PAKISTAN doesn’t lack the imagination to envision the emerging threats and challenges but hardly changes its conduct, which has created a disconnect between policy and practice. For instance, state institutions were cognisant of the consequences of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but they largely failed to evolve any preventive or counter mechanism.
Many had projected that the Taliban will not hand over the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists to Pakistan. But instead of devising a proactive strategy to mitigate the impending risks, Pakistan chose to rely on the conventional thinking that peace talks with the militants may work. Having failed on multiple counts in the past, the strategy was not going to deliver different results this time around. Instead, it has seemingly given a boost to the confidence of the TTP leaders who might be expecting similar treatment from Pakistan as the US offered to the Afghan Taliban.
Secondly, Pakistan was fencing the border with Afghanistan mainly to give a virtual Durand Line the appearance of a permanent border, prevent terrorist intrusions, and slow down the refugee influx if the crisis next door deepens. The fence needed a policy and bilateral understanding or a joint mechanism with Kabul, irrespective of who ruled Afghanistan. Now, when the Taliban regime has rejected the idea of the fence, state institutions are once again trying to pacify them, merely for damage control, rather than initiating a discourse on evolving a joint border coordination and control mechanism.
Thirdly, the country’s emerging militant landscape, mainly in the context of the events and developments across the western border, and how Pakistan is prepared to deal with it further exacerbates the disconnect under discussion. Think tanks working on internal security issues have been continuously warning about the possible fallout of the situation in Afghanistan. The more than 40 per cent reported increase in terrorist violence in Pakistan in 2021, compared with 2020, has vindicated these concerns. While the government and security forces have their own reasons to be confident in their ability to deal with the threat, independent observers believe that persisting factors and dynamics of religious extremism and radicalism — which feed into terrorism — will keep compounding the challenge. The cited upsurge in acts of terrorism by violent extremist groups, growing incidents of faith-based mob violence, protests by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) workers and their clashes with security forces are just a few indicators from last year. Similarly, despite extensive military operations, networks of militant groups have not been fully eliminated from Pakistan, which is evident from continuing terrorist attacks mainly in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and sporadically in Karachi and Punjab. These groups could be emboldened by the Taliban regime in one way or another to step up their violence.
Pakistan needs more than broad-brush approaches to counter emerging terrorist threats.
To counter these threats, the state has also initiated certain policymaking processes, but none of the policy frameworks has changed the practices of the state institutions. In 2021, the government revised the 20-point NAP to an abridged version of 14 points. While many clauses have been retained as such from the original draft, some have been amended, and a couple of new ones have been included in the revised plan. However, no clause talks about negotiations with terrorists that the state has initiated with the TTP. Similarly, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) has submitted another draft of the National[TQ1] Counter Violent Extremism Policy to the Ministry of Interior. The policy comprehensively chalks out the plan for countering violent threats triggered by extremism, but none of its clauses endorses reconciliation with the TTP, which has become a major threat to social cohesion and internal security. Though one clause in both the original and revised NAP endorses reconciliation in Balochistan, it does not elaborate with whom the state will reconcile — the separatist groups fighting on the ground or the exiled nationalist leaders who are waiting for a better deal from the state? Apparently, instead of initiating an effective reconciliation process, the government’s exclusive focus appears set on the Peaceful Balochistan Programme, which entails providing financial and rehabilitation support to the Baloch insurgents surrendering before the authorities and quitting violence.
The federal government also approved the country’s so-called first-ever and very secretive National Security Policy (2022-26) last year. As the full details of the NSP are not yet known, one can assume it may contain the real policy which is in practice, especially about the negotiations with terrorists and extremists.
The state institutions might have calculated the strategic and political advantages of the Taliban regime in Kabul, but they also need to evaluate the implications for Pakistan’s internal security and impact on society. The Afghan situation will bear upon Pakistan in many ways. First, a protracted conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan, as being projected by many, will affect Pakistan’s border security as well as the militant landscape in its bordering areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Secondly, the fight between the IS-K and Taliban has already entered Pakistan where the former has carried out multiple attacks in recent years on alleged Afghan Taliban members and religious scholars in Balochistan and KP purportedly ‘linked’ with them. Thirdly, the Afghan situation is weighing heavily on Pakistan’s efforts to pursue ‘economic diplomacy’ in the world; it is also affecting Pakistan’s efforts to connect with emerging regional geo-economics, mainly due to persisting insecurity and political volatility caused by the Afghan situation. Fourthly, matters as they stand in Afghanistan now are not in any way helping Pakistan’s efforts to deal with the militant groups threatening its security such as the TTP.
State institutions have an urgent task at hand to reduce the gaps in policy and practice, but more essentially, they have to expand their practices to counter the emerging threats. Perhaps, more than broad-brush NAP and NSP, Pakistan needs to devise a clear and precise ‘Taliban policy’ and similar policies about groups like the TTP and TLP.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2022