IT has already been termed a ‘paradigm shift’. Pakistan’s reported decision last week to ban a number of violent extremist organisations, including the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba front Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), has been welcomed by the international community. The new additions to the list have been carefully chosen to emphasise the point that Pakistan no longer distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.
The groups include those that have long been referred to by way of euphemisms such as ‘strategic assets’ to be used in ‘asymmetric warfare’. Groups such as the Haqqani Network and Harkatul Mujahideen have long been believed to have links to the security establishment, owing to their perceived role in protecting Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and against India. The timing of the reported ban is also telling. Announced on the heels of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the country, the ban is clearly meant for an international audience, an attempt by an increasingly PR-savvy military to change the narrative surrounding its latest counterterrorism efforts.
But what does it really mean to ban an organisation in Pakistan? Sceptics have already pointed out that proscription is merely an invitation for groups to change their name and continue with business as usual. The banning of a group rarely leads to its members’ arrests or the closure of offices and seminaries affiliated with it, nor does it lead to comprehensive efforts to choke the group’s financial flows. And it certainly does not lead to the detention or prosecution of the group’s leadership.
What does it really mean to ban an organisation in Pakistan?
Since the launch of the new counterterrorism National Action Plan (NAP), Pakistanis have had a sneak preview of what state action against banned groups might look like. Police have proved unwilling or unable to arrest Abdul Aziz for fear of clashes in the capital; ironically, the fact that the cleric threatened violence in the event that he was detained or harmed by the security forces was not deemed provocation enough to carry out the arrest.
Separately, just days after the NAP was revealed with great gusto, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat held an uninterrupted rally in Chakwal. Local police made no effort to check the sectarian group’s activities, later arguing that the group was entitled to hold a public demonstration because it wasn’t proscribed (even though it has been so since 2012). In this context, it seems unlikely that our law-enforcers will crack down on well-established groups like the JuD, which now has enough clout that the dharna-loving PTI was forced to reschedule a rally in Lahore in early December so as not to have to compete with JuD supporters for space on the city’s streets.
There are two main reasons — one strategic and one pragmatic — why banning a violent extremist organisation remains a primarily rhetorical exercise. On the strategic side, proscription allows Pakistan to demonstrate action and clarify its stance on terrorism without having to do much else. The flourishing of a banned group can no longer be seen as the result of state complicity; it becomes instead the sure sign of the challenges that beset the state’s struggle against militancy.
Banning militant groups is Pakistan’s way of buying time, of raising its hands and saying, ‘hey, we’re trying, give us some leeway, and ideally some more funding to tackle the situation’. As Sartaj Aziz’s recent gaffe suggested, actual action against diverse groups is unlikely while the military’s focus remains on the Pakistani Taliban and its offshoots and affiliates. Even Heracles had to deal with the Hydra’s heads one at a time.
The practical reason is that the grunt work involved in dismantling militant groups is ultimately the job of the police. It involves daily, almost prosaic activities, including confiscating pamphlets, arresting clerics misusing mosque loudspeakers, removing hate-inciting graffiti, and monitoring the whereabouts of suspected militants and the informal flows of cash. But our police do not have the training or capacity to tackle terrorism in this manner, and the NAP does not prioritise their potential role.
The government and military have tried on this occasion to dispel scepticism about the value of Pakistan banning extremist groups. They have pointed to the ongoing operations in Fata, which have disrupted the Haqqani group’s sanctuaries. But the dialogue in the run-up to Kerry’s visit casts doubts on Pakistan’s counterterrorism fervour.
In recent statements, public officials have sought to recast the problem of militancy as one being stoked by India. This means that even while the military clamps down on a growing number of militant groups, it retains the basic strategic calculus that led to the proliferation of these groups in the first place. Until that broader paradigm shifts, it remains unclear what the actual stance on banned outfits will be.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2015