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January 2, 2016

What does 2016 bring?


January 2, 2016

After years of endless violence, the tide finally turned in Pakistan in 2015 as terrorist incidents declined by 34 percent, a five-year low. Notwithstanding some security lapses, security forces managed to thwart an APS-like security debacle this year. Though violence and militancy has not disappeared completely, the worst seems to be over.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, 2015 saw a major visible decrease in civilian causalities in Pakistan, which dropped to 3,615 from last year’s 5,496. Similarly, a considerable reduction in sectarian violence was also witnessed with 47 incidents being reported this year compared to 91 incidents recorded last year.

Six major developments account for the dramatic decrease in violence in 2015. First, the disintegration and factionalisation of the Pakistani Taliban. Second, the restoration of the state’s writ across the country through the elimination of ‘no-go’ areas and terrorist sanctuaries. Third, the decline in US drone strikes in the tribal areas. Fourth, restricting space for Taliban sympathisers after the Peshawar school massacre in 2014. Fifth, the ownership of the fight against terrorism by the civil and military leadership under the National Action Plan. And lastly, the killing of key militant leaders such as Malik Ishaq, Haroon Bhatti and Usman Saifullah Kurd.

Despite a decrease in militant violence in 2015, the success against terrorism is tactical and fragile. To transform these tactical gains into sustainable peace in 2016, the focus of our counterterrorism policy has to go beyond operational responses. In order to do that, Pakistan will have to move away from a securitised counter-terrorism policy. A securitised approach only addresses the tangible and visible manifestations of extremism and terrorism while overlooking its intangible and invisible aspects. As a result, the end goals are moderated to end violence, restoring state writ in areas dominated by militants and criminalising hate speech. The intangible aspects of radicalisation and extremism which relate to the ‘war of ideologies’ largely remain unaddressed.

In other words, Pakistan will have to balance the hard (military) and soft (non-military) facets of its counter-terrorism framework. Military operations like Zarb-e-Azb, Khyber-I and corresponding intelligence-based operations have overpowered the militant network destroying their infrastructure and diminishing their ability to carry out large-scale attacks. However, the focus should now turn from an enemy-centric approach geared towards disruption, degradation and destruction of the adversary towards a population-centric approach aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people living in the conflicted areas.

The developments in the post-9/11 era resulted in a paradigm shift in the tribal areas of Pakistan in the socio-political, demographic and economic spheres. Old instruments of policy intended to deal with Fata have now become redundant. The legitimate grievances of the people of Fata must be addressed through the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure and the honourable repatriation of the uprooted families to their native areas. If this situation is not dealt with, finding an answer to Fata’s political and constitutional status will result in inevitable violence in one form or another.

The slow progress on madressah reforms – an important point under NAP – is another challenge the government will have to grapple with in 2016. So far, the government has shied away from the issue on one pretext or the other. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the fact remains that scrutiny of madressahs and their activities remains foggy at best. Reforming madressahs into centres of excellence and learning which promote moderation and tolerance of other faiths is critical for combating religious extremism in Pakistan.

Another area that Pakistan neglected to work on in 2015 was the construction of counter-narratives against extremism. The militant narrative dominates the propaganda space, both online and offline in Pakistan. The extremist message gains traction because it is couched in religious rhetoric and feeds on popular notions of pan-Islamism and anti-imperialism (specifically anti-Americanism). Anything presented in religious colours generates immediate public sympathy. On the contrary, Pakistan’s confused national discourse has hindered efforts to come up with an articulate counter-extremism narrative.

Additionally, despite pronouncements under NAP to not differentiate between the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, certain militant factions continue to function in Punjab without facing any punitive actions from the state and security agencies. In the long run, this selective counterterrorism approach will neutralise the gains made against internal militancy and terrorism.

A case in point is the delay in launching a military operation in North Waziristan. The delay proved costly as it allowed the Pakistani Taliban evicted from South Waziristan to regroup and reorganise in North Waziristan under the umbrella of the so-called ‘good’ Taliban, meaning the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group and the Haqqani Network. The larger point is that militants cannot be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’; such demarcation is imaginary and unreal. The space afforded to the so-called ‘good’ militants will eventually allow ‘bad’ militants to re-emerge.

Linked to the above-mentioned factor is Pakistan’s role in helping Kabul reach a political settlement in 2016 with the Afghan Taliban. The peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict is the key to peace and stability in Pakistan. As long as Pakistan does not dismantle hideouts of the Afghan Taliban from its soil, expecting the latter to move against sanctuaries of the Pakistani Taliban across the Durand Line is nothing short of wishful thinking.

Another gaping hole which must be addressed in 2016 is the failure to revive the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta). Despite the initial enthusiasm shown by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, efforts to turn Nacta into a functional organisation have not been successful. Similarly, the fate of the much-needed reforms in the police and various intelligence agencies has been no different. The government will have to fast track reforms to overcome institutional gaps in our counterterrorism responses.

In conclusion, given the fluid and evolving nature of the terrorist threat our country faces, we cannot afford to lower our guard against extremism and terrorism. As long as dichotomies exist in Pakistan’s national narrative and the contradictions and inconsistencies in national counter-terrorism strategies are not removed, overcoming the challenges of extremism and militancy will remain a pipe dream.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Email: [email protected]



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