IN a recent interview with the New York Times, Imran Khan discussed the reasons why the number of terror attacks in the country had decreased. “When the Americans were pushing Pakistan to do more,” he said, “the country was heading toward a frenzy of fanaticism. But now the fanaticism has gone out of it, because the Americans have left Afghanistan mostly, and it’s no longer seen as Pakistan fighting the American war.” In other words, there are fewer attacks in Pakistan because there are fewer Americans in Afghanistan. Hmmm.
Rod Nordland, the interviewer, hinted that Khan acknowledged that military operations ongoing since 2014 may also have something to do with the improved security situation. But Khan did not concede in his interview — or at least in the sections that made it into print — that military action was delayed while he and other political stakeholders, including the current government, called for peace talks with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other violent extremist groups. Most of Khan’s comments were US-focused, including arguments to the effect that the US footprint in Afghanistan and drone strikes were the key drivers of anti-Americanism in the region.
Perhaps Khan’s comments in the interview seem skewed because he spoke to an American newspaper that emphasises those statements that American readers would be most interested in hearing. But it’s still important to set the record straight and ensure that we get the narrative on counterterrorism right. Pakistan has suffered immensely because it got the narratives around violent extremism wrong — let’s not repeat that mistake.
Terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2015 have reduced because of Zarb-i-Azb and other military and paramilitary operations ongoing in Fata, along with parallel counterterrorism initiatives across the country, including all major cities. They have reduced because the Pakistan military finally ‘did more’, launching a major operation in North Waziristan, the largest militant sanctuary in the region, and the backbone of terrorist groups’ networks and operations. They have also reduced because public opinion, after almost a decade of carnage, supports the military action and the government’s counterterrorism strategy.
This consensus has come at the cost of democratic gains, human rights, media freedoms, judicial independence, and transparency. Many political parties and media channels have been coerced and co-opted, and used to help build the long-elusive consensus. Liberals have shelved concerns with human rights and due process to celebrate the efficacy of military courts and police ‘encounters’. Patriotism has been whipped up by reinforcing old prejudices against our enemy to the east.
But the resulting consensus remains fragile. While certain sections of society support the military crackdown and are more vocally opposed to violent extremism, others flock to join the ranks of extremist groups. Our university students self-radicalise and murder civil society activists. Mosque loudspeakers are used to broadcast blasphemy allegations against the most vulnerable and incite mob violence. Religious minorities are systemically excluded, including by the legal fraternity meant to secure their basic rights. Sectarian sentiment is starting to overshadow the coherence of citizenship. The incidence of terrorism may be waning, but extremism is soaring, and that too at unprecedented heights.
And this is why we cannot risk muddling our narratives about counterterrorism. No doubt, US foreign policy in the region for over three decades has contributed to the rise and resilience of militant groups. And no doubt, US drone strikes have been counterproductive, not to mention extrajudicial. But the majority of security challenges Pakistan faces — and will continue to face — are homemade, and come in the form of outdated security policies with an overreliance on asymmetric warfare, a weak criminal justice system, discrimi-natory legislation, hate-inciting school curriculums, politicised policing, and more.
We cannot afford to become complacent about the threats from terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. The “frenzy of fanaticism”, as Khan put it, has far from subsided, as the horrifying incident in Jhelum over the weekend showed. Purely in a security context, the leadership of the TTP remains at large, cross-border militancy poses a mounting threat, and transnational groups like Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the militant Islamic State group are recruiting in our towns and cities. To pre-empt another tragic decade, we need to start talking about more than military operations.
The National Action Plan provided an outline for a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, encompassing everything from stemming terrorism financing, stifling hate speech and revising school curriculum. Pakistan’s war against violent extremism will not be won in the battlefields, but in classrooms, madressahs, mosques, the offices of bureaucrats and at police stations. Rather than hypothesise about great games and distant superpowers, our political leaders need to focus on pushing through the policies and reforms that will help counter extremism in the long run.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2015