What happens when nearly two-thirds of the speakers – either retired or serving state functionaries and a couple of members of parliament – at an “international conference” indulge in a cacophony of triumphalism against terrorism – from the minister to the president of Azad Kashmir to the secretaries to economists?
Obviously an overdose of the same song with varying degrees of vocabulary and intonation. It becomes a club of mutual appreciation, with little space for an introspectively critical discourse.
Had Pakistan been able to capture the attention of outsiders for its unmatched achievements against terror monsters through claims and self-assertions, then it would have avoided the impending grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force ( a move led by the US and a few other major NATO countries at Paris in February) as well as the blacklisting of several Pakistani firms by the US.
Does this over-bearing self-praise help in selling Pakistan’s narrative of “from victim to victor” ? Is it enough to convince the extended audience of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign? Yes and No.
Yes because vast swathes of previously no-go-areas are now under the writ of the state. The dreaded TTP has been degraded.
Both TTP / Daesh and terrorist auxiliaries are on the run. Some 2000 Baloch militants have surrendered. An anti-suicide bombing Fatwa (decree) by 1800 plus Ulema has been secured and broadly disseminated. Executions of convicted terrorists, however controversial, have also picked up. As a whole, deaths off violence/terrorist attacks declined to 2,057 in 2017 from a whopping 7,650 in 2014 – indicating an over 70 percent improvement.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons have returned to Waziristan – albeit not without difficulties they face at the security check-posts – largely by the para-military and the army personnel.
Although the military – that literally controls the FATA regions – have positively responded to demands resonating out of the protests held to demand justice for the poor Naqeebullah, lots of people are still skeptical and the pace of returnees slowed down apparently because the federal government did not release most of the Rs.45 billion it had promised for the return and rehabilitation.
People in and out of Pakistan have also grown skeptical also because the political government put on hold the mainstreaming reforms of FATA – the once totally ungoverned space in the absence of legal-administrative writ of the state
The removal of dozens of security barriers – even in Islamabad itself – represents the renewed confidence the security apparatus now has gained following years of a bloody campaign that has consumed thousands of citizens, and security forces, with police and the army taking the heaviest toll. ( The army’s soldier to officer casualty ratio – 12 to 1 – is the highest in the world).
NACTA – despite operational constraints – has been able to garner support from a cross-section of the society and come up with some policy recommendations. But it apparently remains stymied by the ministry of interior as well as limited in access to the military security apparatus.
The government narrative remains and is taken as hollow and rhetorical in the absence of a civilian plan as to how to deal with tens of thousands of religious activists/militants belonging to two major Kashmir-focused groups i.e Lashkare Taiba and Jaishe Mohammad.
No because politicians continue to refuse mobilizing community against hate speech and the nexus between crime and religious militancy.
As long as the politicians and parliamentarians shy away from a pro-active role in countering terror and extremism, it will be difficult to change the security establishment’s way of thinking.
Little demonstrable civilian action therefore on the soft administrative measures to counter extremism. The blockade of Faizabad by a couple of thousand, the unchecked and unauthorized religious gatherings on free spaces even in Islamabad, the occasional threats and protests by radical clerics – with little push-back from officials are but a few issues that resonated on the sidelines of the conference. Something that occupies outside observers more than our own pontifications and self-praise.
A number of military-run deradicalization centres in the northwest are ostensibly transforming militants but still under the shadows of the military. Where is the civilian lead? Why haven’t provincial governments stepped forward to spearhead the process?
As one of the few foreign commentators observed, the challenge for Pakistan is how to integrate different CT mechanisms. NACTA has been able to emerge as a central coordinating body but remains beset by institutional barriers and prejudices.
Besides being hamstrung politically, NACTA administratively, seems hostage to the official narratives and less inclined to accommodate critically rational voices such as former officials including Dr.Shoaib Suddle, with a treasure trove of experience in combatting insurgencies and crime.
A British expert also cautioned the that, though Pakistan had no dearth of manpower for counter-terror operations, yet the real challenge lay in legally managing these operations and their consequences such as detainees and their trials. Low conviction rates and limited intellectual capacity represented other hiccups in the way of effective anti-terror campaign. Evidential investigation needs improvement because nailing down evidence is the most important element in going after terrorists and criminals, underlined the British expert.
So if the idea was to project collective content rhetoric then the conference was a good occasion. But if the government expected to use it as a forum for approving its CT and counter-extremism efforts, then it left a lot to be desired. Without synergy of thought among civilians and the military on the two fronts, and without prioritizing legal instruments accompanied by actions on ground all noises on achievements will fall on deaf ears.