Monday, February 20, 2017

Business Recorder Column Feb 20, 2017

Return of the terrorist Rashed Rahman The rash of terrorist attacks in recent days throughout the country, shocking and tragic as it is, should not have come as a surprise. Informed observers (including this writer) had been warning that the counterinsurgency successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb should not lull us into complacency or illusions of having eliminated terrorism root and branch. Operation Zarb-e-Azb hit the terrorists of all hues, descriptions and origins in FATA hard, as they deserved, in the aftermath of the Army Public School Peshawar massacre in December 2014. Unable to withstand the overwhelmingly superior firepower of the army and air force, the terrorists retreated across the border into Afghanistan, to live to fight another day. Reports over the last two years have indicated that ‘our boys’, the Haqqani network, are hosting Mulla Fazlullah, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and sundry other of its offshoots and affiliated groups across the border on Afghan soil. It was inevitable, and forecast, that the ‘exported’ terrorists would regroup out of the reach of Pakistan in Afghanistan, whose border provinces are tenuously, if at all, in the control of Kabul. From there, they would launch both infiltration and activation of sleeper cells for terrorism throughout Pakistan to mount the only feasible riposte to the military’s undoubted success in winkling them out of FATA. The ‘blowback’ has clearly arrived. What has been the response of the civilian elected governments, federal and provincial, as well as the military and security services? A sudden crackdown countrywide that has netted dozens of alleged terrorists killed and hundreds arrested. Barring a few, not even the names or affiliations of those killed or arrested are available. This lack of transparency has cast doubts on the knee-jerk response that has suddenly discovered the presence of actual or alleged terrorists through the length and breadth of the land. Arguably, this information could not have been collected in the short time span between the attacks and the crackdown. Logically, that implies these names and networks’ existence was already known, or at least some if not all were on lists of suspects. Why were they not acted against before this flurry of attacks? That is a question that goes to the heart of the flaw in the counterterrorism effort: there is little of any proactive strategy, and everything falls largely into the category of reactive. If this conclusion is correct despite the statistics regarding counterterrorism operations and their results suddenly being spewed out in greater quantities than ever to justify past performance, it returns us to the flaws in our counterterrorism response. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are two different kettles of fish, although sometimes their boundaries blur. The former is largely a military operation (albeit reliant on intelligence) against ‘visible’ armed insurgents, while the latter is essentially an intelligence-led policing operation against ‘invisible’ underground networks organised as cells. The methods therefore, that serve counterinsurgency cannot be transferred wholesale to the different requirements of counterterrorism. The unfortunate failure to fully and effectively implement the consensus 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) has given the terrorists rocked back on their heels by Operation Zarb-e-Azb but not entirely eliminated, the space and time to regroup and come back with a bang (pun unintended) in the form of countrywide terrorism. While the countrywide crackdown is necessary and welcome, there are reservations and questions about its seemingly hasty and precipitate nature. Either time will reveal that some of the targets of the crackdown did not deserve the summary treatment from the barrel of a gun or that they did, thereby exposing the dereliction of counterterrorism duty brought on by triumphalism, complacency, inertia and lack of focus on the follow up to Operation Zarb-e-Azb. There is talk about the problems not only of securing the country’s western border against infiltration and attacks by the terrorists, but also securing inter-provincial boundaries against similar internal infiltration. The Sindh government, having obtained some cooperation in the past from the Balochistan government in this regard, now wants that cooperation beefed up in the light of reports that the Sehwan bomber/s arrived from Balochistan. Punjab, by now infamous for the sanctuaries of terrorists of all hues in the south of its domain, is also reflecting on measures to check such infiltration from the other provinces. It has a bigger problem since Punjab has provincial boundaries with all three of the other provinces (and even Azad Kashmir and by extrapolation Gilgit-Baltistan, both of which are also seeing signs of the emergence of terrorist activity). This inter-provincial and Centre-provinces coordination can only be effective under one roof, one centralised counterterrorism organisation with a centralised database that brings together intelligence from all sources, civilian and military, and coordinates actions by, and amongst, the Centre and the provinces. The above logic is clear, but the necessary political clarity and will so far seem conspicuous by their absence. If Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has successfully killed this role envisaged for the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) by subordinating it to his ministry, so be it. That still does not absolve the state of the responsibility of replacing the toothless NACTA by an overarching, effective counterterrorism centre. Once again, in the wake of the recent spate of terrorist attacks, the government is bending its back to get agreement across the political class on a revival of military courts. Last time this precipitate expedient, despite reservations about its efficacy, constitutionality and due process concerns, was rushed through. Mercifully it was tempered by retaining judicial review of the military courts’ verdicts and a sunset clause of two years, which has now expired. The results of the two years of military courts should serve as a cautionary tale. Very few, if any, of the military courts’ verdicts have passed muster on appeal to the courts. Of course what ‘sold’ the idea of the military courts last time round was the glaring inadequacies and ineffectiveness of our judicial system to tackle ordinary cases, let alone the extraordinary burdens of terrorism ones. The hope that the two years tenure of the military courts would give room for judicial reforms by the government proved a mirage. Even if the military courts are revived, although consensus this time round may be more difficult, the necessary judicial reforms remain uncertain. At the very least then, the existing civilian courts and the honourable judges who preside over them should exercise their minds and use their discretion before releasing on bail terrorism accused who may pose a danger to state and society. Knee-jerk responses, non-transparent, trigger-happy crackdowns after every round of terrorist attacks will no longer be enough. The state, civilian and military authorities, federal and provincial governments need to forge a common strategy, pool their resources, knowledge and expertise in a commonly devised central counterterrorism structure, and then pull out all the stops to root out the terrorist problem of long gestation. As to shifting the blame on Afghanistan for not ‘acting’ against the terrorists on its soil, be careful what you wish for since this is a demand that could come back to bite us in the context of the Afghan Taliban ‘terrorists’ we have been harbouring on our soil since 2001.

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