Counterterrorism: rhetoric vs reality

Amid the controversy of Pakistan joining the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the media focus has shifted from the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP), the guiding counterterrorism policy framework. After months of heralding the NAP as the panacea for all that afflicts Pakistan, there are signs that some of the policy commitments may be waning.

This is not to say that progress has not been made. The most recent monthly report stated that between December 2014 and March 2015,32,000 ‘suspects’ were taken into custody on various charges and over 28,500 operations were conducted across the country. In Punjab, the security agencies undertook 14,791 operations. In addition, law enforcement agencies arrested thousands of individuals and killed 37 terrorists. Of those arrested, the government claims, 727 were ‘hardcore terrorists’. The details of who these are, and the charges made, remain unknown.

Nearly 4,000 people were also arrested for violating the rules on using loudspeakers and 887 cases were also registered for hate speech. Apparently, the Federal Investigative Agency, the FIA also registered 64 cases for illegal financial transactions and arrested 83 people. The State Bank of Pakistan froze 120 accounts containing Rs10.1 billion under the NAP drive.

These otherwise encouraging claims have been challenged. First, as of early April, only 22 of 61 convicts executed were terrorists. A report by a leading national daily revealed that among the thousands who had been detained, only 140, or less than one per cent, had links with terrorist organisations. The most important link in bringing alleged culprits to justice is prosecution; and it remains unclear how many would actually be prosecuted and tried in a court.

Another positive development has been the drive to verify mobile SIMs. Nearly 25 million (out of 103 million registered earlier) unverified SIMs have been blocked by early April. This has happened after inexcusable delay. Mobile phone is now a key instrument used by techno-jihadis globally. Similarly, the government claims that due to operations by paramilitary agencies, target killings have gone down by 57 per cent and extortion by 37 per cent in violence-ridden Karachi.

All these coercive actions constitute tinkering on the margins of the problem. The core actions under the NAP have been, not unsurprisingly, brushed under the carpet. In March, Nacta stated that the drive against proscribed militant groups, reform of madrassas and the repatriation of Afghan refugees were ‘no more under consideration for these were time-consuming and needed long-range planning. Isn’t that precisely what a state under siege ought to be doing?

There is an argument for phased action and building a consensus with the help of religious parties in the country. Sadly, the nexus of so-called mainstream religio-political parties with global and local terrorists is well-known. Many, not all, madrassas are recruitment grounds for these religious parties and their jihadist allies. Nowhere is state culpability more evident than in the existence of 25,000-40,000 seminaries across the country, most of which are unregistered. The madrassas cater to less than five per cent of the school-going population in the country. But they are at the root of militancy and radicalisation and are now a source of street power. For instance, at most religious demonstrations, madrassa students are mobilised in thousands to create mayhem. Security analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa has termed the madrassa factor as ‘ghettoisation’ within the religious spectrum. The net effect is the legitimisation of violence, and due to the force available with jihadists, the negation of all other interpretations of faith.

Today, each school of thought seems to have created its own network of madrassas leading to ‘intra-madrassa competition’ and ‘intra-sect struggle’ for domination. This is also a key driver of sectarian violence in the country. Due to consistent patronage by the deep state, madrassa power has grown to the extent that now they are in the position to challenge the state. The reluctance of the government in implementing the commitment under the NAP is a clear indicator of this. This not-so-civil society conglomerate has appropriated and consolidated the powers it received by the state since the 1980s. The madrassa creed dictates state policies now. For instance, the ban on YouTube is one such outcome of this power dynamic.

Will the Pakistani state shift its ideological framework under the NAP? The answer seems to be in the negative. The proscribed groups, especially of the sectarian variety, are an extension of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ matrix. Thousands of seminaries provide for the manpower, leadership and the intermediation of sectarian militias within society. Months after the Peshawar attack and despite the execution of many ‘terrorists’, militias such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat etc. continue to operate and their networks are intact. Even a half-hearted attempt is not in view.

In Pakistan, not unlike conventional wisdom elsewhere, public opinion holds that authoritarian power is required to fight insurgencies due to the unity of the command factor. This is why the military-led apex committees in the provinces have been welcomed. Once again, there is a consensus that the army chief will take the country out of this morass. There is no question that the military has to be at the forefront of the NAP due to its strengths, intelligence networks and the direct threat that it now faces from some of these armed militias. However, in the long-term, well-functioning civilian systems are more effective in managing internal conflicts. In our case, despite the grandstanding on the NAP, the key agency – Nacta – remains an underfunded and understaffed body. Media reports have highlighted that most of its key positions are yet to be filled. There has been little progress on setting up a joint intelligence directorate without which effective intelligence sharing is not possible.

The NAP is not restricted to coercive actions of the state. It also emphasises the reform of the criminal justice system and introducing much-needed structural changes in Fata. These issues are not mentioned anywhere in the official updates. The media overlooks these critical areas as well. Silence on reform is another hallmark of our public narratives that needs to be addressed. The police and prosecution services need major improvements if the NAP has to be implemented.

The prime minister must start from his home ground and clean up the jihad industry well-ensconced there. The initiative will have to be seized by the elected government. Otherwise, its image as the junior partner of the military will further dent the legitimacy of civilian rule. The prime minister and his team must get their act together and take the NAP more seriously. The likelihood of this happening, however, is remote, if not non-existent.

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