‘The heaviest of all battles is at home’ – is exactly what the Pashtun proverb says. Unfortunately, the brief consensus reached over the past two decades to find the origins of terrorism and extremism ‘inside’ is in danger of being lost.
The country is facing a new wave of violence. As we slowly emerged from mourning the brutal beheading of Shia Hazara miners in Balochistan, the killing of five soldiers and many female social workers in separate incidents in Fata’s past over the past few days once again shook the national mood.
While the government’s response to the ordeal of the Hazara workers was disappointing in many ways, especially around the story of the prime minister’s visit to condolences with the beleaguered community, it was quick to accuse India of involvement in the incident. Prime Minister Imran Khan attributed the bizarre incident to the “bigger game” played by Indian spy agencies aimed at spreading “anarchy in the country by killing Sunnis and Shiites”.
In November 2020, the government also released documents documenting links between the Pakistan-based terrorist group and Indian intelligence agencies. This was followed by the disclosure of India’s alleged involvement in the 2014 APS Peshawar attack as well as its efforts to sabotage the CPEC. Indeed, Kulbhushan Jadhav’s arrest and his ongoing trial do add credence to some of these statements.
The Pakistani government reserves the right to expose foreign involvement in incidents of terrorism in the country, but this must not be done at the expense of a view of violent extremism that burns at home.
In fact, exposing Indian designs and fixing internal fault lines must not be mutually exclusive positions. A disproportionate focus on the former, however, creates the impression that the latter is being neglected, or an attempt to externalize the problem at worst. Apart from being optical, it also calls into question the government’s ability to understand the structural causes of violence and its capacity to deal with them.
Take deteriorating sectarianism for example. The outlawed LeJ / ASWJ-affiliated extremists and their splinter group that changed their name to ISIS continue to attack members of the Shia community. Worse, TLP extremists have also joined the bandwagon recently, using different tactics. In September 2020, the TLP and ASWJ joined hands to organize coordinated demonstrations attended by thousands of supporters in Karachi and Islamabad chanting deeply disturbing anti-Shia slogans. More than 40 cases against Shia were registered on charges of blasphemy during and after Muharram last year.
While the number of terrorist incidents that appear to have sectarian motives remains the same in 2020 as it was the previous year, the aforementioned developments and the sharp rise in sectarian hate speech should shake the authorities into action.
However, there appears to be a complete paralysis at the policy level. The choice of leadership in the interior ministry, despite many changes, has failed to generate much confidence. It appears that partisan and short-term political objectives, rather than sound analysis and policy prowess, continue to guide this decision. As a result, even though it has been half-term in office, the government has failed to attend, let alone implement a coherent internal security strategy.
The National Internal Security Policy (2018), which was adopted after extensive consultation with all stakeholders including senior PTI leaders, has been shunned. The growth of NACTA, considered a top counter terrorism / extremism authority, has been drowned. The federal cabinet’s decision to form a commission in the midst of a government term “for the implementation of the national narrative (developed by NACTA in 2017) and structural development (reinventing the wheel?) Against violent extremism and radicalization” is too little, too late and still waiting implementation.
The current situation disproportionately places the burden on fighting terrorism and extremism on the military. While this was effective in terms of dismantling organized terrorist networks and buying time to tackle structural issues, a lack of civilian leadership and coordinated efforts threaten to erode this accomplishment.
Conflicts along sectarian, ethnic, religious and territorial lines of varying intensity simmer across the country’s urban and rural landscapes. Soft components of conflict resolution – reconciliation and rehabilitation; social and political inclusion; efficient justice system; education reform; and targeted economic development, among others – is still sorely missing.
Independent security analysts have long debated the importance of soft action and intervention (as opposed to kinetic action) in addressing extremism and other structural causes of terrorism. The problems are multifaceted and rooted both in the structure of the state and in policy and in the various undercurrents of society.
The government must re-prioritize ‘fighting within the country’ as the existential challenge facing the nation, rise above partisan lines and move swiftly towards implementing agreed measures. States must not waste valuable time reinventing the wheel, duplicating efforts or simply belittling challenges.
Every life lost in violence is too many lives, and any prejudice felt in a society as diverse as ours on the basis of religion, sect, ethnicity, class or gender is too much prejudice. It’s about time we not only looked within, but finally did something about it as well.
The author is a public policy analyst based in Islamabad.
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