IT has taken more than three years for the federal cabinet to finally approve a draft bill providing legal cover to the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta).
But even if passed by the National Assembly the legislation may not bring to life the dormant body created in 2009 to coordinate efforts to fight violent extremism in the country and develop a coherent counterterrorism strategy. Without autonomy, Nacta is likely to be consigned to yet another ineffective section of the interior ministry and become a new source of employment for ruling party loyalists.
The new bill has placed the authority under the umbrella of the interior ministry taking away charge from the prime minister as provided in the original charter. This has not only curtailed whatever little autonomy Nacta had, but also relegated the status of the country’s supposedly premier counterterrorism organisation to that of an ordinary government organisation. This non-serious attitude has dealt a grievous blow to our already weak stance on dealing with militancy and terrorism.
Established under an executive order in 2009 the idea behind Nacta was for the organisation to act essentially as a coordinating body to unify counterterrorism efforts of various civil and military intelligence agencies. At the same time, it was also supposed to work as a think tank, conduct research, propose measures to deal with the rising menace of radicalisation and develop a comprehensive national counterterrorism action plan in coordination with all stakeholders.
Another important component of Nacta’s mandate was to develop a central information database of militant networks and collect intelligence on their activities. But no progress seems to have been made in any of these aspects because of non-cooperation of various stakeholders and internal bickering.
The need for such an organisation became all the more urgent as Pakistan evolved into a major battlefield for Al Qaeda and its allied militant groups presenting a serious threat to the country’s internal security. The decade-long militant violence has killed thousands of people.
The growing radicalisation of youth provides a constant supply of recruits to the militant and sectarian groups that continue to operate with impunity turning parts of the country into killing fields. The rising religion-based violence also threatens to tear apart the nation’s social fabric, raising the spectre of a sectarian civil war.
A major reason for Pakistan’s failure to effectively deal with the rising violent extremism and militant insurgency has been the absence of a clear perception of the nature of the threat and the capacity to deal with the challenge.
There has not been any coordination and cooperation among the ISI, IB, the police and various other agencies involved in counterterrorism efforts. All these stakeholders have been working in their own compartments with no clear national policy and strategy in place to contain the rising militancy.
It has been more firefighting than a long-term plan of action to counter terrorism and extremism. The absence of a coordinated and coherent counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation policy has given huge space to extremist and militant groups. The lack of political will and consensus among the major political forces has also contributed to the dire situation in which the country finds itself today.
A coherent national counterterrorism strategy is also critical for the success of the Pakistan Army’s counterinsurgency campaign in the tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The two are inseparable. But, unfortunately, the military operations have not been accompanied by a robust action plan to root out the terrorist networks operating in different parts of the country. The lack of coordination has allowed the militants to move freely from one place to another without being apprehended.
The decision of the elected civilian government to set up Nacta was a step in the right direction. It was meant to fill the critical organisational gap hampering Pakistan’s battle against radicalisation and violent extremism.
But, unfortunately, the project could not take off despite generous financial and technical help from the European Union and other countries. The organisation remained ineffective for three years because of the lack of a legal framework within which it was to operate.
A major reason for the delay in moving the legislation was the constant wrangling over the control of the organisation. Rehman Malik was adamant that it should be placed under the interior ministry.
But such an arrangement was not acceptable to many stakeholders, particularly the ISI, IB and the Punjab government. Even the top officials at Nacta believed that placing the authority under the interior ministry would undermine its autonomy and professional objectivity.
It made no sense putting the authority under the interior ministry while its stakeholders came under the prime minister. It is clear that neither the ISI nor IB were willing to cooperate with the authority working under the control of the interior ministry. The distrust between the military and civilian government has also been a factor in the ISI’s lack of interest.
The unresolved issue of control resulted in complete paralysis of the organisation. In the past three years since its inception in 2009, Nacta has had six coordinators. Most of them either resigned or were sent packing by the government because of their differences with the interior minister.
The induction of officials on a political basis rather than on merit has also raised some serious concerns about the professionalism and effectiveness of the authority. Nacta has little to show for its performance despite spending more than Rs500 million over the last three years.
There is still time for the government to review the bill before it is sent to parliament for a vote. The need for an autonomous counterterrorism authority has never been greater than it is today when terrorism and radicalisation present the biggest threat to the country’s existence. The government should act before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.