The recent spike in deadly terrorist attacks has made it patently clear that terrorists and militants have not yet been defeated. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has dismantled the organisational structure of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), causing it to disintegrate into splinter groups. Both the TTP and its offshoots have shifted their operational bases to eastern Afghanistan. With the support of Indian and Afghan agencies, Afghan soil is being used to organise attacks inside Pakistan.
The terrorist attacks at Charing Cross in Lahore and the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan have once again revealed the loopholes and shortcomings in the militarised counterterrorism strategy of the incumbent government. Therefore, the country’s anti-terrorism approach needs a pragmatic change in order to be successful in eliminating terrorists and militants once and for all.
How can the snowballing terrorism and militancy be crushed when the government continues to delay stringent regulation of unregistered seminaries and badly needed reforms of the underperforming police and the failed criminal justice system? Until the state shuns its clumsy, wrong-headed and militarised counterterrorism approach, battle-hardened terrorists and militants will keep attacking the country with impunity.
The government has so far displayed an unwillingness to sternly execute the major points of the dormant National Action Plan (NAP). Military courts under NAP have hanged a large number of hardcore terrorists. These executions have proved effectual only for a short period by decreasing the number of terrorist attacks in the country. However, such hangings have apparently failed to work as a long-term deterrent to prevent radicalised and religiously-misguided people from joining the outlawed terrorist groups.
What is important is to note that the terrorist, militant and sectarian groups often employ dangerous and distorted religious narratives to attract people towards their reprehensible objectives. These groups and their offshoots have ably exploited the executions of their fighters in order to receive sympathy and more recruits from different strata of the country.
The state should realise that terrorism is mainly a psychological warfare being nimbly waged to create fear so as to divide and weaken the country. In this ideological warfare, the state needs to counter the distorted narrative of terrorists with a well-calibrated ideology which should prevent people from joining non-state actors.
Under NAP, the government is responsible for taking stringent measures against banned militant groups operating in the country, especially from southern and central Punjab. Till very recently, the PML-N government had delayed a military operation – on the same lines as the one in Karachi – in those districts of Punjab where operatives of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are believed to be hiding.
The recent by-election victory of Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, son of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), signals that the government is either apprehensive of a threatening backlash from these militant-cum-sectarian outfits or is inclined to gain their political support in the upcoming elections.
Such political expediency and indifference of the ruling party is mainly responsible for the ongoing conflicted and non-cooperative civil-military relations. The prime minister along with the Punjab chief minster should have empowered and equipped the Punjab police and the provincial Counter Terrorism Department to flush out these disruptive groups. Since the army has already deployed a large number of troops in the terror-stricken tribal areas against terrorists, it would be quite unwise to engage them in central Punjab against militants.
Sadly, the civilian government has by far turned a blind eye to one of the main points of NAP about regulating and reforming over 35,000 seminaries operating across the country. Some of these religious schools are reportedly involved in radicalising their students and supplying them to terrorist and militant groups. Apart from some dummy measures, the state has done nothing concrete to reform the outdated syllabi of seminaries and choke the funding of those madressahs which are involved in producing terrorists.
Why has the government continued to avoid reforming and controlling seminaries in the country? First, the ruling party needs the all-out support of some mainstream religio-political parties to shore up its crumbling political setup from the whirlwind of corruption cases against the first family. Second, the government does not have well-qualified professionals who can be tasked to propose feasible changes in the outdated curricula of seminaries. Third, the political leadership is highly fearful of the disruptive street power of some religio-political parties which run their own madressahs.
Point 12 of NAP lays stress on the importance of socio-economic, political and administrative reforms in Fata. To keep terrorism and militancy at bay in the tribal areas, the army has built some training centres for technical education and initiated a process of de-radicalisation of the long-deprived youth in the area.
The performance of the civilian government as far as the introduction of the needed administrative and socio-economic reforms in Fata are concerned, has been questionable. The recommendations of the Fata Reforms Committee have ended in a fiasco on account of the non-seriousness of the government to empower the terror-weary tribal people on the administrative and economic fronts. The state should be aware that terrorists often exploit deep-rooted political and economic grievances of people and indoctrinate them to join their groups.
According to point four of NAP, the main counterterrorism authority, Nacta, would be strengthened and empowered to play a pivotal role in eradicating terrorism. Nacta is essentially supposed to be the main executive authority entrusted with the task to execute NAP in letter and spirit. Before the attack on Charing Cross in Lahore, Nacta performed its assigned task well by informing the government of a possible terrorist attack in Punjab.
But, it can be argued that the authority still does not have competent counterterrorism professionals. The competence and professionalism of Nacta can be gauged from its working methods. Whenever it issues a warning to the government about a possible terrorist attack, the letter of warning reaches social media, creating fear in people. This can also help terrorists change the venue of their attacks.
The government has also dragged its feet with regard to reforming the torpid criminal justice system of the country. In the trial of violent criminals and terrorists, the country’s investigation agencies and courts have miserably failed to probe cases in a scientific manner and deliver verdicts based on irrefutable evidence. This has resulted in low conviction rates of hardened terrorists and militants. Since the terrorists know that they can easily escape punishment, they keep attacking the country.
It is time to realise that the delay in implementing NAP has emboldened terrorists and militants to carry out their disruptive activities in the country. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to make Nacta fully functional and implement NAP without further delay.
Besides this, the government should reform the police and ensure round-the-clock intelligence coordination between the civilian and military agencies. These measures should be complemented with the provision of educational and economic opportunities to people so that they do not end up joining non-state actors.
The writer edits The Asia Watch.
The article was originally published in The News International.