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April 9, 2018

Talking terror


April 9, 2018

The three-day International Counter Terrorism Forum that concluded on April 5 in Islamabad brought together a host of national and international experts on terrorism.

With over 50 speakers and around 500 participants, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) can be proud of its achievements. Though Nacta has been unduly criticised in a section of the press for its perceived inability to eradicate terrorism in the country, it needs to be kept in mind that Nacta’s mandate is mostly related to data collection and periodic review of strategies with some research and liaison responsibilities. It also reviews laws and suggests amendments to them.

The forum succeeded in presenting Pakistan’s perspective to a wider audience and the presentations and speeches delivered there drew a positive response from the participants. Though there were dozens of sessions, a few speeches and presentations deserve some analysis and comments. To begin with, one must congratulate Ihsan Ghani, national coordinator of Nacta, who set a positive tone with his welcome address, followed by Ahsan Iqbal, federal minster for interior, planning and development and reform. Ahsan Iqbal impressed his listeners with his honest and lucid keynote address in which he not only clarified Nacta’s responsibility, stressing upon its research role, but also analysed some counterterrorism lessons that should be learnt.

He rightly pointed out that extremism was the root cause of terrorism and unless we countered extremism, we cannot eradicate terrorism. One could see the difference between his and his predecessor’s approaches to these issues. While the former interior minister, Chaudhary Nisar Ali, during his tenure kept insisting that extremism and terrorism were two different things, he also kept a mild attitude towards those who, according to him, “may have been extremists but not terrorists”. With this outlook the former minister had been meeting the leaders of extremist outfits, but the current minister appears to be clear about this.

Ahsan Iqbal touched many a heart when he acknowledged that “every citizen of Pakistan has contributed to this fight against terrorism”, and “all have fought together”. Presenting Pakistan as a country that had transitioned “from a victim to a victor”, he claimed that the “nation has cleared its territory”. It may sound like a tall claim but the recent decline in terrorist attacks substantiates his position. The mention of Aitzaz Hasan and Malala Yousufzai by the interior minister elicited a loud applause from the audience. The documentary that followed Ahsan Iqbal’s speech also highlighted the brighter side of Pakistan.

With the faces of Dr Abdus Salam, Malala and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy prominently displayed, the documentary – prepared by Nacta – was full of hope and asserted a strong belief in diversity, harmony and tolerance. Professor Adam Dolnik, an independent specialist on terrorism, in his presentation reminded the audience that 97 percent fatalities caused by terrorism take place in developing countries. Though terrorist attacks in developed countries elicit much wider condemnation and coverage, they have suffered less than one percent of the total fatalities in terrorism-related attacks. He highlighted that the top ten countries targeted by terrorism are those where protracted conflicts have lingered on.

The good news he gave was the fact that during the past year there was a 22 to 33 percent decline in the number of terrorist attacks the world over. It is a pity that a speaker of his calibre was given less than 10 minutes to speak. Keeping in mind the very limited number of foreign speakers, they should have been given ample time to express themselves. Considering that it was an international forum, more respect should have been shown to the speakers who came all the way from across continents.

This treatment, however, became especially more pronounced when the local speakers continued to speak for 50 to 60 minutes, though all of them were supposed to speak for just 10-20 minutes. Professor Hasan Abbas who teaches at the National Defence University in the US was also not given enough time to explain his ideas. He expounded on the four stages of terrorism in Pakistan since 1947. He said the creation of Pakistan had witnessed the worst kind of terrorism when over 17 million people had to migrate and over a million were massacred following Partition.

Abbas was the only speaker to give democracy the credit for reducing terrorism in the country in the 1990s, and again during the past five years. His presentation was cut short by reminders to curtail his talk. Ambassador Masood Khan who is now the president of AJK, took almost an hour and repeatedly complained that Pakistan was given ‘peanuts’ by America in response to the services it rendered in the latter’s war on terror. He said that “though 9/11 brought benefits to Pakistan as it could enter the mainstream once again”, Pakistan was badly used.

He also lashed out at both Afghanistan and India where, according to him, “Pakistan-bashing is a pastime”. He also questioned the partial attitude of the world community towards India for not condemning it for its atrocities in Kashmir. One wonders at an international forum, what purpose does bashing your neighbours serve, especially if no one from the neighbouring countries is invited to speak. It was disappointing that there were no speakers to represent Afghanistan, India or Iran. Maj-Gen Shamshad Mirza also gave a long presentation about the deployment of over 0.2 million Pakistani troops along the Afghan border.

He dilated in detail on the four operations – Enduring Freedom, Rah-e-Nijat, Zarb-e-Azb, and Radd-ul-Fasad. He said that the total number of casualties has been around 75, 000 (50, 000 civilians and 25,000 military); whereas around 20,000 terrorists have been killed in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Since there was no Q&A session after his presentation, nobody could ask him how so many terrorists found a place in Fata and KP.

Perhaps the most impressive speech was delivered by Afrasiab Khattak. He began by speaking about the Awami National Party losing over 1,000 workers in terrorist attacks. He was of the opinion that blaming Islam for terrorism was not right because Islam has been in this region for over 1,000 years. “Radicalisation came with Afghan jihad” and “American universities such as the University of Nebraska developed jihadi literature to be used in this region”. He was right in pointing out that it was not the people but the state itself that got radicalised first and then propagated radical thoughts among the people. National Security Adviser Nasir Janjua also made an hour-long presentation, using 187 slides, in which he reminded the world that the breakup of the USSR happened all thanks to Pakistan’s efforts.

According to him, Germany also owed its unification to Pakistan, because had the USSR survived there would not have been any unification. And the “14 countries that became independent after 1990 should also thank Pakistan for their freedom”.

Overall, the conference was good but there should have been more speakers from other countries, especially from neighbouring countries. For example, somebody from Saudi Arabia should have been invited to explain its role in the radicalisation of this region. We have heard enough from our own civil and military bureaucrats and journalists; now we need to hear more from others, such as Afghanistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia. International forums should essentially be about diversity of opinion and dialogue with those who differ from our opinion.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]