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Need to Revisit Counter-Terrorism Strategy | Iqbal Khan

OUR security dynamics has undergone an interesting reversal. Not a long ago the criminals’ faces were wrapped in cloth and hidden from the public but Sunday newspapers carried clippings when a high profile Lyari gangster was comfortable while uncovered, his three Rangers escorts found it necessary to hide behind black masks. The equation of fear and safety has interchanged places between criminals and law enforcers. It speaks volumes about inadequacy about out national counter terrorism effort.

New Year began gloomily for Pakistan. Just when we thought that we had turned the corner in our successful fight against terrorism, a spate of terrorist attacks throughout the country shook us rather heavily. We were naïve to assume, that after the APS School massacre, when the whole nation got together on one page against the terrorists, such attacks would no longer take place on educational institutions. The successful attack on Bacha Khan University means that the operational capabilities of the terrorists may have been degraded, but they certainly have not been destroyed; ironically, government congratulating itself for keeping the death toll low sounded quite comical.

The fiasco of two winter breaks in the schools has amply exposed the confidence or lack of it in the security and safety measures implemented by the educational institutions. This year has seen a fresh spate of terrorist attacks against soft targets and exchange of “Do More” mantras. Final State of the Union Address by President Obama predicted years of instability for Pakistan-Afghanistan belt; though Sartaj Aziz dutifully rebutted that notion but events continue to support Obama’s assertions. One wonders whether terrorism is about to be uprooted as claimed by our national leadership or is still at formulation stage? Despite tall claims by political and military leadership, early end of terrorism is apparently not in sight.

Untimely announcement by Army Chief about his intent of not seeking extension has triggered countdown amongst vested interests and has prompted slowed down amongst future affectees of ongoing policies. It would have been more appropriate it the decision was announced by the government at appropriate time alongside the appointment of his successor.

The Army Chief commended intelligence agencies for achieving major breakthrough in unearthing various terrorist networks: “We would go to any length to make Karachi secure and free of terrorism in order to ensure a peaceful and fearless daily life for the people of the metropolis.” Counter terrorism effort in Karachi has lost its direction somewhere during the process. Worst part is that ability of correction has drowned somewhere amidst political quagmire; stakeholders are looking for a face saving ‘Mission Accomplishment opportunity’; even street crime graph is too high to offer such exit chance. Bogging down of Karachi operation is a classic example of politicisation of crime and criminalization of politics; and then allowing the two to get mixed up in to inseparable gel.

Some years back this phenomenon was restricted to rural areas but is now on rampage in some major urban centres. Increasing overlap between covert criminal underworld and overt protective political umbrella is incrementally restricting the operating space for law enforcement agencies. Last month, speaking at seminar in Karachi, CM Sindh insisted that the Rangers’ mandate should be restricted to action against terrorists, target killers, kidnappers and extortionists as he wrangled over granting an extension to the paramilitary force to remain in the Province with special powers. However, the security official made it clear that the paramilitary force and other law enforcement agencies would continue to make efforts to break the nexuses between corrupt elements and criminals in the city. Zarb-e-Azb displaced 50-60,000 persons are encamped in Afghanistan awaiting return as soon as pressure reduces, many of them are hardened fighters. They could pose problems and reverse the gains if allowed to return. Afghan side is not ready to accept them either. Afghanistan continues to blame Pakistan for all that goes wrong in that country and leads of attacks on Bacha Khan University point towards Afghanistan. So the patterns and contours are the same, we are in the circle of no joy; years of effort have changed nothing either in the content or context. Vicious cycle of blame and counter blame goes on ad-infinitum.

Are we winning psychological war against terror or physical one or are politicking on security issues? May be, we have lost direction somewhere mid-way. We are essentially resorting to quick fixes, trying to look busy for a couple of days after every major terrorist act, make good speeches and presentations, put forward haughty resolves to adopt new plans. And when it comes to implementation we go to sleep—see the fate of poor NACTA, ongoing debate about implementation of NationalAction Plan, row between Interior Minister and Leader of Opposition and for that matter his other Cabinet colleagues.

Equipped with statistics, Federal Interior Minister claimed that terror incidents and casualties are the lowest in nine years. In an apparent remark to growing criticism of NAP in the wake of the recent Charsadda University attack, he said Pakistan is militarily winning the war on militancy but “we are losing the psychological war against terror”, he said. “Whenever there is an attack, a storm begins. We behave exactly how our enemies want by creating an atmosphere of fear. People criticise the government saying no progress has been made.” There are hundreds of thousands of schools in Pakistan. Securing each is a difficult job, but it must be done.” “If we close all our educational institutions, hospitals, streets, neighbourhoods and hide ourselves in our houses; this is what the terrorists want.”

The Minister rubbished criticism that NAP is controlled by the military saying, “Operation Zarb-e-Azb started before NAP. It is not a part of NAP.” “One or two things [in the NAP] are shared by the Ministry of Defence and the army. Everything else is from the civilian government.” “Networks of terrorism have been broken. The terrorists are on the run so they hit the softest targets. Instead of 7-8 attacks every day, they hit one target. They create so much terror that everyone roams fearfully,” he said. “The government policy is very clear — there are no good or bad militants.”

Punjab CM has said that the National Action Plan against terrorism is being effectively implemented in the Punjab while talking to British National Security, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Director Jonathan Allen: “Necessary amendmentshave been made in the relevant laws for making sentences more stringent. A special counter terrorism force has also been set up. The government is determined to implement the action plan against terrorism.”

The unfortunate reality is that the government cannot guarantee the safety of educational institutions. The rhetoric of fight back at any cost is repeated just as rhetoric with no guarantee of eventual success. There is a need to pause for self-reflection and course correction, may be revival of erstwhile National Guards, National Cadet Corps programmes and community participation could help secure our educational institutions.

Recently President Mamnoon Hussain said at convocation ceremony held at the National University of Science and Technology that: “I warn the terrorists and their sponsors to have no doubt that the nation and the armed forces will not rest till the elimination of last terrorist from the country’s soil.” Such and similar statements are nothing unless there are concrete follow up actions by relevant government departments. Terrorist entities are a real force that cannot be washed away through rhetoric and hollow claims.

—The writer is consultant to IPRI on Policy and Strategic Response.


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