Pakistan’s counterterrorism discourse must be anchored in across-the-board rule of law
The public outrage over yet another “security lapse” makes complete sense. It marked the fourth consecutive terror strike within a week leaving almost 50 innocents people dead. These incidents of violence shocked everyone because of the considerable decline in the acts of terror in 2015. Much of the fury from politicians and intellectuals was directed against the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP). Most equated the attack to a sheer failure of the NAP.
Frankly, the NAP essentially is a reiteration to strictly enforce existing laws, to work on improving security conditions, and to address major drivers of religious extremism. At no point did this framework promise total elimination of terrorism per se. Nor did it rule out future terror strikes. Why then is there so much frustration over the government “NAPping”?
A meaningful critique of NAP probably requires a better comprehension of the possible drivers of the current instability and to ask ourselves if Pakistan has a real long term counterterrorism strategy?
Firstly, poor or superficial understanding of the nature of terrorism that is stalking parts of Pakistan translates into unqualified criticism.
Secondly, tall claims of “gains” against terrorist networks by both the military and civilian leadership serve as the another major contributory factor of anger, because such claims raise public expectations
Thirdly, the actions of the civilian law enforcement agencies against criminal syndicates and religious conglomerates running thousands of seminaries and tens of thousands of mosques across the country are tardy and unconvincing. Similarly, the construction of mosques on public property, and unchecked, toxic, and often anti-democracy speeches from the pulpit, feed the sense of helplessness and despondency.
Why shouldn’t India demand access to Salahuddin?
Fourth, the frustration is a direct result of the assumption that terrorist forces such as TTP and ISIS are perpetrating terrorism for a sacred religious cause.
Fifth, people at large and many analysts often overlook or underestimate the trans-border nature of violence. For them, it is either driven by the anti-West Al Qaeda or ISIS, or their Pakistani and Afghan auxiliaries. The other trans-border dimension is directly linked to the country’s relations with India and Afghanistan.
Let us be clear. NAP at best is a basic counterterrorism framework – a roadmap for establishing the write of the state. It reiterates strict enforcement of existing laws and address root causes of both terrorism and religious extremism.
Secondly, even if Pakistan had a counterterrorism strategy, its effectiveness – not success – would be linked to two pressing external factors – India and Afghanistan and the nature of relations with them. While internal factors such as sectarian acrimony, free field for jihadi outfits, poor state response to hate speech, little action for mainstreaming the seminaries and their curricula do constitute formidable challenges for enforcing the rule of law inter alia, external factors exploit these internal conditions in precipitating violence.
At the heart of this triangle are the Afghan Taliban and the Kashmiri militants. Both jihadist groups continue attacking Indian and Afghan interests and thus remain primary sources of indictment of Pakistan’s discourse on terrorism.
Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack mid-January on a bus carrying employees of Afghanistan’s prime TV channel TOLO. The incident shook most of the Afghan intelligentsia and politicians to the extent that President Ashraf Ghani had to tell a TOLO delegation that “those responsible for these attacks will have no place in this society.”
Ghani of course was alluding to the Taliban, whom his government and other members of the Quadrilateral Mechanism set up in December are wooing for reconciliation talks. And all Afghans believe the attackers (Haqqanis and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s Taliban) operate out of sanctuaries in Pakistan.
This practically brings the quadrilateral efforts to a halt, because both governments have traded and rejected allegations which culminated in the summoning of the acting Afghan envoy to the foreign office for a protest.
Within hours of the assault on the Pathankot airbase on January 2, Syed Salahuddin, the chairman of the United Jihad Council (UJC), claimed responsibility for the attack. He also chided Pakistan for improving relations with India saying “friendship with India and advocating Kashmir cause can’t go hand in hand.”
This is precisely what the Indian government says. This also hands New Delhi a stick with which it batters Pakistan’s counterterror commitments all over the world. The latest example is joint statement after the meeting between the visiting French President Francois Hollande and his host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 25.
Condemning the recent terror attacks in Pathankot and Gurdaspur in India, the two countries reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring to justice their perpetrators and the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Seizing the opportunity, Modi said the “global community needs to act decisively against those who provide safe havens to terrorists, who nurture them through finances, training and infrastructure support.”
Why shouldn’t India demand custody of, or access to, Salahuddin for interrogation on the Pathankot incident? Why should not world snub Pakistan’s commitment to “terror elimination” if characters such as Salahuddin, sitting in Pakistan, claim responsibility for acts of terror in India?
The entire counterterrorism debate then boils down to continuing to distinguish between good and bad Taliban. As long as the good ones and their socio-political supporters sense sympathy from within state security structures, the narrative against terrorism will remain questionable.
Pakistan’s current counterterrorism policy relies mostly on the hard power of the military. It is quite possible that once the military eases this pressure, NAP could fall into disarray.
Mainstream political parties are driven more by electoral considerations than by strictly going after those spitting venom against the state and its neighbours. Mere lip-service against terrorism hardly matters where tough decisions are required.
The discourse of counterterrorism must be anchored in the primacy of across-the-board rule of law, rejection of private militias, and indiscriminate action against all those challenging the writ of the government in and outside the geographical frontiers of Pakistan.
Mistrust of Pakistan’s counterterrorism campaign and finger-pointing by neighbours will only stop when Pakistan removes and neutralizes all sources of direct or indirect interference in Afghanistan and India.