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Critical responses

January 27, 2013

IN dealing with the menace of terrorism, clarity is finally emerging at the institutional level.

The army chief’s speech last year on Independence Day was encouraging as he stressed clarity on the issue of extremism and terrorism. The judiciary, which was under criticism for acquitting detained terrorists, has showed the resolve to prioritise the issue. The chief justice of Pakistan, on a number of occasions, has emphasised the need for collaborative efforts to eradicate extremism.

The National Assembly has passed the fair trial bill, which authorises the state to intercept private communications in order to find incriminating evidence against terrorists. Although the invasion of privacy and denial of civil freedom continue to rightly elicit strong reservations, it is hoped that the use of technology to obtain evidence would lead to the discouragement of torture that is employed to extract ‘confessions’ from suspects.

The federal cabinet also approved the draft National Counterterrorism Authority Bill 2012. A properly constituted and mandated authority could contribute to evolving meaningful counter-extremism initiatives.

These are the positive responses, but in the absence of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, these initiatives may not bring about the desired results.

Many ideological, political and operational ambiguities still persist. Public opinion on how to deal with terrorists in the tribal areas is still divided, and opinion leaders and experts also do not appear convinced about the implications of, or prospects for, a military operation. But without going into the operational complexities of an operation in North Waziristan, it is worth noting that the military offensives in Swat and South Waziristan Agency proved productive and significantly decreased the threat to internal security from terrorism.

Many challenges have the potential to increasingly hurt internal security in the coming days. The rise in sectarian violence, heightened ethno-political tensions in Karachi, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and its affiliates and the Balochistan imbroglio will remain serious security challenges this year.

The security challenges will not go away simply because there are isolated responses here and there. A comprehensive counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategy is needed to connect these responses. That will not be possible without political consensus. This year will be one when the political leadership in Pakistan will have no alternative but to clearly state its vision when it comes to dealing with security challenges, or it will risk becoming irrelevant.

With this perspective in mind, policy institutes and security experts recommend certain steps which can help connect the responses from various quarters so that a broader strategy can be evolved.

The foremost need is to improve coordination among the various agencies tasked with counterterrorism. The National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta) can be an effective tool for coordination. At the same time practitioners should be trained in conflict resolution and management so that these techniques are used before force is employed.

There is a need to incorporate more changes in the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill 2012, including addressing procedural and definitional issues. There should be safeguards to prevent militants from collecting funds and using dubious systems like hawala to move money from one place to another. No new weapons licences should be issued to those suspected of such practices. Licences already issued should be cancelled. The government needs to regularise all commercial laws.

Legislation alone can never be an effective tool in dealing with terrorism. The capacity of the legal system, including the anti-terrorism court (ATC), judges, lawyers and the prosecution department, must also be enhanced. Apart from transparency and appointment of capable judges to the ATCs, the Supreme Court and the high courts should monitor the functioning of these courts.

There is a desire among some sections of the religious leadership in Pakistan to play an active role in curbing violent tendencies. They can offer an alternative to the Taliban groups and strive for change through peaceful means. This would not be an easy task and the option of using force against Al Qaeda and inflexible elements among the Taliban should remain on the table and, in fact, be an unambiguous provision in any future peace agreement. A strategy based on an accurate assessment of the militants’ ideological and political strengths should be used to engage them.

However, different approaches would be needed to engage different groups. A successful policy in one area may not work in another. A persistent, flexible and accommodative approach which can adjust to changing situations might do the trick.

The firefighting approach of the state has become redundant and the current strategy being implemented in Balochistan needs comprehensive revisiting. The first step towards resolving the crises in Balochistan is to acknowledge their gravity and talk to the stakeholders with a view to finding solutions. It is indeed high time that rhetoric in that regard was translated into action and talks held with all groups, especially with the most disenchanted nationalists, in a manner that inspires confidence and sincerity of purpose.

Curbing violence in Karachi is not as much a problem of law enforcement as it is of political commitment. Apart from political initiatives, the government needs to develop a comprehensive security policy for Karachi.

Finally, an informed public opinion is badly needed to counter critical threats. The unity among terrorist groups is the source of their strength. They also gain strength from fragmentation and confusion over the war on terror that is displayed by the security, political and civil society leaderships in Pakistan. Both the state and society need to combine their strengths to encroach on the ideological and political domain of the extremists.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.