Ten days after the ghastly attack on the military-run school, Pakistan’s prime minister (PM) finally appeared on national television and announced a set of measures that reflect the civil-military consensus on the country’s counter terrorism strategy. After a national outpouring of grief, anger and global shock in the wake of the Peshawar attack, the government had no choice but to appear tough. The long list of measures announced by the PM relate to tackling the long-standing growth of domestic militancy and proliferation of extremist groups across the country.
In a rare expression of stoutness, the PM announced that violent militias would not be allowed to operate and shall face a crackdown. He also referred to regulating the madrassa network and arresting the sources of hate speech that create violent mindsets and provide the faux-theological basis for asserting sectarian agendas. One of the key announcements came in the shape of setting up military courts. Human rights groups have expressed concerns and reminded that even a remote chance of a miscarriage of justice will only lead to more brutalisation and radicalisation of society.
Pakistan’s justice system is heavily flawed and has been unable to respond to the enormous task of punishing those accused of terrorism. The conviction rates are no more than five per cent and the outdated prosecutorial system is clogged by severe capacity constraints. There is a consensus in the country that without major judicial reform and improvements in prosecution services, the regular criminal justice system cannot deliver.
This is not a new debate. In 1999, the Supreme Court (SC) in the Liaquat Hussain case declared military courts unconstitutional. The SC also provided guidelines to deal with the menace of terrorism, which remain unimplemented. Key guidelines issued were: keep anti-terrorism courts exclusively for terrorism cases and assign one case at a time; daily hearings; announcement of decisions in seven days. Directives were also issued that the challan of a particular case should only be submitted once the prosecution had ensured that all witnesses could be produced. High courts were asked to nominate judges who could review the speed and outcomes of the judicial process. The SC was also meant to appoint a judge who could review the implementation of its own verdict. And, the judgment also mentioned that the government could seek assistance of the armed forces under Article 245 to ensure the security of judges, advocates and witnesses.
Like Pakistan’s repetitive governance failures, this judgment was also forgotten. Fifteen years later, we are in the same situation, except that terrorism has grown beyond belief and extremist narratives have captured public discourse. This is a collective failure of Pakistani society. Deja vu, once again? General Musharraf in 2002 embarked upon a similar path to fight militancy and extremism. In January 2002, this is what the General said: “If any madrassa (religious school) is found indulging in extremism, subversion, militant activity or possessing any types of weapons, it will be closed. All madaaris will have to adopt the new syllabi by the end of this year …”
None of what Nawaz Sharif said is new. It was the agenda of his nemesis Musharraf, too, and the latter happened to be far more powerful than Sharif currently is. But even Musharraf’s resolve remained unimplemented. In fact, the country witnessed proliferation of private militias and the emergence of the deadly Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement right under the nose of the moderately enlightened general.
Musharraf failed because the establishment continued to view certain banned outfits as ‘strategic assets’ in its competition for regional dominance against India; and continued to treat Afghanistan as the strategic arena. Most of the banned outfits reappeared under new names. Few turned into ‘welfare charities’ with militant wings. An alliance with the religious parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa meant that madrassa regulation could not be achieved. By 2008, when a civilian government took over, the tide had reversed and the al Qaeda outpost — the Lal Masjid — had become a national symbol of resistance against US-allied Musharraf. Sections of the media played an irresponsible role in stirring up this storm.
This time again, it is the army that is in the driving seat. General Raheel Sharif has been leading the operation in North Waziristan and the recent measures announced have the endorsement of the military.
The government cannot deliver on its recent promise until it manages to engage in a dialogue with the establishment on revising the strategic security paradigm that governs the military-intelligence operations. Pakistan’s foreign and security policies remain ‘India-centric’ and the perceived threat of India encircling Pakistan via Afghanistan continues. Second, if the media commentaries are any guide, the Kashmir jihad militias are unlikely to be touched. Third, the autonomous actors within the intelligence outfits need to report to the civil-military authorities concerned. Fourth, the bail of alleged 2008 Mumbai attacks mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and the impending release of Malik Ishaq are signals that run contrary to the declared intent of the state.
Can the civilians drive these policy changes? Sadly not. Since July, Nawaz Sharif has lost his grip over power largely due to the protests and media-generated frenzy, which some attribute to the meddling of the famed invisible hand in Pakistani politics. The recent all-parties conference once again displayed the weaknesses of Pakistan’s compromised political elite and their lack of capacity, preparation and imagination. By signing on the military courts, they have effectively endorsed a 21st century coup. This follows the follies of Imran Khan, where instead of strengthening the democratic process, he has allowed for greater space for the “umpire” he had been keenly inviting to meddle. Decision-making with respect to security remains firmly in the hands of military commanders.
This is why the next few months are a test of General Sharif’s leadership. The public looks at him as the tough general who can deliver on the menace of terrorism. Given that they are in charge de facto, it might help the commanders to seek civilian input into their strategic worldview. The constitutional requirement of undoing all private militias may serve as a guide here. Dismantling the private jihad infrastructure — from feeder madrassas to education curriculum to militant networks — is the first step to secure Pakistan. The TTP are just the tip of the iceberg. Public hangings and military courts are akin to prescribing aspirin for a cancer that is consuming Pakistan.