Thursday April 18, 2024

A holistic approach to counterterrorism

By Shireen M Mazari
February 23, 2017

The recent spate of terrorist attacks across the country has brought into question the National Action Plan (NAP) and the need for military courts. After being lulled into a false sense of security with the military success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the nation is once again engulfed in insecurity while the government tries to find an easy ‘fix’ through another constitutional amendment reviving the military courts for another three years. Once again, the government wants us to believe that this time around they will actually move towards implementing judicial reforms, especially of the criminal judicial system, during the new three-year period of military courts.

Blueprints with time lines are being discussed as well as parliamentary oversight. Unfortunately, what has again been lost sight of is a holistic approach to fighting terrorism – which was outlined in NAP but has not been operationalised. In a similar vein, the Anti Terrorism Act, which has all the tools to try even ‘jet black’ terrorists – including virtual trials, witness protection, judges and prosecutors protection – has been reduced to targeting political rivals under an all-encompassing Article 6 while the real intent has been forgotten. Now along with a constitutional amendment for the renewal of military courts, the government is also seeking to bring a new Anti-Terror Act while retaining the old one. Clearly, rationality has disappeared.

At the present moment, in the background of the new cycle of terrorism that has the whole nation in its grip of uncertainty and fear, military courts seem to be visible on the horizon again and at the psychological level they will certainly provide some reassurance to the public at large which, in such moments of fear, finds little solace in the civilian governing apparatus – despite the fact that on Tuesday we saw the effectiveness of a depoliticised, professional police force in confronting suicide bombers in Charsadda.

Military courts may be a temporary panacea for a public in the grip of fear and they may even be a deterrent – although there is little data to prove that military courts have deterred ‘jet black’ terrorists, especially suicide bombers – and psychologically at this moment in time they may undermine the terrorists’ efforts to hold a whole nation hostage to fear. However, unless we move towards a holistic approach to combating terrorism, the menace will continue to engulf us. For that there has to be a strong political will.

At present, the only political will being shown by the government is to abdicate its responsibility wherever it can to the military: from strong foreign/security policy decisions (why was it left to the COAS to summon Afghan diplomats and hand them the list of terrorists sought by Pakistan?) to dealing with Indian spy Yadav to the conduct of a nationwide census to military courts. Add to this the conduct of Zarb-e-Azb and the Rangers’ counterterrorism actions and we are in danger of overburdening the military while we witness a civilian government that has lost all interest in serious affairs of the state.

NAP has become a mockery, with almost everyone chanting the now rather jaded and repetitive mantra of ‘implement it in its entirety’, and the government continuing to pay no heed to it. Yet, NAP is a holistic guideline, which I feel we should have been elaborated upon in detail at the time of signing so as to ensure implementation in its entirety. As that was not done, it became a pretext for the government to be selective over its implementation. Ironically, even where a consensus has been formed over operationalisation of a NAP component, the government has chosen to play dangerous politics by not moving forward.

Fata is a case in point – where a broad consensus has been garnered by the government itself over mainstreaming Fata by merging it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but where the government keeps stalling to pander to a few allies with minimal political following. The danger is that the government may in the process undermine the gains made in Operation Zarb-e-Azb since political, social and economic actions have to be taken in the wake of a military action so as to resettle and mainstream the displaced population.

If we are to win the long-term battle against extremism and terrorism, we also need a viable counter-narrative, which requires revisiting our school curriculum. At the moment, we seem to be regressing on this front rather than moving forward. No counter-narrative has even begun to be evolved nor is there any visible sign that the government has any intention of moving on this front as it knows it would be treading on sensitive, possibly controversial, territory. But it has to be done if we are to save our future generations from the extremism and terrorism scourge. We have a rich historic Sufi tradition, which is now under direct attack, just as regional languages and cultures are fading as a consequence of being ignored. Yet, these are the foundations on which a counter narrative must be structured.

Again, there has to be hope in the future for our youth. Madressahs are a sensitive issue but the bulk of these institutions, especially in the rural areas (and I have detailed researched data for southern Punjab), are little more than shelters providing some food and a place to stay for the children of the poor, with some religious rote learning added. One way to immediately transform these into proper teaching institutes, including religious education, is to involve the private sector by giving them tax breaks if they invest in upgrading these madressahs’ educational facilities and providing the graduating students with apprenticeships in their industries located in the relevant areas. Employment opportunities provide a future with hope for the dispossessed, especially in our rural areas.

Major-Gen (r) Awan, in the course of a TV discussion suggested some viable actions that can be taken immediately by the government: all mosques should have local Imams and should have boards comprising local residents. Schools attached to these mosques should also be day facilities only so that the children return to their family’s fold in the evening. Taking young folk away from their families makes them more susceptible to brainwashing. This is a measure that requires almost no financial burden and would go a long way in involving local people into taking responsibility for their area.

Equally critical is the need to amend Article 6 of the existing Anti Terror Act so as to ensure it is not abused for political ends. It serves no purpose to bring in a new Anti Terror Act while retaining the present one. We have to be clear on what we regard as terrorism so some definition is also required; and we cannot use terrorism as a means of targeting political opponents and political protest. Despite a belief that terrorism cannot be defined, there are viable legal definitions and some have been suggested in bills on counterterrorism. But the government does not seek to trouble itself with hard decisions on a holistic way forward against terrorism – preferring to shift the primary burden and responsibility to the armed forces, which are already dealing on two-fronts as our hostile eastern and north-western neighbours collude.


The writer is DG SSII and a PTI MNA. The views expressed are her own. Email: