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Not really a plan

Updated September 13, 2016


THE National Action Plan has become a reference point for everything counterterrorism (CT). Media and civil society have been demanding its transparent implementation and monitoring. Talking to folks within the government, it’s clear they are feeling the heat.

Of course, this is good news. We have a marker that everyone seems to consider fair in terms of judging the government’s performance, and the government seems to recognise this.

The problem is that there isn’t much to measure against. NAP isn’t a ‘plan’.

One of the first things students in the field of management learn is the importance of distinguishing between an organisation’s vision, mission, goals, objectives, and work plans. A vision is the broadest — the pie-in-the-sky aspiration. A mission is what you want to achieve. Goals allow you to broadly define your desired outcomes, and objectives suggest ways to achieve the goals. Finally, you have plans that are supposed to specifically identify actions that will get you to your objectives; they are meant to be observable and measurable, and set to clear timelines.

The National Action Plan wasn’t a thought-out document.

NAP’s a hotchpotch: it’s got vision statements (no extremism in Pakistan; no militant and armed gangs; protection of minorities); many things you’d call goals (reforms of criminal justice; empowerment of Nacta; completion of Karachi operation); some objectives but no clarity on how they link up to goals (military courts; implementing death sentences; action against outlets promoting hate speech), and stuff that is irrelevant (political empowerment of Balochistan’s government; repatriation of Afghan refugees). One thing it doesn’t have is a plan. Not one of its 20 points has been unpacked to say how precisely it will be achieved, and in what time frame. Or even more importantly, there is no sense as to why we decided on these 20, and if these are actually things that can add up to bring sustainable peace to the country.

Why so? Because NAP wasn’t a thought-out document. It was a list of bullet points meant for the prime minister to show that the APS attack had woken us up. Lost was the fact that the interior ministry had spent months preparing a National Internal Security Policy (NISP). Its shortcomings aside, it was a far more detailed plan whose implementation (with modifications) could have served us better. Instead, we are left to push the government to monitor a set of largely immeasurable statements.

The result is that since no well-thought-out benchmarks exist, and there’s no sense of how individual actions should add up, the focus tends to shift to what you did (actions), not how it helped. But if you don’t know how much you need to do in each category, or if what you have promised is even the right solution, it can become meaningless.

Skim the government’s listing of its achievements under NAP and you’ll find each reports actions, not outcomes (impact). X number of people hanged; Y number arrested; so many Afghan refugees deported; so many combing operations conducted, etc. The numbers may be impressive, but what are we going to do with those we’ve arrested; are we able to see a correlation between combing operations and decrease in terrorism, how does all of this add up, etc? Since these were never thought through, no answers are forthcoming.

Unfortunately, the stakes are too high for us to let this be. Otherwise, the default will continue to be the hope that the military’s kinetic actions can keep a lid on things. That is no solution. Even there, the output has peaked.

North Waziristan is probably the last mega operation the military can undertake. Most other areas needing attention are in urban, settled Pakistan, a different ballgame. Even Zarb-i-Azb didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the security establishment has sold itself short by equating its CT successes with this operation. It had already spent years cleaning up Fata and parts of KP when Gen Raheel Sharif took over. KP and six Fata agencies had been cleared; thousands of soldiers were lost in the process.

This included densely settled parts like Swat where an area larger than all of Fata was cleared in less than four months and IDPs went back in record time. Challenges in North Waziristan were acute; by all accounts, the outcome is phenomenal, even if progress has been slower. But any military will be the first to tell you that all these operations can do is create space for other elements of a national CT plan to work. Nothing more.

Thus, we come back to NAP. The government needs to give it real meaning by devising specific action plans for each of its achievable elements and performing sincerely against those. Else, it will be blamed for failure; and we’ll keep firefighting through kinetic means.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn September 13th, 2016