THE much-touted but largely ignored National Counter Terrorism Authority may be about to receive a new lease of life following approval by the federal cabinet of the Nacta bill on Wednesday. Next up for Nacta — created by an executive order in the late 2000s and so lacking the proper legislative cover — will be a debate in parliament, at the committee stage first presumably, before the bill can be converted into an act. So far so good, it would seem. But few things concerning Nacta are ever simple. Conceived as an intelligence coordination, research and international liaison entity, Nacta has suffered from the scepticism of lawmakers and the territorial attitude of various intelligence agencies at the provincial and federal level.
In principle, Nacta is an excellent idea and one that the country’s counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategies desperately need. At present, particularly at the coordination level, cooperation among Pakistan’s intelligence agencies is so ad hoc and shambolic that it almost borders on the criminal. While pragmatists have speculated whether an agency like the ISI would ever really consent to treating civilian counterparts as equals or even deserving of serious attention, we are still left with a situation where a number of civilian-run agencies could do with better coordination. For example, if the Sindh police are searching for a terrorism suspect who has escaped to another province, there is no institutional way at the moment to consistently and reliably share such information in a timely manner. Nacta could help plug that gap at least.
But if Nacta is to productively contribute to counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategies, it has to be organised along professional and independent lines. The draft bill approved by the cabinet is not available for scrutiny as yet but it is believed to have resolved the impasse over whether the prime minister’s office controls Nacta, as the Punjab government has demanded, or the interior ministry does, as Rehman Malik has wanted, by sharing control of the authority in a way that will effectively give the ministry the power to operate it. That may be a recipe for resistance from many intelligence agencies, who will likely balk at control by a highly politicised entity, as the interior ministry inevitably is under any government. In addition, who will guarantee that Nacta is staffed with competent and qualified analysts and administrators as opposed to political appointees who tend to populate such offices without a robust and transparent recruitment mechanism? The problem with entities like Nacta is that as good as they are on paper, without purposeful implementation of the idea, more problems are created than solved.