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Whistling in the dark

June 22, 2013

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.

irfan.husain@gmail.com