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Mother of all confusions

January 28, 2018


INTERNATIONAL politics is the art of constructing narratives, which in turn cultivate public opinion. This requires diplomacy and opinion-making, yet the arguments embedded in a narrative are themselves the most important part. When a narrative loses appeal it simply requires a review. Harping on lost arguments creates only confusion and distraction.

Pakistan is annoyed at the international community’s repeated concerns about the alleged presence and status of non-state actors on its soil. Pakistan tries to convince the world by describing multiple anti-militant actions it has taken and the sacrifices it has rendered. It also claims that it does not distinguish between good and bad militants. However, a drone strike and a subsequent press conference, or public demonstration by the leaders of banned organisations and their other public activities, offset the impression. The blame lies largely with the civilian governments that have failed to diplomatically defend Pakistan’s case.

For instance, just before the recent visit of the UN Security Council’s sanctions monitoring team, Hafiz Saeed — the leader of a banned group — approached the Lahore High Court to prevent his arrest. He suspected that the government would put him under house arrest during the team’s visit. He got temporary relief from the court but the media coverage of one of his news conferences resulted in his views being known abroad. Who now would believe that Pakistan recently took serious measures against banned groups?

Banned militant groups are continuously giving Pakistan diplomatic stress.

The monitoring committee looks into the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1267, dealing with sanctions by the body on designated militant groups. Media reports indicate that the government took special measures to convince the UNSC monitoring team. The committee was particularly interested in the case of the Jamaatud Dawa and a few other banned groups operating under the garb of welfare organisations. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had also indicated that JuD charities and assets would be taken over by the government. In the past, these had been taken over by the Punjab government that found itself having to allocate a budget to run them.

The UNSC monitoring team’s visit was part of its regular inspections but the Financial Action Task Force, an international body that combats money laundering and terror financing, shares concerns with many other international actors about the activities of banned groups in Pakistan.

Banned militant groups are continuously giving Pakistan diplomatic stress. It has been discussed at various high-level national forums that these groups have become a strategic burden for the country. And that they are also causing internal security problems. These groups provide recruitment bases to anti-Pakistan and global terrorist networks and also have an impact on relations within law-enforcement departments.

Most importantly, these groups are a major source of confusion at multiple levels. When they take refuge under the cover of nationalist agendas, ambiguities are created in the public perception. On the social media, members of banned groups portray themselves as the ‘ultra-patriotic’ custodians of the ideology of Pakistan and defenders of the country’s borders. The silence of state institutions regarding their activities in cyberspace creates fear amongst ordinary citizens.

Though the effective implementation of banning militant groups is part of the National Action Plan, and the government has taken steps to put pressure on these organisations, the latter have devised a counter-strategy: they are building a soft image through expanding their outreach in political spaces and avoiding confrontation with the government. The establishment of the Milli Muslim League is a case in point. But a recent development did not receive enough notice. The new narrative of ‘Paigham-i-Pakistan’, prepared by religious scholars to counter militant narratives, was also endorsed by the heads of banned organisations present at the President House during the launching ceremony. Interestingly, the media did not create a hype this time as it did a couple of years ago when the same leaders met the then interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan; at that time, even the court took notice.

The counter-strategy of banned militant groups has proved effective. Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal sees the workers of JuD and other conventional militant groups as ‘ex-militants’ who are engaged in welfare work. He has cautioned that if disturbed, they may join terrorist outfits. Interestingly, he was expressing these views after attending the graduation ceremony of the Counterterrorism Force at the Police Lines Headquarters in Islamabad. He also claimed that about 4,000 to 5,000 militants had quit militancy and were raising funds for welfare activities. It is not certain where he got these statistics from as the JuD claims it has more than 50,000 registered workers across the country.

It may not be true that civilians and the military establishment have not tried to find out a way out. But two major issues lie in the way of a clear position. The first is linked with the state’s long association with these groups, during which they have hijacked the ideological narrative of the state, and the second is about the strategy of dealing with the groups.

That is why despite repeated debate and policy input provided on the prospects of rehabilitating, reintegrating and mainstreaming certain groups, no coherent policy has been chalked out yet. For this purpose, the government and military establishment will have to be on the same page.

This is the time to remove all ambiguities and confusion regarding banned groups, as a national security policy is in the making and an internal security review under way. The architects of our security policies have to come up with a comprehensive, workable mechanism to deal with the challenge. One cannot ignore the role of parliament, which should have a frank debate on banned militant groups. Army chief Qamar Bajwa endorsed this idea when he addressed the Committee of the Whole in December and stressed that parliament take the lead in devising policies, including defence and foreign affairs. He held out the assurance that the army would abide by such policies. It is parliament’s turn to assert itself through taking over policy discourse on critical challenges.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2018