Smoke and Mirrors

As Pakistan looks to draw a line under 2016, the scar tissue from this year’s security miscarriages is unlikely to heal overnight. The success of Islamabad’s national security turnarounds, old and new, have been dwarfed by fresh revelations of inaction and policy static on counterterrorism.

With December marking the two-year anniversary of the PM’s grand National Action Plan reveal, the publication of the Quetta Commission’s report on the  August 8  attack on  Quetta’s Civil Hospital stands as a damning indictment of the political shoulder that has been lent to the counterterror wheel, even as a calendar of attacks has stacked up the human and economic toll of fighting the region’s deadliest and costliest war on terror.

The 110-page Quetta Commission Report is a sobering reminder that three years on, the PML-N establishment has yet to develop any kind of knack for simultaneously flexing commitment and capacity in the face of a deadly black book of counterterror and counter-extremism challenges. Despite the tragic luxury of a post-APS Pakistan that witnessed a historic coming together of both parliament and military elites, counterterror triumphalism and urban gloss-over has merely plastered over the chinks in Pakistan’s CT armour.

Among the standouts of the Justice Qazi Faez Isa report-card: the absence of streamlined inter-agency CT coordination mechanisms; political disregard for the soft components of NAP (action against hate-speech, extremism and radicalisation); a disembodied and disempowered National Counterterrorism Agency (Nacta); a Nacta Act that has failed to fulfil its statutory mandate; gross civilian inability to institutionalise coherent CT structures. The numbers support the testimony. Close to 500 Pakistani civilians have lost their lives to terrorism and 1100 have been injured in 2016.

The commission has also zeroed in on the progress of Pakistan’s post-APS CT story. While kinetic action and intel-based operations in urban areas have had demonstrable impact, the absence of a third leg of this CT trifecta – counter-extremism – risks going down in history as the tragic flaw that kept Pakistan’s democrats from reclaiming political agency over the militant rightwing. It also underscores the truth that, in the absence of non-kinetic responses to terror, the gains of Zarb-e-Azb and intel-based urban and peri-urban operations will continue to be lost to inaction in a public and private realm that has yet to be reclaimed by Team PML-N.

There are also clear problems with policymakers’ attempts to Xerox the lessons learnt from Zarb-e-Azb – and in particular a penchant for overreliance on kinetic measures – outside Waziristan. Soft targets – courtrooms, hospitals and schools – remain grossly under-protected. Nacta, which was created as the pre-eminent civilian agency overseeing CT, remains stymied by inter-ministerial turf battles and budgetary and organisational deficits. Nacta has met only once in three and a half years; close to 5,000 Pakistanis have died during the same period. More damning is the Punjab government’s continued accommodation of banned outfits exercising political capital in southern Punjab, a feature that continues to cost Pakistan internally and isolate it diplomatically.

But Justice Isa’s report has also cast a critical light on pathways out of the muddle-through vis-à-vis implementation and executive coordination. To begin with, clear conduits for lesson-learning, inter-agency coordination, and the leveraging of civilian agency are absolute must-haves if this war is to be won anytime soon. In its CT scorecard, the report maps out the need for       the cross-national registration of educational institutions and madressahs; the development of a coherent national counter-narrative;        strict monitoring of all entry into and departures from Pakistan; and placing curbs on media channels accused of broadcasting and publishing extremist narratives.

Some of these measures will, obviously, require   greater coordination with Kabul, given the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s operational subservience to agencies in eastern Afghanistan, and a patchy border that continues to filter in terrorist elements. But there are other kinetic and non-kinetic options for Pakistan’s counterterror strategists to explore – beginning with a uniform application of NAP against militant groups across the four provinces, and re-extending counterterrorism reach to all four provincial capitals.

Action also needs to be taken against the JuA, which has quickly morphed into a deadly new Taliban progenitor with    unfettered reach and ability to choreograph attacks with impunity. And with digitised terrorist groups misappropriating cellular networks and lines of telecommunication, including cross-platform mobile messaging apps,  the interior ministry cannot afford to be sanguine about its old-school policy dragnet that remains highly unsuited to a rapidly evolving, media-savvy, terrorist threat.

The gangplank in 2017 promises to be riddled with its own catalogue of internal and external risks, and terrorism, for the foreseeable future, is likely to remain the defining trigger for national policy review. Change is rarely transformational, but, as noted by the Quetta Commission, the state must do more to re-exert itself politically and institutionally.

Wars are rarely won on the back of battlefield wins and losses alone. Failure to underwrite the National Action Plan with renewed national commitment will leave Pakistan’s front-lines vulnerable to repeated deadly breaches, and will continue to test the country’s collective policy conscience. The interior ministry must not only do more, it must do it fast.

A version of this appeared in The News on 21/12/2016.


The writer works for the Jinnah Institute. Twitter @fahdhumayun

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