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Pakistani Government Takes Aim at Terrorism

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The bound files tossed on the tables at Pakistan’s terrorism courts make for a disturbing read. In barely legible handwriting, police officers detail accusations against suspects charged with extorting millions of rupees from Karachi’s wealthy businessmen to organizing bomb blasts and sectarian murders.

The files have been piling up steadily over the past few years, as Pakistan has grappled with insurgencies, assassinations and an increase in violent crime. More than 20,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2001 (some Pakistani officials, taking into account military offensives against Taliban insurgents, have put the figure as high as 50,000). That includes the high-profile assassinations of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. According to the State Department, more terrorist attacks struck Pakistan last year than any other country in the world. Despite the staggering death tolls, Pakistan’s response to militancy has been akin to placing a Band-Aid on a festering wound.

Pakistan’s 66-year history is punctuated with coups, assassinations and prolonged bouts of political instability. Ethnic, sectarian and religious violence has plagued the Muslim-majority nation of 180 million since its inception and has snowballed in recent years, making Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with near-daily targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks. 

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Photo: Isruma
The picturesque landscape of Pakistan's Swat Valley used to be a prime tourist attraction, until terrorist bombings and violence became the norm in this country of 180 million. More than 20,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2001 (some put the figure as high as 50,000).

While for many years, Pakistan dilly-dallied between proclaiming that terrorism was its greatest problem to blaming the “war on terror” for all of its problems, the new government is actually getting down to the business of developing a counterterrorism strategy. But can it work?

Getting Down to Business
Or Business as Usual?

The new counterterrorism policy being developed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government envisages a number of aspects — from short-term measures such as the deployment of rapid-response forces to amending existing laws and introducing legislation inspired by security laws in the United States and Britain. (The previous Pakistan Peoples Party-led government introduced a Patriot Act-inspired law allowing government agencies to get warrants for surveillance and wiretapping of citizens. The Interior Ministry confirmed the law is being implemented and will remain on the books.) The new policy also seeks to revitalize and strengthen the much-neglected National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) to serve as a central coordination body for civilian and military intelligence agencies, the police and paramilitary forces.  

Tariq Pervez, who has headed NACTA and the Federal Investigation Agency, suggested that Sharif should helm the former to make it more effective. “We have to adopt a policy which addresses terrorism as well as insurgency,” he said.

But Pakistan has a long history of picking and choosing its battles. Sharif’s own commitment to cracking down on extremists is far from assured. Sharif — who served as prime minister twice in the 1990s — campaigned on a policy of negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, not confronting them.

Bruce O. Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, argues that the country’s longstanding tolerance and even sponsorship of certain terrorist groups has come back to haunt it.

“Pakistan is … a victim of the terror monster it has coddled for decades. Over 45,000 Pakistanis have died in terror-related violence since 9/11, and dozens more died in the election campaign just ended,” he wrote in a Brookings analysis after the election — which marked the first successful completion of a democratically elected government in the nation’s history (also see “Pakistani Elections: Possible Bright Spot In Country Overshadowed by Problems” in the May 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Riedel added that while Sharif has promised a political solution to Pakistan’s rampant violence, the military, not the civilian government, has traditionally controlled the levers of national security. Sharif learned this lesson the hard way: In 1999, when Sharif fired his army chief of staff, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the prime minister was promptly disposed of in a military coup. In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, Musharraf now sits under house arrest, facing a raft of charges after a disastrous attempt to return from political exile. He is the first army chief to be hauled into court, a sign perhaps that Pakistan’s civilian government may finally be gaining ground against the military. But the military won’t surrender its control over national security without a fight, no matter which party is in power. 

Can the Real Terrorists
Please Stand Up?

Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus, as well as its political parties, have decades-long entrenched relationships with extremist groups. Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled the country for nearly half of its existence and continues to be a key player in foreign policy and domestic politics, has been widely accused of supporting a variety of militant groups, including those fighting in the disputed territory of Kashmir, such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The latter is largely believed to have been responsible for a series of attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, and a trial in Pakistan of suspects involved in the attack has been repeatedly delayed. The Pakistani military strongly denies allegations that it backs militant groups. 

But researcher Zia Ur Rehman says the state still looks at militant groups as being either “good” or “bad.” The good ones, for example, are those that the state believes do not conduct attacks within Pakistan and can be used to act at its behest in Afghanistan. These include a number of banned groups that were once created by the government, and those based out of Pakistan’s tribal areas. 

The “bad” ones include the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which Rehman says is now directly linked to the global al-Qaeda network. “But there are reports now that the government has managed to get the Punjab chapter of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to negotiate,” he noted. 

“The general idea propagated by those close to the Pakistani establishment is that they don’t want to upset the ‘balance’ being maintained by having these groups on their side, even though there are examples of people leaving these ‘good’ groups and joining others to attack the Pakistani state,” Rehman said.

The confession of an alleged activist of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned anti-Shiite group, is just one of many that underscores the ambiguous allegiances and influences that breed radicalism. The suspect, Hafiz Qasim Rasheed, recounted his life story to the police, including his interaction with preachers who encouraged him to participate in jihad, and the two rounds of training he attended that were organized by the Islamic fundamentalist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He claimed to have fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made waves two years ago when he publicly said that the Haqqani network, an Islamist insurgency that’s launched attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” 

While U.S. officials accuse the military and intelligence agencies of turning a blind eye to terrorists, Islamabad complains that Washington ignores the sacrifices Pakistani soldiers have made in the “war on terror.”

Since 2001, the Pakistani military has launched a number of “operations” in the country’s tribal areas — with varying degrees of success. Despite sporadic peace deals and ceasefires (and thousands of deaths), the offensives have failed to stem militant attacks countrywide. An attempt to ban extremist groups has also largely proved to be ineffective — most groups rebounded with a different name. 

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Photo: U.S. State Department
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, seen with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during their first meeting in Islamabad in August, is developing a new counterterrorism policy that will include measures such as the deployment of rapid-response forces and introducing legislation inspired by security laws in the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, the government had repeatedly said it was interested in negotiating with militant groups. In September, the country’s major political parties backed Sharif’s strategy to engage the Pakistani Taliban, but the group promptly denied it had accepted the government’s offer and instead took responsibility for the killing of a senior military official. While the military ostensibly supports Sharif’s efforts, Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani warned that the army would not bend to terrorists. 

Regardless, a raft of attacks has put any talks on ice, especially after two suicide bombers killed at least 85 worshippers at the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar on Sept. 22 in the deadliest attack against Pakistan’s Christian minority in years. Since then, calls have grown among legislators to ditch dialogue in favor of a more forceful response.

Even if peace talks were to move forward, critics say there appears to be no framework for how they would be conducted. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is a patchwork of militant factions that have outsourced operations to smaller groups, criminal gangs and individuals countrywide. Questions remain on which one of the factions the government would negotiate with. Is the government prepared to meet hard-line conditions like those floated by the Pakistani Taliban, which demands a ceasefire, the release of imprisoned militants, and the removal of the army from tribal areas? And why would militant leaders — who now wield considerable influence — want to go back to their day jobs as laborers and daily-wage workers? “Nothing should be off the table,” Pervez said. “But you cannot negotiate from a position of weakness.” 

Rehman said that his own understanding was that the government was waiting for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and would assess the political and security situation in Afghanistan before going ahead with a counterterrorism policy. “In our country, these policies are decided by the military. They are the main stakeholder,” Rehman said. “It depends on how the democratic government wants to assert itself in this.”  

Political Patronage and
Religious Strife
 

The more problematic aspect — and long-term challenge — is the Pakistani state’s relationship with extremist networks that has enflamed sectarian tensions and enabled terrorism to ravage Pakistan. These include a host of criminal gangs and sectarian groups, the most influential of which is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Sectarian bloodletting, particularly targeting Shiites, has escalated dramatically in the last few years. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 635 Shiites were killed and more than 800 injured in attacks from January 2012 to July 2013 across the country. Attacks have ranged from drive-by shootings to besieging buses with Shiite passengers and killing them after checking their identity papers to confirm their religious affiliation.

The leadership and the membership structure of radical Islamist groups are inextricably wedded to political parties. Supporters of extremist organizations and political parties often overlap, especially when it comes to center-right and right-wing parties. Politicians, including those from the current Prime Minister Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party, have relied in the past on the anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan for its support in parliamentary elections. Such collusion though is a bipartisan tradition.

Groups such as the Sunni Ittehad Council — a coalition of Barelvi religious political parties — have been supported by the late Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). This transpired even though the council was largely supportive of the assassin who killed the governor of the Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, who was from the PPP. (Taseer was an outspoken critic of religious extremists and tried to repeal Pakistan’s severe blasphemy laws.) 

Political parties often have much to lose by breaking completely with militant groups, because they provide a useful vote bank and logistical support during elections. For example, a criminal syndicate in Karachi, the country’s financial capital, has long enjoyed patronage of the PPP. An attempt to ban the group backfired after it resorted to more violence, exposed the PPP’s support for it, and threatened to field its own candidates in an old PPP constituency. The PPP eventually had to rebuild its ties with the syndicate and accept its nominees as candidates for this year’s parliamentary elections.  

Internal linkages such as these — which run from the capital of Islamabad to villages — make any kind of counterterrorism efforts meaningless. When asked if the new counterterrorism policy would only include threats that are perceived to be “external,” Omar Hamid Khan, a spokesperson at Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, said that the policy would include a “comprehensive threat assessment and analysis.” 

“The policy cannot be complete without this,” Hamid said. “It will include terrorist threats in all categories.”

Who Will Lead the Charge? 

Prime Minister Sharif has said that he has “serious concerns” over the capacity of civilian law enforcement agencies to deal with militancy and has also called for a “de-radicalization” effort to be part of the counterterrorism strategy.

In Karachi, where at least eight people are killed every day in drive-by shootings and murders, Sharif has promised “extraordinary measures” — among them, sending in an elite paramilitary force — after city officials pleaded with the government to send in the army to restore law and order.

Pakistani law enforcement agencies’ ability to deal with militancy remains negligible at best. A leaked report by a judicial commission investigating the circumstances leading to the 2011 raid in Abbottabad by U.S. Navy SEAL forces that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden confirmed the sorry state of Pakistani law enforcement, which the report said was riddled with “routine” incompetence. While the police and other civilian law enforcement agencies are underfunded and widely viewed as corrupt and politicized, the military’s intelligence network operates on its own terms and rarely shares resources with its civilian counterparts.

Law enforcement experts, including Pervez and the bin Laden inquiry commission, have called for the Pakistani police to be adequately equipped and funded. “It should be very clear that the lead agency in counterterrorism has to be the police,” Pervez told The Diplomat. “The police can be helped by civilian or military intelligence agencies, and it has to be strengthened.” 

The Interior Ministry believes its considerable research will lead to an effective policy that will be presented to Prime Minister Sharif’s cabinet by October. But whether Sharif, the military and the country’s law enforcement agencies are prepared — or willing — to take on the behemoth of militancy is a question that no one policy paper is likely to answer.


About the Author

Saba Imtiaz (http://sabaimtiaz.com) is a freelance writer in Pakistan who reports on politics, culture, militancy, human rights and religious movements.

Last Edited on October 2, 2013