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Renewed campaign

Updated March 10, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE country’s rejuvenated anti-militant campaign will strengthen its diplomatic and moral position in the ongoing stand-off with India. This will help Pakistan fulfil its commitments to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). And, sustained over a longer period of time, it will certainly improve internal and border security, as well as relations with its neighbours.

In fact, it appears that the government and the military establishment have both acted in sync to make the renewed campaign look both serious and different this time.

In January 2002, when Gen Musharraf banned several militant groups, I was collecting data for my research on jihadist organisations in Pakistan. The offices of jihadi groups based in Azad Kashmir and other parts of the country had been shut down. In an extreme situation, the militants felt uncertain about their future. They had lost connection with their leadership that was either under house arrest or had gone underground. Many militants had then decided to go back to their lives and a few even did so.

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My publisher was pursuing me to submit the manuscript at the earliest, possibly fearing that the ban and eventual dissolution of militant groups could diminish people’s interest in the subject. In November 2003, however, when Gen Musharraf banned these groups again, my publisher had already sold several editions of the book.

Seventeen years after first banning militant groups, Pakistan is once again at a crossroads.

Certainly, early perceptions after the first ban in 2002 that militant groups would cease to exist had proved wrong. Most of the jihadists found alternative ways of survival, including through ideological and operational transformation. Among those proscribed organisations, the ones that had initially focused on Kashmir and claimed to have a nationalistic character passed through some major transformation phases.

After the ban, many of them turned against the state. The state remained confused about the few militant groups that were still loyal to their primary cause in Kashmir. Gen Musharraf, who initiated the ban on militant groups, later declared himself as the greatest supporter of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaatud Dawa.

Seventeen years after the first ban, Pakistan is once again at a crossroads and finds itself taking decisions on the future of banned jihadi groups. During these years, the militants have proved a constant irritation in civil-military relations, besides putting diplomatic and strategic stress on the country on many occasions. They have damaged Pakistan’s image and slowed down economic growth. Time and again, they have tested the state’s will to act against them.

Apparently, state institutions have decided to shut down the chapter of these groups. The civilian government proudly claims that all institutions of the state are on the same page, which will be greatly helpful in implementing the state’s renewed resolve against militants of all shades. Although the measures taken so far against these groups reflect on that resolve, a long-term action plan is awaited that will determine the future of banned groups and of tens of thousands of their members. Though militant groups are not as strong as they were in2002, retaliation from frustrated cadres cannot be ruled out.

To deal with militant groups in the long term, many rehabilitation proposals are circulating in the federal capital; most of these have remained under consideration of state institutions in the past as well. For instance, the option of inducting members of these groups into the paramilitary forces was considered after the first crackdown on the militants in 2002. It was not implemented because of several reasons, but mainly out of fear that those inducted might radicalise the forces. After going through a comprehensive deradicalisation process, they could be considered as candidates for positions in paramilitary forces.

Rehabilitation and deradicalisation of the members of the banned groups will be a huge task. The government is already considering setting up rehabilitation centres at the provincial levels. The military has a few rehabilitation centres for militant detainees but civilian law-enforcement agencies lack such capacities and could take time to initiate similar projects.

Another issue would be linked to managing the assets of these groups as they run thousands of private schools, seminaries, health centres, and other welfare operations. The government may consider converting their madressahs into model religious schools with the help of some credible educational institutions. Similarly, the charity operations of these groups can be put under the supervision of some legitimate charities and local governments.

The state is also considering the mainstreaming of certain banned groups. This would not be a good idea as these groups can use this as an opportunity to survive because they cannot disassociate themselves from their ideologies, which they have propagated over the last four decades. Instead of allowing them to establish their own parties, members of these groups who don’t have a criminal record could be encouraged to join existing mainstream political parties, including religious-political ones.

Dealing with banned groups needs a comprehensive policy framework and the government has to develop this with the help and consent of parliament and all concerned segments of society.

During the India-Pakistan stand-off, radical and militant groups remained aloof from street protests, which was a positive development. Instead, it was all segments of Pakistani society that stood together to express solidarity with the armed forces. This will also help nurture a narrative that while people’s support gains legitimacy for a country’s actions, the support of non-state actors for the same proves counterproductive. This will also give confidence to state institutions that Pakistan and its people are capable of thwarting the challenge of ‘hybrid warfare’.

Another interesting view that is circulating in the strategic circles of the federal capital is about the probable outcome of the US-Afghan Taliban talks and that optimism is growing that the peace process in Afghanistan will ultimately bring an end to the militant proxy wars in the region.

This may be considered wishful thinking, at least for the moment, but the optimism Islamabad has cultivated in taking on militant groups could make it possible.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2019