Does Pakistan have a civilian strategy? – by Mehlaqa Samdani

Source:  AfPak Foreing Policy, JULY 9, 2010

As the Pakistani government tries to shape the future in Afghanistan by facilitating talks between the Haqqani network and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, its own citizens continue to bear the brunt of terrorist violence. This morning’s devastating attack on a local government office in Mohmand, which killed around 50 people, was reportedly aimed “directly at the civilian authorities who are supposed to be helping ordinary people resist the Taliban.” It comes just weeks after two brutal attacks in Lahore.

Mass protests around the country and demands for resignation of top government officials led the government to call a national conference with all political groups to develop a consensus against terrorism. While deemed a welcome step by some, it is unclear what the conference can actually achieve given that the two main political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, continue tobicker and blame each other for failing to curb militancy and share valuable intelligence in a timely manner.

In addition, the conference is not likely to be attended by Pakistan’s military and intelligence elite — not to mention any actual militants — who are the main architects of Pakistan’s anti-terror policies but who continue to be selective in their pursuit of militant groups. Thus, even a unanimous declaration by every political party in Pakistan condemning terrorism is unlikely to have much of an impact.

Overall, successive Pakistani governments have failed to address the root causes of militancy in Pakistan, which include the government’s patronage of various sectarian organizations to consolidate internal political advantage, state sponsorship of militant groups to advance foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and India, and the careful cultivation of militant minds and infrastructure to achieve these goals. All this has resulted in pervasive intolerance and a culture of violence in the country — Pakistan’s national proclivity, it seems, is to resolve domestic and international disputes through violence.

Given that the Pakistani state has been unable to thwart radicalism and at times been directly complicit in promoting it, the responsibility for promoting non-violent solutions to militancy falls on Pakistani civil society groups. Over the past few years, Pakistan’s civil society has mobilized effectively around various political and humanitarian causes and compelled the political and military establishment to act when the establishment has failed to do so. These include the restoration of the chief justice, the resignation of Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, and the annulment of the national reconciliation ordinance, to mention a few.

A coalition of leading human rights groups, media outlets and peace-building actors in Pakistan should now come together to develop a zero-tolerance policy towards intolerance. Ahead of this national conference, civil society actors should first demand the development of a civilian-led strategy that defines the government’s approach to the various militant groups operating around the country. It needs to be clearly stated which of these groups the government deems dialogue-worthy and which need to be banned. The strategy should also outline steps to bolster Pakistan’s law enforcement capacity to limit the space available to militants to operate with impunity.

As long as the military is in charge, distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban will continue to be made and the latter will be targeted through military campaigns, which cause destruction and displacement of thousands of people.

In the aftermath of the Data Darbar bombing in Lahore several weeks ago, the government decided to ‘activate’ the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), a civilian body established last year to develop a strategy to combat militancy and coordinate counterterrorism measures. While it had the financial backing of the European Union, bureaucratic bottlenecks prevented the agency from hiring quality personnel to devise such a strategy. Civil society actors should also urge the government to provide NACTA the institutional support necessary for it to be effective and ensure that military and intelligence officials are accountable to it.

In addition to demanding a civilian-led strategy civil society actors should focus on three critical areas.

Accountability. Government officials who are known to have links with banned terrorist organizations should be dismissed immediately. Rana Sanaullah, Punjab’s law minister who earlier this year campaigned with leaders of the banned sectarian organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, should be pressured to resign so as to deter future political patronage of these groups. The (SSP), an extremist Sunni militant organization which is known to have close links with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, has been responsible for numerous sectarian killings since it was formed in 1985. It was also implicated in the murderous rampage against Christians in the town of Gojra last year.

Attitude shift. Militant mindsets cultivated in the 1980s to wage ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, Kashmir and inside Pakistan against minority sects led to pervasive intolerance and ready recruits for militant causes. Civil society groups should call for the introduction of peace education programs in national curricula; facilitate inter-faith and intra-sectarian dialogues; counter militant propaganda through community radios and media outlets; and conduct peace-building workshops that bring antagonistic groups together.

A renowned human rights activist in Pakistan I.A. Rehman put it best:

The roots of terrorism in Pakistan are indigenous; they lie in the enormous work the state has done, by its acts of omission and commission, to eradicate the ideas of liberal Islam…and leaving the entire area of intra-religious discourse open… to utterly conservative…exploiters of the faithful’s vaguely understood belief. Pakistan will not be safe from terrorists’ depredations unless a crash program to build a tolerant, pluralist society is seriously executed.

Ending discrimination. Building resilient communities is critical but not sufficient to ending intolerance. Civil society organizations need to mobilize and collectively demand changes to institutionalized discrimination against religious and sectarian minorities such as Christians, Ahmadis, and other minorities and seek to repeal discriminatory laws in the constitution.

Until Pakistani civil society addresses the structural and societal causes of militancy in Pakistan, we will continue to suffer the consequences — militants will continue to attack civilians.

Mehlaqa Samdani is an adjunct fellow with the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.