Afzal Ali Shigri
THE wanton terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec 16, 2014, with its chilling images of a bloodbath perpetrated against innocent, defenceless children, left the nation devastated. Regrettably, the provincial government, instead of accepting responsibility for the breach of security, blamed the army for the lapse, while the federal government merely condemned the act and vowed to bring the terrorists to justice.
Even for a country that has suffered relentless terror attacks over the years, this time it was different. As the nation cried out for a fitting response, the government convened a multi-party conference that resulted in a comprehensive road map in the shape of a National Action Plan (NAP) to eliminate militancy. Its 20 points are essentially a statement of objectives and comprise a range of operational and administrative measures. The first can be further divided into those led by the army and those by the civilian police forces.
The army responded promptly to the Dec 16 outrage by intensifying the ongoing Zarb-i-Azb operation according to a well-thought-out strategic plan. Upon completion of one year of the operation, the army has achieved remarkable outcomes. It targeted the areas that housed the terrorists’ command structures that undertook planning and provided logistical support for acts of terrorism across the length and breadth of the country. The army operations were concentrated in the tribal belt adjacent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which immediately improved the security situation in that province as well as in others to an extent. The army also provided support to the provincial governments by sharing intelligence and even real-time actionable information in selected cases. Through the apex committees it continues to prod the reluctant governments into some action.
The fight against terrorism seems to be low on the government’s list of priorities.
Responsibility for carrying out the other portion of NAP was that of the civilian government, with the Ministry of Interior taking the lead in addressing the full spectrum of terrorism. It was expected that a comprehensive strategic plan by the federal government would have an inbuilt monitoring mechanism, but that apparently is not the case. However, only disjointed actions — generally reactive in nature — have followed, characterised by a lack of inter-agency coordination and poor planning marked only by futile meetings. The terrorist threat remains very real despite the destruction of their logistical support and command structures, even though the incidence of terrorism has come down on the whole. Innocent citizens are still targeted and the response is routine condemnatory platitudes, compensation for victims’ families, registration of cases and sadly comical warnings to the perpetrators of these atrocities. There is no visible, organised effort on the part of the governments to eliminate the terrorist groups or their affiliates on a long-term basis.
Apathy characterises the approach to this important challenge. This is reflected in the non-release of funds to the National Counter Terrorism Authority that was meant to be the key agency to collate intelligence for coordinated action by all the forces. Moreover, instead of a professional, a retired civil servant has been posted as its head. No dedicated counterterrorism force has been established as envisaged in NAP. The provincial police — essentially on their own initiative — have taken action, producing sometimes commendable results. It is indeed a miracle that amidst this confusion, in the absence of political will or ownership by the civilian government, the police forces continue to confront and fight the terrorists against heavy odds, amidst relentless casualties and lack of resources.
The fight against terrorism seems to be low on the government’s list of priorities. Along with the provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory, it has for all intents and purposes decided to leave the counteroffensive to the army, while plugging in the gaps, wherever possible, by inducting the Rangers. The latter are practically an extension of the army with nominal control by the civilian government. Intermittently, the provinces create small, fancy ‘specialised’ units. These are showcased as an answer to terrorism of a magnitude that poses an existential threat to the state. Even these units, however, end up providing protection to VIPs or function outside the regular command structure, remaining directly responsible to a few powerful political personalities.
It must be said most emphatically that only administrative measures and reforms can permanently disable the terror structures. Half-hearted, scattered actions are not enough. No effective action has been taken to control hate literature, and proscribed organisations are circumventing the bans on them by rebranding themselves and operating openly. Some are functioning as humanitarian NGOs, while a few are active as political parties. Even the decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty has scarcely impacted those convicted of acts of terrorism. There is neither any dedicated agency nor programme for de-radicalisation or, for that matter, any move towards madressah reforms, which constitute NAP’s most important long-term objectives.
It must also be pointed out that the police, the agency on the front line of the anti-terrorism fight, do not even figure in NAP’s 20 points. Presumably, they are included in the section on the reform of the criminal justice system, but then, there is no sign that this issue is being addressed either. The police are required to fight terrorism without adequate resources. To make matters worse, without any exception, there is continuous political interference in policing within every province. All of this results in a generally ill-equipped police force, confronted by a collapsing infrastructure and led by a weakened leadership.
NAP should have been implemented on all counts with greater commitment and led by a team of professionals directly under the country’s chief executive. The Ministry of Interior officers are neither trained nor experienced enough to plan and execute such a strategy. Comprehensively restoring order and dismantling the infrastructure of terror will constitute the closing chapter in a long and vicious battle that will now take place on the streets of Pakistani cities, a fight that will be spearheaded by the civilian police. The conclusion of Zarb-i-Azb will bring new challenges, but further delays in implementation cannot be afforded. Without serious steps, a peaceful Pakistan will remain an elusive dream.
The writer is a former inspector general of the police, Sindh.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2015