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Whistling in the dark

Published Jun 22, 2013 08:11am


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BILL is an American who follows events in Pakistan closely by reading our newspapers on the internet. Over several years of exchanging emails, we have become the electronic equivalent of pen-pals.

Understandably, he was horrified at the lack of any follow-up after the recent suicide attack on a bus carrying female students in Quetta, and wrote in an email:

“If it had happened in the US, or in any other normal country, every government agency would be using all of its resources to track down every member of the organisation that organised or supported the killings until all of them were rounded up or killed. But I don’t see that happening in Pakistan.”

The reason Bill doesn’t see the kind of concerted, focused manhunt he would have expected is that Pakistan is not a normal country. Years of mounting mayhem have hardened us to see everyday acts of terrorism as normal.

The same day saw another suicide bombing attack on the Bolan Medical College, followed by an armed assault. These two attacks were both claimed by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. Early that morning, the Balochistan Liberation Army bombed and burned the Ziarat Residency to ashes.

Given the fact that the military has been entrenched in Balochistan for years, it is not unreasonable to expect our intelligence agencies to have developed some sources within both banned extremist organisations. But while they appear to have the ability to make suspected Baloch nationalists disappear at will, they are unable to perform the primary duty of all security agencies: the protection of citizens.

Following this spate of terrorism, Chaudhry Nisar, the new interior minister, vented his anger and frustration over the failure of our intelligence agencies in forestalling this violence. He is not alone: for years, the ISI, MI and IB have been operating in Balochistan in collaboration with the Frontier Corps which, while ostensibly answerable to the interior ministry, is actually led by serving army officers.

According to press reports, efforts are being made to activate the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, a body created by the last government with the intention of improving coordination among federal and provincial intelligence and security agencies.

Why previous governments were unable to move on this over the last decade and more is a mystery: it is not rocket science to figure out that close cooperation is needed to combat the virulent plague of terrorism that threatens the country today.

Rehman Malik, when he was in charge of security, repeatedly claimed that he had alerted provincial governments to impending attacks, but these warnings were ignored.

The problem is that simply saying there would be a terror attack soon is not enough: precise intelligence is needed for the police to take action. Another problem is that the ISI and the MI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence outfits, are both under military command. Thus, they choose what nuggets to pass on to their civilian counterparts.

The world over, spooks guard information and sources very jealously: one reason clues about the impending 9/11 attacks were missed was because the CIA did not pass on crucial information to the FBI. Here, the ISI holds its cards close to its chest because it fears it will compromise its sources by disclosing information that might then appear in court.

Another issue complicating matters is the power of agents from military agencies to simply walk into police stations and remove suspects. These individuals often just disappear, or are subjected to very harsh interrogation techniques. In either case, they pass beyond civilian investigation and prosecution.

The interior minister as well as his provincial counterparts are outside the military loop, and cannot do more than request actionable information from the military.

This may or may not be forthcoming.

Complicating matters still further is the fact that in at least some cases, the extremist organisation under investigation allegedly has links with some shadowy military agency, and is thus protected.

Compounding the problem of coordinating action is the fact that law-enforcement is a provincial subject. So if a militant from, say, south Punjab is trained in North Waziristan and is involved in an attack in Karachi, three separate provincial security agencies and jurisdictions are involved. Gathering information and analysing it becomes difficult in purely bureaucratic terms.

Add to all these issues the difficulty of mounting a successful prosecution in a court of law. Here, more often than not, witnesses are terrified of giving testimony. And frequently, judges are afraid of handing down a guilty verdict, and so declare evidence as inadmissible, or grant bail.

In the US, the post-9/11 agency of Homeland Security has overriding jurisdiction over all terrorism-linked acts. The FBI has traditionally been called in to investigate serious crimes, especially if they involve more than one state. In the UK, Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism command supersedes local police forces when investigating attacks or plots involving terrorism. Other countries have similar units.

In Pakistan, a country that has probably suffered more acts of terrorism than all other nations put together, we are still struggling to figure out a coordinated strategy to combat this scourge.

So Chaudhry Nisar has his work cut out for him in working out how to ensure that firstly, all relevant agencies pool information; secondly, they act in time to forestall attacks; and thirdly, once an attack occurs, they go after those behind it in an effective manner. Finally, the judiciary needs to focus on the problem of trying terrorism suspects quickly.

None of this is going to be easy. All previous governments have failed to tackle these problems despite the escalating violence. The key to overcoming these hurdles is to ensure better cooperation from the military.


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Comments (17) Closed

malik Jun 22, 2013 09:46am

Does not look like if anyone is serious enough in combating terrorism. Instead people are being led to believe this is the normal way of life. Out of thousands of terrorism incidents have we pursued any one particular incident and brought the culprits to justice? Maybe we need to outsource this to the Americans.

Feroz Jun 22, 2013 01:22pm

Irfan is an excellent writer and there are many others too with equivalent skills. They seem to know the problems that ail the country and been writing about it for years. All this continues to be done in a nice civil and polite manner while those terrorizing the country and their accomplices continue to have a free run. The inference to be drawn is that those masterminding the violence are not under the control of the civilian Government and too powerful for even the Judiciary or Police to control. The inertia and disinterest in bringing necessary changes through legislation and better coordination and implementation of Law, is clearly shocking and unfathomable. People are dying like flies but it seems to bother no one, neither the Government or the citizen. When a citizen loses his conscience, sensitivity to the pain and suffering of fellow human beings -- I fear trouble and misery lies ahead for the country. Wake up fellow brothers from your slumber and inertia, before the wrath of Allah destroys you. Be the agent of change you want to see !

Ashraf Jun 22, 2013 01:56pm

This prudent column writer and some other ones have been writing time and again about the Taliban's atrocities and terrorism vis-a-vis religious fanaticism. Not enough good has resulted from this, and ironically, there is not much hope.

Adding up all the facts such as:

After all Taliban are brothers in faith of the majority of the Pakistanis. No matter how much some of the Pakistani folks condemn the Taliban for the latter's atrocities and terrorism, in the back of their minds they have this feeling of religious fraternity with the Taliban. To establish this fact just walk around and talk to the common folks, and hear and record what they have to say. The over whelming majority have no clear thinking except repeating the mantra that all this terrorism is being caused by foreign enemies. The ratio will show that only one or two out of ten will stick the blame entirely on the Taliban for the all the death and destruction that have been caused.

Taliban were brought forth to becoming the formidable force that they are by certain well known agencies with the evil intentions. Without any doubt the Taliban's supporters and sympathizers in these agencies will never want the Taliban to be justifiable punished for the huge amount of death and destruction that have been caused by the latter. Only when the Taliban kill some of the members of the security or army personnel, some patchy and sporadic actions are taken in retaliation.

Most of the people in the Pakistani government know pretty well about the Taliban's agenda and main objective, They still now want to talk to the latter. Isn't it a kind of indication of being defeated by the Taliban, as well as being afraid of the latter.

Talk or no talk with the Taliban, it seems pretty clear that with this kind of confused state of mind where the feeling of religious fraternity kicks in, the near future holds the worst case scenario.


Karachi Wala Jun 22, 2013 03:13pm

@Irfan Hussain. BILL is an American .....we have become the electronic equivalent of pen-pals.

Bill should be considered an E-Pal.

Dharmendra Goel Jun 22, 2013 04:14pm

I want to state thatthe lives in Ba;ochistan arebeingruinedby notlettingpeople get their human Rights in managingtheir natural bounties unhindered by Pakistani Ekite Army formationsspiriting away thecreamytop contents of these Bounties.Smouldering resentment isbad forequal rights for allpakistani Citizens andalso for theimage ofArmed Forces , who should not appear as tyrants at least to Balochistanis. D. Goel

Shafiq Khan Jun 22, 2013 05:13pm

The corruption is the word you must have in mind while considering Agencies' responses. A country where the head of the Army accepts extension of his tenure knowing full well that it is against every law in the land and considers himself indispensable have problems. An army under attack has, an all be it, a remote chance of having its chief being(especially well protected in his air-conditioned armoured car) killed need to have the next layer of competent officers ready for taking charge. Why would he be offered it and why would he even consider it? Corruption period. British reduced their Defence expenditure near 20% within recent years while engaged in active engagement. Why do Pakistani defence have so many numbers under arms? Knowing full well they are, what we know of them.

Bakhtawer Bilal Jun 22, 2013 06:28pm

More than anyone, the parliament needs to act. Bring about and pass laws, strong enough to try terrorists. Change the laws so that admissibility of evidence is more in line with the rest of the world. Witness needs to be protected, hence do not make a show of the witness. Once you put the culprit behind bar, isolate them from non terror related culprits.

pathanoo Jun 22, 2013 06:56pm

This will never end. The problem is more seminal and fundamental. Till Islamic Jihadism is controlled none of the remedies would work. There are too many misguided protectors of these Jihadists who will interfere with any resolute effort to eradicate them. It is like giving Aspirin to a cancer patient and hope Allah will cure him.

Pramod Srivastava Jun 22, 2013 07:14pm

"Pakistan, a country that has probably suffered more acts of terrorism than all other nations put together". This kind of sentence appears often in Pakistani media. It would be helpful (to Pakistanis) if such sentences were always accompanied by the sentence that "Pakistan has also been the source of more terrorist activity all over the world than all other countries put together." This is not meant to be derogatory or mean, but to actually help, because to heal from a problem, one must first diagnose it.

Masood Hussain Jun 22, 2013 07:41pm

Adding to the observations made by Mr. Irfan Hussain I wish to point to the relationship of certain civilian provincial ministers with the terrorist organisations because without that they can't get elected.

Siyalkotia Jun 22, 2013 08:27pm

Islamic Republic Of Pakistan, Zndabaad.

Sohrab Sidhwa Jun 23, 2013 02:48am

One fundamental point missed out in the article is that the military, judiciary, intelligence and politicians are not deep down convinced that there is this fundamental enemy. In short it translates into a warped thought process over decades into the minds of an average Pakistani that these jihadis are actually the good guys. That is the fundamental problem. The police, judiciary, intelligence agencies and mind you the journalists and TV anchors are a part of the society. So in essence there is a problem with the society. And we are very good at not admitting that. Lets keep pointing fingers at others.

Dr. D. Prithipayl Jun 23, 2013 04:05am

How and why has Pakistan elected to become a security and intelligence country? Do security, intelligence and terror define the Idea of Pakistan? At least this is how Pakistan seems to be to the outsider. Does Pakistan represent the reconstructed Islam as dreamed and desired by Iqbal? And why of the more than 50 Muslim states does Pakistan have these unique, specific features? One shudders at the rot which would have affected the entire sub-continent had Partition not intervened. Blessed be Jinnah for all the mayhem which he initiated in the cause of Pakistani Muslimhood.

Mustafa Jun 23, 2013 06:48am

What does Bill think would happen in a "normal" country if foreign drones murder thousands of innocent civilians including women and children?

Mustafa Jun 23, 2013 06:47am

Is Bill aware that in Syria, his tax money is propping up the brethren of the same people who carried out the massacre in Quetta?

s.khan Jun 23, 2013 08:52am

The key to fighting the terrorism is the information on their plan, timing, location,etc. With modern technology a lot of information can be gathered in a timely fashion and planned activity thwarted. Nisar Ahmad should set up IT based intelligence gathering a la NSA and GCHQ in USA/UK. Coordination can be improved by creating a National Intelligence agency with the primary task of coordination. After so much mayhem over a period of time there is a crying need to make fighting terrorism a top priority and allocate the necessary resources. Bureaucratic infighting and jealously safeguarding secrets is a big obstacle. Nisar Ahmad shouldn't get mad just get smart. Leaders of Lashkr e Jhangvi should be arrested and tried in a terrorism court. Their own claim of responsibility is proof enough for conviction. Paralysis on the part of previous govt was a confidence booster for the terrorists. New Govt. has to take action decisively to let the terrorists know it means business.

Mustafa Jun 24, 2013 04:56am

@Sohrab Sidhwa:

Granted there is a cross section of Pakistani society that wholeheartedly believes in the Taliban cause, but this cross section is small and shrinking. However, when you compare them against other of Pakistan's afflictions the confusion sets in. West, India and their agents within are all our problems.

Even the Taliban/Al-Qaida problem is not entirely independent of the West. The West's on again off again love affair with Al-Qaida in on again in Syria right now, it was on in Libya but they are slashing each other throats in Somalia and Mali. They are two peas in a pod, one is a religious extremist and the other a racist extremist, and both are without morals and very shortsighted.