Saturday, February 18, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 18, 2017

Head in the sand If critics previously have had reservations about Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s steering the fight against terrorism, they now have another target. Minister of State for Interior Baleeghur Rehman has made two forays into the Senate to brief the house regarding the flurry of terrorist attacks recently (seven incidents in five days) that have taken a horrendous toll of life and limb. The first occasion was an open session, in which the worthy minister came in for some stick from the Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani for relying almost exclusively on media reports. In the second on February 17, an in-camera session in view of possible sensitive information to be shared with the senators, the minister reportedly fared no better. Especially on the question of the presence of Daesh or Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan, the minister failed to either confirm or deny the fact. This waffling may or may not be considered an improvement on his senior minister’s outright rejection of any such presence, but it defies logic, sense and the known facts. Media reportage and information gleaned from US sources engaged in Afghanistan has long established the presence of IS on Pakistani soil, not in the form of its cadres and fighters journeying from their bases in Iraq and Syria, but by the convenient expedient of local terrorist groups declaring their affiliation to IS. In Afghanistan, the US commander has testified to Congress that the bulk of the IS fighters in the country are drawn from the ranks of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which fled to Afghanistan after Operation Zarb-e-Azb denied them their bases in FATA. The minister of state so failed to satisfy the senators that the chairman was forced to ask him to come better prepared for another in-camera briefing to the house. In the meantime, in a parallel development to what happened after the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar massacre in December 2014, a ‘swift’ response has been seen to the spate of terrorist attacks all over the country, netting some 100 ‘terrorists’ killed in ‘encounters’ based on intelligence tip-offs. While this is being welcomed across the board in the light of the horrendous casualties in the recent terrorism incidents, more perceptive observers have concerns regarding the precipitate nature of the operations as well as their transparency and credibility. How is it, for example, that all these terrorists all over the country have ‘suddenly’ been identified and ‘dealt with’ by the military, Rangers and civilian law enforcement agencies? Why were they not pointed out and acted against earlier? Surely the time lapse between the terrorist attacks and the launch of the countrywide crackdown is too short to simply swallow the ‘intelligence tip-offs’ explanation. And if they were known before all this carnage, why were the security forces ‘asleep’ in this regard? Second, with the exception of a few identified as killed in Karachi and Quetta, scant details are available about the rest of those killed in different parts of the country or their affiliations. This raises troubling questions about the transparency, and therefore credibility, of this sudden rash of killings. In principle one cannot quibble with COAS General Bajwa’s ordering the crackdown, but there is a need to ensure that officials down the line do not become trigger-happy simply to please their superiors with body counts, even if the Sehwan meeting between top civilian and military leaders ordered ‘shoot on sight’ for terrorists. No state can afford to retaliate in a spirit of primitive revenge instead of retaining the moral high ground by adhering to its norms of lawful actions even against enemies of the state. In the climate obtaining after the APS incident, counterinsurgency took a big leap forward, but the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) agreed with consensus between the political parties (government and opposition) and the military, has faltered. To some extent, the difficulties in its implementation and effectiveness are understandable. In contrast to the operation in FATA, which yielded definite targets for the military’s indubitable superior firepower, counterterrorism all over the country is a relatively slow, painstaking, intelligence-led, essentially police operation (even if the military or paramilitary carries it out). Unfortunately, the NAP continues to suffer from defects in structure, coordination, and therefore effectiveness. There is still no central umbrella coordinating centre with which all intelligence agencies, civilian and military, can confidently share information to be fed into a centralised data base, all this being a sine qua non for effective counterterrorism. In the absence of these necessary arrangements, the effort remains ad hoc, scattered, and liable to be more reactive (as is in evidence now) than proactive. The last is critical if the initiative is to be wrested from asymmetrical warriors who can rely on patience and the fact that not every potential target in the country can be protected. Only if they are hit consistently and persistently will the terrorists be pushed onto the back foot, a necessary condition for their eventual elimination through a protracted campaign. And for that, denial, a head in the sand stance, and unwillingness to grasp the nettle firmly with the necessary structure and other steps in place will have to go.

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