A COMMON question being asked these days is: why has the resurgence of terrorism, after the latter was significantly reduced during 2010-2020, not been prevented in 2021? The answer is simple: although we adopted the right short-term tactics to combat it, we erred in formulating and implementing a long-term proactive strategy.
During terrorism’s decline, we continued with the short-term approach of depending primarily on the military for counterterrorism tactics and focusing on kinetic measures, when what we needed was a strategy to ensure sustained neutralisation of the threat through a two-pronged approach.
We needed to a) rely more on civilian CT departments whose role is to disrupt terrorist networks, and b) focus more on the non-kinetic dimension to address the factors that breed militancy.
Also, terrorism’s evolving dimension in 2021 (after America’s exit from Afghanistan) which required a change in strategy and tactics, wasn’t correctly visualised. Thus, terrorism’s resurgence, which is likely to escalate significantly in 2023, indicates a multidimensional failure on our part.
It was a failure of policy because we tried to appease the TTP through ill-advised negotiations in 2022, which only allowed the militants to return to their former strongholds and become active again.
This move was strongly resented by the local population, who participated in public demonstrations in Swat, Wana and elsewhere, on an unprecedented scale, indicating that our policymaking on crucial issues like CT was neither grounded in the people nor inclusive and transparent.
The question of who decided to start negotiations with the TTP, and allowed them to return, remains unanswered, exposing the opacity of policy formulation on CT in Pakistan.
Similarly, in recent years, we failed to correctly assess the impact of two new factors regarding the terrorist threat in Pakistan: one, the unification of all TTP factions under Noor Wali Mehsud, who became ameer in 2018, strengthened the organisation and enhanced its strike capability.
Mehsud reorganised the TTP’s support network inside Pakistan, which had become dormant due to effective action. Either this escaped the intelligence agencies’ notice or the latter were unable to check it.
Two, according to many analysts, the American exit from Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban’s sympathetic approach to TTP boosted the latter. However, the groups concerned in Pakistan apparently believed, erroneously, that the Taliban would stop the TTP from carrying out terrorist acts inside Pakistan — a costly mistake.
This highlights the need to diversify input into our CT policy formulation and threat assessment process, making it more inclusive, transparent and accountable. The world over, this is done by civilianising internal security, instead of making it largely the military’s domain. The military plays an important CT role, but by supporting civilian authorities, and not leading them.
Terrorism’s resurgence indicates a multidimensional failure on our part.
The next question is, which is the focal civilian organisation at the national level, to coordinate the entire CT effort, bring all stakeholders into the fold and address all dimensions of CT and violent extremism (VE)? The only organisation with the legal mandate, through an act of parliament (Nacta Act, 2013), to perform that role is the National Counter-Terrorism Authority. It has, however, not been allowed to take off since its inception in 2009.
It is pertinent to mention here that the National Action Plan, formulated in 2014, was a unique document, enjoying the consensus of all political parties and the establishment, on how to deal with terrorism in Pakistan. A basic NAP recommendation was to strengthen Nacta. Eight years later, Nacta remains unable to play its legal role.
Learning from our earlier mistakes in dealing with the terrorist threat from 2010 to 2020, we must give long- and short-term measures equal importance.
For a long-term response, we should shift the CT strategy from being military-dominated to being led by civilians, through parliament and legally mandated civilian organisations led by Nacta. To make Nacta effective, the following steps are suggested:
Empowerment: To be an effective coordinator of all CT/extremism aspects and ensure unity of the national CT effort, Nacta has to be empowered. It is presently not being taken seriously by the powerful stakeholders with which it has to coordinate ie federal intelligence agencies, federal ministries, the provincial governments. Nacta’s empowerment means it should be made directly responsible to the PM as laid down in the original Act. The recent amendment making it responsible to the interior minister must be repealed.
Expertise: If Nacta wants a place in the CT community, it should be able to add value to the efforts of individual agencies as well as to the federal and provincial governments.
This can be done in many areas, eg giving a more objective threat assessment prepared by professional threat analysts, instead of individual agencies with their own biases/ operational interests. Research in the complex field of counter violent extremism, in consultation with experts and civil society, is yet another area where it can add value.
Whole-of-nation response: From 2010 to 2020, when the terrorists were on the run, the focus should have been on capacity building of civilian agencies for combating terrorism and VE. This was not done because there was no national organisation to devise a plan to do it, get the resources and then inform the governments about the progress in implementing these plans. Lack of policy implementation is a serious gap in our CT response. Addressing this weak area is part of Nacta’s mandate.
On Jan 5, 2023, the Senate Committee on Defence recommended that a “coherent counterterrorism policy with Nacta in the lead role” be devised to deal with the terrorist threat. This advice merits serious consideration.
It should be remembered that while the ongoing military/ police campaign against the terrorists should continue relentlessly, we cannot lose sight of a long-term response. Though formulating such a response must be a collective national effort, Nacta, if given ownership by the government, as it must be, can coordinate the effort, under the guidance of the PM and parliament. Let us not repeat mistakes by ignoring a long-term plan to combat terrorism.
The writer was Nacta’s first national coordinator.
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2023