Easier said than done

Easier said than done
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is burning the midnight oil to cobble a political consensus on tackling the existential threat to Pakistan from radical “Islamic” terrorism. His 20-point National Action Plan includes a restoration of the death penalty, establishment of special military courts, banning armed non-state actors and front-affiliates, activating National Counter Terrorism Authority, putting down sectarian and hate-preaching groups, forming a special anti-terrorism armed force, registering and regulating madrasahs, stopping the media from glorifying or advertising terrorists, and so on. He is heading a committee to oversee 15 sub-committees that have been tasked to flesh out appropriate measures on a fast-track basis. But all this is easier said than done.

The proposal to set up military courts by amending the constitution has failed to muster a consensus. Most political parties, civil society groups and media organs are wary of military courts for civilians because such courts have been misused in the past to harass and put down political and media opponents. Indeed, the Supreme Court is already on record for striking down such courts in 2009. The argument is that the existing Anti-Terrorist Courts should be made effective by introducing proper witness and judge-protection programs and strengthening the prosecution branch of government rather than militarizing the courts. The government is now thinking of amending the Army Act 1952 to enable the military to court martial “jet black” terrorists involved in bombings and attacks on security forces. Even if this amendment is acceptable to the political parties and ensures protection of politicians, academics, journalists and such like from its ambit, it will be challenged by the Bar Associations and not find willing takers in the higher judiciary that has negatively opined on it in the past.

The objective of ending non-state radical Islamic actors will pose the biggest challenge. Some of them, like the Lashkar e Tayba, Jaish e Mohammd and Harkatul Majahideen, are integral elements of the military’s National Security Doctrine that has manufactured domestic proxies for leveraging policy against India and Afghanistan. The last time the military tried to put a lid on some of them – in 2003 when these jihadi attacked the parliaments in Srinager and New Delhi and provoked India to threaten war – some of them revolted and tried to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf while others set up bases in Waziristan and eventually joined forces with the Pastun Taliban as the Punjabi Taliban. A few, like Lashkar e Jhangvi, joined Al-Qaeda to launch a pogrom against Shi”ites (now they are also training fighters for IS in the Middle-East). Unfortunately, the civil-military leadership still doesn’t seem to have the will or ability to stamp them out through a radical paradigm-changing strategy.

Madrasah reform and regulation policies have been tried before under the Musharraf regime and failed to deliver. The five Madari Boards of the Deobandis, Brelhvis, Ahle Hadees, Shias and Jamaat i Islami will neither agree on a uniform religious curriculum nor allow the government to monitor its content.

The proposal to breathe life into NACTA is also likely to face serious difficulties. One of its core functions is to collate and analyse intelligence data from across the country’s various intelligence and police organisations. But police departments like Special Branch, CID, CIA, CTD, and federal civilian ones like FIA, IB, ANF, etc, guard their turf jealously and rarely share Intel data with one another, while the military ones like the ISI and MI don’t trust the civilians at all and will resist encroachments on their domain. That is why, nine months after Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, vowed to activate NACTA along with a civil-military anti-terrorism policy plan, there is nothing to show for it on the ground. Nor has the revamped Cabinet Committee on Defense formulating National Security Policy, of which anti-terrorist policy is a core issue, taken off.

The courts, especially the lower ones, are also going to pose problems. These are largely in the hands of conservative judges who are marked by religious passion more than the law. Their track record shows that wont give stiff sentences to hate preachers and violent sectarian elements, partly because they agree with them and partly because they fear them. Much the same obstacles will be posed by the “due process” provisions of the higher courts because the police prosecutors and investigators are ill-trained and unmotivated. Without a far-reaching process of reform and re-education, the judiciary is not equipped to stamp out religious terrorism. But even a modern-day reformer like ex-CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry didn’t take this route.

Under the circumstances, Nawaz Sharif must recognize and understand the administrative and the religio-political dimensions of terrorism before trying to come to grips with it. Putting the administrative cart (military courts, executions, etc) before the political horse (religion-inspired extremist narrative) will not yield too much fruit. The nature of religious and socio-political discourse in Pakistan that feeds the terrorist and jihadi network must be changed. The idea of Pakistan cannot survive without reforming this discourse-narrative.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.