Is Pakistan safer?

Pakistan's future lies in geo-economics, not geo-strategy

Is Pakistan safer?
One year later, it seems that the dastardly attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar finally provided the trigger that the country had badly needed all these years to forcefully take on all those who had been challenging the writ of the state of Pakistan. It also brought about a visible change in the state’s views on counter-terrorism and extremism. The massacre galvanized the civilian and military leadership into reviewing the security paradigm that had been pursued until then. The result was Prime Minister’s 20-point counter-terrorism program – the National Action Plan (NAP).

This convergence became visible at the APS commemoration event, where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif were both present, along with key members of the federal cabinet, PTI chief Imran Khan, provincial chief ministers and several foreign dignitaries.

The NAP – effectively the country’s first formal counter-terror framework – included the creation of speedy trial military courts, measures to end all private militias, activation and reinforcement of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), rigorous enforcement of existing laws against sectarian hate speech, extremism, minority rights and immediate madrassa reforms. These steps became part of the 21stAmendment to the Constitution, passed unanimously by the parliament on January 6, 2015.

The Peshawar attack generated an unprecedented momentum. After a very long time, Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar and opposition legislators such as Aitzaz Ahsan began a conversation that centered on critical themes like peace through rule of law, respect for diversity, rejection of hate speech and respect for others through a rights-based narrative embedded in the constitution.

As a consequence, by November this year, the Interior Ministry sealed 102 seminaries for fanning extremism or sponsoring terrorism. It also froze over Rs 1 billion worth of funds sitting in 126 accounts of proscribed militant groups. As many as 7,000 cases were filed against hate speech, 6,855 suspects were arrested, and about 1,482 were convicted of hatemongering on loudspeakers.

The army set up 11 military courts, which have heard 142 cases so far, of which 55 were decided, 31 militants were convicted, and 87 cases are in process. The lifting of a moratorium on death penalty – although a questionable knee-jerk reaction – led to nearly 300 executions.
Pakistan's leverage is in its geography, not in outdated tactics involving non-state actors

The elimination of Malik Ishaq and several others in “police encounters” also seemed to stem from the NAP.The Securities Exchange Commission of Pakistan cancelled licenses of several international NGOs and the government asked them all to apply for fresh registration with the Interior Ministry.

Regardless of the numbers of fatalities being released by the ISPR, the Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in June 2014 has certainly considerably changed the militancy landscape.

“One of the biggest achievements of the plan was the physical operations in FATA, which allowed the army to establish the government’s writ in the thus far ‘ungoverned’ and ‘no-go’ areas,” says Gen Asim Bajwa, the ISPR chief.

Disruption, degradation, and dismantling of the physical infrastructure in the mountains of Waziristan and Khyber forced them to take refuge across the Durand Line. A number of Pakistani Taliban leaders, such as Shahidullah Shahid and Saeed Khan Orakzai, were killed in US drone strikes in eastern Afghanistan. Most of them are reportedly operating out of safe havens in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces.

Nationwide incidents of terrorism, which had peaked at 2,061 in 2010 are down to 1,109, showing a little over 50 percent reduction, according to NACTA figures. Open-source data on violence being compiled by the Center for Research and Security Studies also corroborates official claims about the decline in terror incidents.

But have the militants been defeated?  Certainly not, if our yardstick is the religious ideology that the terrorists use to justify their violent actions. Neither should the government make such claims.

It is difficult to defeat an ideology, former UK army chief General David Richards had once said. We should however try to deny it the socio-political space through good governance. And herein lies the challenge for Pakistani leaders. As long as there are even a handful of such terrorists they can always execute attacks any time.

NAP has also created an unprecedented space for a more critical and bolder discourse on some fundamental issues. Recent observations by the Supreme Court in blasphemy related cases is a case in point. While the court, in a courageous move, upheld the death sentence awarded to Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, it also supported calls for reforming the country’s blasphemy laws, which it said were often misused for personal motives.

The pace of implementation of the NAP, however, remains a continuous subject of discord between the civilian government and the military high command. They led to what seemed like a spat following a corps commanders’ conference where the military expressed reservations about the implementation of the plan.

There are major capacity issues in the civilian governance structures. It was only after Gen Raheel Sharif’s reservations in this regard, for instance, that the government moved to constitute a National Terrorists Financing Investigation Cell (NTFIC) under the joint vigil of the FIA, State Bank, FBR and intelligence agencies in November.

Only because of these reservations, Gen Sharif even decided to sit in a meeting that the government had convened to discuss the registration and accountability of seminaries with representatives of various religious education boards.

The political and financial way forward demands a strategic rethink, translated into some bold decisions. Off-setting the impact of the war on terror and the TTP-led terrorism is not going to be easy. But damage control is certainly possible. Mere administrative measures, however, will not suffice. The national leadership will have to prioritize rehabilitation and development of the tribal areas and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.Police and prosecution will have to be revamped through a comprehensive reform of the Criminal Procedures Code.

The Heart of Asia conference at Islamabad on December 9 provided Pakistan with a golden opportunity to step up its counter-terrorism campaign, and also play a central role in stabilizing Afghanistan – both in terms of political support and leveraging its sway with the Afghan Taliban to create stability. But it also offered an opportunity to reset the contours of our foreign policy. If we are to pursue our larger dream of sustainable peace and stability in the region, normalizing relationships and improving trade with our neighbors is a paramount prerequisite. It is equally important to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Pakistan could be safer in 2016 and beyond only if it uses geo-economics as its survival tool, instead of making geo-strategic arguments. Its tremendous leverage lies in its geography and not in outdated tactics centred on non-state actors. This will also work as a guarantee for China’s continued engagement with Pakistan. It must seize the Chinese investment and cooperation as a God-sent opportunity by removing its administrative capacity gaps and through rigorous rule of law.