The case of Nacta

Published August 27, 2017

FORMER interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had directed the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) to prepare an anti-extremism narrative. His successor Ahsan Iqbal, during his maiden visit to the authority’s headquarters recently, tasked the authority with developing a coordinated strategy in consultation with the provinces to implement the National Action Plan (NAP). These are not the only tasks the authority has been assigned since its establishment.

Perhaps the government believes that Nacta has a magic wand and can work wonders. For Nacta has been busy crafting a national narrative or policy on countering extremism under the supervision of a security agency ever since it was directed to do so by the former interior minister. Reportedly, it had prepared an initial draft which was not made public; it is also not certain whether Nacta shared the draft with the interior ministry. In any case, the draft, irrespective of what it entailed, would need a revisit considering the changing regional scenario after US President Trump’s announcement of his government’s Afghanistan policy.

As far as the implementation of NAP is concerned, the interior minister would know that he has inherited the chairmanship of 13 out of 16 NAP implementation committees from his predecessor. Former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar was quite enthusiastic about leading the war against terrorism and took control of most of the NAP implementation committees. Later, he realised it was not an easy task and gradually delegated his responsibilities to Nacta.

Nacta never had the vision, capacity and human resources required to implement NAP.

It is no secret that Nacta never had the vision, capacity and human resources required to implement NAP. To fill the void, the security institutions took control of much of that process, which includes activating and leading the provincial apex committees, launching anti-militant military actions across the country, running the military courts, etc. Obviously, this made NAP far too military-centric and squeezed the space for the civilians. The sporadic waves of terrorist attacks inside the country also led security institutions to create a dedicated mechanism to monitor the implementation of NAP and the duties were assigned to the national security adviser, retired Lt Gen Nasser Janjua.

NAP was devised to correct counterterrorism practices and function as a set of guiding principles. But the government barely even invested in structural reforms, preferring a parallel monitoring institutionalisation instead. The international donor agencies also encouraged such practices by providing pilot or kick-off financial assistance for such initiatives.

Lackadaisical handling of the same kind stymied the functioning of Nacta as well. The authority is not clear even now what its exact role is; ie coordination among law-enforcement agencies or providing policy insights to the government. According to the Nacta Act, data collection, information processing and its dissemination to the relevant authorities are its primary tasks. The same clause elaborates its key function of coordination among security agencies.

Apparently Nacta has established a Joint Intelligence Directorate consisting of 413 officers from MI, ISI and other agencies and departments. But although the JID is consuming most of the Nacta budget, little is known about its functions and what it has achieved so far. Moreover, it seems unlikely that it will be operating under civilian supervision, even though initially a JID under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat was proposed. It was a workable idea. Parliamentary oversight would have ensured transparency and the initiative’s success.

While on the one hand the intelligence agencies appear reluctant to cooperate with Nacta, on the other the organisation’s bureaucratic structure makes it incapable of producing intellectually sound policy insights. It is unfortunate that the government is expecting a national narrative from a non-functional counterterrorism body.

Given it has failed to perform its main functions, it is unrealistic to expect very much from Nacta. Fortunately, the provincial counterterrorism departments of police are performing well both in terms of launching anti-militant operations and gathering information. The CTDs of Sindh and Punjab police especially have done a commendable job in that regard. If the federal and provincial governments introduce a few accountability and transparency reforms and improve their capacity, these departments can perform even better. So far these CTDs have been operating on traditional police lines, meaning they also inherit all the institutional ills of the police.

Even one of the main successes claimed by Nacta, ie updating of the lists of fourth schedulers under the Anti-Terrorism Act, was the handiwork of the police and their CTDs. Nacta only sent these lists to the State Bank of Pakistan so that the latter could freeze the assets of the individuals. A section officer at the interior ministry could also have performed this task.

Nacta does not even have legal powers to force CTDs to cooperate. In the absence of any operational and coordination roles, it can merely act as a think tank. However, the government is already funding more than a dozen inefficient think tanks in Islamabad and Nacta would be an added burden.

Yet many policymakers still believe in Nacta’s potential and want it to become a centralised counterterrorism body like the US Homeland Security Department which was envisioned as a means to ensure a safe and secure homeland resilient to terrorism and other hazards. In the Pakistani perspective, establishing such an independent body will remain a dream.

Nacta was, however, conceived on the pattern of the UK’s National Security Secretariat, which coordinates on security and intelligence issues across the government and produces assessments on issues of national security. In this context, Nacta should have been developed to provide strategic guidance and serve as a central node of all intelligence bodies. But such a body cannot work in Pakistan for the reasons discussed earlier.

The legal status of Nacta also remains under question as the interior ministry runs it like its subsidiary organisation. Legally however, it should have reported to the prime minister, as was originally conceived. Bluntly speaking, Nacta is a failed experiment to develop a centralised counterterrorism body in Pakistan.

NAP was the outcome of the nation’s firm resolve to fight terrorism. And it must not fail for any reason, including an inefficient Nacta. The government has to devise a better implementation plan for NAP, and it should also decide the fate of Nacta, whether to revamp it or abandon it. An effective counterterrorism response will ultimately start generating new narratives.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2017

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