lack of synergy in terms of formal institutionalised mechanisms for sharing expertise, actionable intelligence and capacity building. The Muslim countries are facing tremendous challenges and organised terrorism is the biggest threat to our foundations.


Realising the need of a platform for a comprehensive strategic approach against terrorism in the Muslim World, His Majesty the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has taken a historic and meaningful initiative of formulating an Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

It is a matter of great honour for me to be part of this Coalition as its Military Commander. It is heartening that as of now the coalition comprises 41 Muslim countries and an earnest endeavour is being made to welcome other Muslim nations.

The vision of this coalition is to have a joint capability of coordinating the efforts of the member countries in the fight against terrorism with efficiency and effectiveness.

I would like to make it clear that this coalition is against terrorism and not against any country, sect or religion. It will provide a platform facilitating coalition member countries, with the support of international organisations and supporting nations to coordinate and unite their political, intellectual, media, economic and military efforts to fight all forms of terrorism and extremism and to effectively join other international security and peacekeeping efforts.

The Four Domains

The mechanism for the coalition has been divided into four main domains: The first domain will be focused on countering terrorists’ ideology. Here we will work to promote and preserve the universal message of Islam, asserting Islamic values of moderation, tolerance and compassion, countering the terrorist narratives by explaining the true spirit of Islam and create the intellectual, psychological and social impact to counter the perverted radical views. We will aim to promote a home-grown approach that celebrates lives of individuals, and recognises diversity, respecting cultural differences among Coalition member countries.

The second domain will be Communication. With the pride of Islamic heritage and cultural richness, the IMCTC will develop, produce and publish factual and scholarly content to be used on print, electronic and social media, where it will engage in dialogues to correct perceptions and discredit radical and extremist narratives. An endeavour will be made to position the coalition as a vanguard organisation in preventing and countering violent extremism while strengthening the engagement and collaboration among coalition member countries instilling hope and optimism.

The third domain will be counter terrorist financing. Our effort would be drying up all type of financial support to terrorist groups through collaboration and coordination with member countries and relevant stakeholders by targeting those financing terrorism. We will achieve our goal by building financial intelligence capabilities, advance legal and regulatory frameworks and sharing best practices. Actionable intelligence will be made available to help facilitate detection, prevention and seizure efforts. We will use and build on the support of international organisations that counter terrorist finance to promote and develop our member nations capabilities.

The fourth domain will be military. The IMCTC will act as a platform to assist member nations in their counter terrorism operations through intelligence sharing, resourcing and capacity building when requested. Help will also be rendered to member countries with the assistance of supporting nations to build their military and law enforcement agencies’ capabilities for fighting terrorism through proper planning, cross training, exercises etc. Earnest endeavour would be made to foster and encourage an environment that deters aggression and violence.

Apart from these four domains it will be ensured that the coalition under the auspices of the Defense Ministers Council of member countries and under the patronage of the Minister of Defense of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, operates in a streamlined fashion with the ability to make quick and timely decisions.

Common purpose

It will recognise and protect the sovereignty of member countries while guarding their national interests and sensitive information. The ultimate aim is to work together to reach the common purpose of deriving joint benefits.

To conclude, I would say terrorism over a period of time has become a global issue and needs a comprehensive response. With the rapid changes our world is going through, it is now more than ever necessary for us to unite, resolve our outstanding issues and promote peace and harmony amongst ourselves.

We need to realise that our destinies are linked to each other’s wellbeing and prosperity. The Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition is the need of the hour, and this endeavour requires our wholehearted support. God willing, together we will defeat the scourge of terrorism, building a safe and secure future for our generations to come.

About the Author
General (R) Raheel Sharif
General (R) Raheel Sharif is Pakistan’s former Chief of Army Staff