THE interior minister appeared in a combative mood while responding to the damning indictment of him and his ministry by the inquiry commission report at the presser last week on the Aug 8 terrorist attack in Quetta. But he had nothing substantive to say in his defence. Instead, he himself has raised questions over the impartiality of the judicial investigation.
He certainly has no intention of accepting any responsibility let alone stepping down — of course, there is no such tradition in our political culture. It is quite apparent that like numerous other commission reports, this one too will perhaps be consigned to the backroom.
Neither will heads roll nor will there be any corrective measure taken to rectify the fault lines in our counterterrorism policy as highlighted by Justice Qazi Faez Isa in his landmark report. The one-man judicial commission was formed by the Supreme Court to investigate the tragedy that had almost completely wiped out an entire generation of senior lawyers in Quetta.
The collective failure of our state institutions has allowed impunity to the militants.
One of the most gruesome terrorist attacks in recent years, the Aug 8 incident should not be seen in isolation. As the report pointed out, it was the non-serious approach of the government and the selective application of anti-terrorism laws that allowed militant groups to operate in the country freely in full glare of the authorities. In fact, the report has pointed out wrongs that were already known.
Who has not seen the interior minister soft peddling on banned groups operating under new banners and his defence of radical clerics? Similarly, the slow progress on various clauses of the National Action Plan (NAP), particularly those pertaining to madressah reform and choking the sources of funding to radical seminaries, has been a cause of serious concern. Perhaps the most intriguing point raised by Justice Isa was the reluctance of the interior ministry to proscribe terrorist groups like Jamaatul Ahrar that had claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks including the Aug 8 suicide bombing.
One amusing point in the report was the response of the interior minister to the query about his meeting Ahmed Ludhianvi, head of three banned organisations (Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Millat-i-Islamia and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat). His reply was that he met the cleric as a member of the Difa-i-Pakistan Council and not as a leader of a proscribed group. He conveniently passed on the blame for allowing the group to have a rally in the capital, despite the enforcement of Section 144 in the city, to the local administration.
While the interior minister has been conspicuous by his absence at the time of some major terrorist attacks he has not left any opportunity to defend radical clerics like Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid. Even his sympathy for the late Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, who was responsible for the slaughter of thousands, was very much in evidence after he was killed.
The commission has also indicated that the interior ministry withheld important information concerning proscribed organisations — a serious indictment of a person in charge of the country’s internal security.
While the federal interior minister epitomises many things that have gone wrong with our counterterrorism and counter-extremism efforts, one must not gloss over the responsibility of other security agencies either. It is the collective failure of state institutions that has allowed impunity to the militants.
It is not surprising that after a brief lull, the terrorists are back in business, launching high-profile attacks and exacting a huge toll on innocent lives. The spectacular attacks on the police academy in Quetta and carnage at a Khuzdar shrine are the most recent examples.
However, the most serious concern is the rise in sectarian-based violence and religious extremism in the country. There is hardly any serious effort to deal with the sources of extremism. The government wakes up after each attack only to go back to sleep again. A committee under the adviser on national security was formed after the Aug 8 attack to monitor the implementation of NAP, but nothing has been heard of it since then.
It is also the failure of the apex committees formed in each province and comprising the civil and military leaderships in the aftermath of the 2014 Peshawar school tragedy. While the federal government has rightly been held responsible, the provincial governments too have failed to rein in the activities of the banned extremist groups. Some reports suggested that the Sindh government too had been talking to AWSJ leaders and the group has continued with its activities in the province. There is certainly no excuse for this laxity after the 18th Amendment that has made law and order a provincial subject.
Interestingly, the PTI has also been demanding action against those censured by Justice Isa, but it is its own government in KP that has been doling out millions of rupees to radical madressahs in the province; for example, the Rs300 million grant to Maulana Samiul Haq’s madressah, which has been known for promoting violence in the name of jihad. The PTI’s ambivalence towards his organisation is quite evident.
Similarly, the Punjab government has also been accused of taking a more lenient approach to sectarian groups. Its objections to allowing security agencies a free hand in south Punjab to act against sectarian groups have evoked intense criticism. Meanwhile, the security agencies too have their favourites among the banned militant groups that make a mockery of the claim that there is no distinction any longer between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants. So it’s not enough to demand one man’s head; there is an urgent need for taking collective responsibility to deal with the existential threat. The Justice Isa report must be taken seriously to rectify our mistakes and not just be used for political point-scoring.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2016