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Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls
Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Deadly Kashmir Suicide Bombing Ratchets up India-Pakistan Tensions
Deadly Kashmir Suicide Bombing Ratchets up India-Pakistan Tensions
An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar, December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Report 271 / Asia

Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls

Pakistan’s six-month-old counter-terrorism strategy has failed to end the operations of violent jihadi groups, while military-led measures continue to undermine the civilian government. A winning strategy will have to include structural and governance reform, both to stop jihadis exploiting the absence of rule of law and to address the root causes of extremist violence.

Executive Summary

The 16 December 2014 attack on an army-run school in Peshawar, which killed 150, mainly children, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan-TTP), was ostensibly a game changer. A week later, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government unveiled a new counter-terrorism strategy, the twenty-point National Action Plan (NAP), with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif vowing to target all terror groups without distinction. Six months later, amid continued terror attacks, the NAP looks far more like a hastily-conceived wish-list devised for public consumption during a moment of crisis than a coherent strategy. Reliance on blunt instruments and lethal force to counter terrorism risks doing more harm than good when they undermine constitutionalism, democratic governance and the rule of law and provide grist to the jihadis’ propaganda mill. A reformed and strengthened criminal justice system is pivotal to countering terror threats and containing violent extremism.

The militarisation of counter-terrorism policy puts at risk Pakistan’s evolution toward greater civilian rule, which is itself a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilise the democratic transition. While the report addresses the coercive side of a counter-terrorism policy and how to make it more efficient, without structural and governance reform, the root causes of terrorism and extremism will remain unaddressed, and violent jihadis will continue to exploit the absence of rule of law. The military’s continual undermining of civilian authority since democracy’s restoration in 2008 will remain a major challenge to meaningful and sustained reform. Yet, the political leadership also bears responsibility for failing to push back and, as a result, undermining its credibility and authority.

After inaugurating the NAP on 24 December, the Sharif government implemented two major demands of the military without delay: lifting the predecessor government’s 2008 moratorium on the death penalty; and passing on 6 January 2015 the 21st constitutional amendment, empowering special military courts to try all terrorism suspects, including civilians. Yet, the vast majority of the 176 executions since late December have been for crimes unrelated to terrorism, and the military courts weaken constitutional protections and due process. Other newly-created parallel structures, including provincial “apex committees”, enable the military to bypass representative institutions and play a more direct role in governance. Armed with new legal tools, the military has further marginalised civilian institutions in devising and implementing counter-terrorism policy.

Despite claims to the contrary, the military, which has almost complete control over national security and counter-terrorism policy, also still distinguishes between “bad” jihadi groups, those targeting the security forces, and “good” jihadi groups, those perceived to promote its strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan. Anti-India outfits such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD), the renamed version of the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), have even expanded their activities through so-called charity fronts. Military-backed Afghan insurgents, such as the Haqqani Network, have not been targeted in ongoing operations in the North Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Instead, the Haqqanis, like the LeT/JD, have been kept off Pakistan’s list of terrorist groups.

Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence of progress on many NAP targets. Groups and individuals banned in Pakistan and also blacklisted under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1267, continue to operate freely. Efforts to regulate the madrasa sector, curb hate speech and literature and block terrorist financing have been haphazard at best.

A reformed and strengthened criminal justice system could have helped to achieve NAP’s objectives. The Sharif government still has an opportunity, albeit fast shrinking, to reverse course and meaningfully overhaul counter-terrorism strategy, but this necessitates revoking major policy concessions to the military. The government should take on that challenge in order to replace an overly militarised response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counter-terrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police. Dismantling terror networks, detaining and trying jihadi leaders and foot soldiers, disrupting terror financing and ending radicalisation through hate speech and literature will require reallocating limited resources in order to strengthen the capacity of the provincial police forces. While the three basic bodies of law, the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act, need to be modernised, it is even more urgent to build police capacity to enforce them. That capacity has been gravely eroded due to the inadequacy of resources, training, internal accountability and autonomy.

An empowered, resourced police force remains the most credible tool for enforcing a sustained and successful counter-terrorism strategy. The current emphasis on revenge and retribution and the emasculation of fundamental rights and rule of law are undermining citizen confidence in the state to deliver justice, a flawed approach that also fuels grievances that benefit the violent extremists the NAP is aimed at combatting.

People shout slogans during a protest against the attack on a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in south Kashmir, in Jammu 15 February 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta
Q&A / Asia

Deadly Kashmir Suicide Bombing Ratchets up India-Pakistan Tensions

A 14 February suicide attack by Pakistan-based militants was their bloodiest strike in Indian-administered Kashmir in over three decades. In this Q&A, our Asia Program Director Laurel Miller warns that even a limited Indian retaliatory strike could spark a sharp escalation in conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours. 

What happened in the Pulwama attack and how has India responded?

A 14 February suicide car bombing claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed more than 45 security personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Pulwama district, some 30 km from the state capital Srinagar. The attack, which targeted a convoy of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPC), was the deadliest terror incident in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for over three decades. Vowing revenge and accusing Pakistan of complicity, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has warned Islamabad that support for jihadist proxies will no longer be tolerated. Threatening to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, Modi has called on the international community to take united, concrete action against terrorism and those who spread it. New Delhi has recalled its high commissioner (ambassador) from Islamabad and withdrawn Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trading status. Islamabad also withdrew its top diplomat from New Delhi, accusing India of making allegations without investigations and denying any role in the attack.

As an already-tense relationship worsens, so too do the risks of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. With Indian general elections approaching this spring and emotions running high, the BJP government is likely to give its security forces an even freer hand than usual in squashing dissent in Muslim-majority, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The resultant alienation could lead more Kashmiri youth to join the ranks of militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Is Pakistan culpable for the Pulwama attack?

Rejecting Indian allegations of culpability, Islamabad claims that it has banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is led by Masood Azhar and is included in the UN Security Council Resolution 1267 sanctions list. Alongside Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, it is one of the most important anti-India Pakistan-based jihadist groups. Pakistan formally banned Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2002 following a December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, but the group re-emerged under a changed name. Although Pakistan has taken actions against Jaish individuals responsible for internal attacks, such as on military ruler Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, the al-Qaeda linked organisation continues to operate freely – recruiting, fundraising (including through madrasa networks and charity fronts), and planning and conducting attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir. The permissive environment Pakistan has created for Jaish activities directed toward India can legitimately be seen as deliberate policy, regardless of whether specific attacks can be proved to be linked to Pakistani decision-making. 

Was Kashmiri homegrown militancy responsible for the Pulwama attack?

The 14 February suicide attacker, Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Adil Ahmad Dar (also known as Waqas Commando), was a young man from a village close to the attack site who had joined the group last year. His father claimed he had joined Jaish after Indian troops beat and humiliated him. India’s militarised response to growing local alienation and disaffection in J&K has resulted in an exponential rise in homegrown militancy and local support for the militants. The July 2016 killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a young charismatic Hizbul Mujahideen militant, accelerated these developments.

This lack of autonomy and political freedoms, combined with the heavy-handed security response, will likely lead to more violence and unrest in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Rampant rights abuses amid a climate of impunity, highlighted in the June 2018 UN report on Kashmir, and draconian laws such as the Armed Services Special Powers Act serve as recruiting tools for both Kashmiri separatist groups and Pakistani jihadist outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammed. Clearing operations by Indian security forces such as “Operation All Out”, launched in mid-2017, led to 2018 becoming the bloodiest year in J&K in a decade. Around 500 people were killed in Kashmir’s conflict-related violence, including militants, civilians and security personnel. Although more than half of those killed were militants, many non-combatants were also killed, injured or disappeared in military operations, resulting in more support by local communities for the militant cause.

How will the Pulwama attack shape New Delhi’s policy toward Indian-administered Kashmir?

Domestic outrage at the killing of more than 40 security personnel by the Kashmiri suicide bomber with admitted links to a Pakistan-based jihadist group has further vitiated already tense relations between Hindus and Muslims in India. In J&K’s Hindu-majority Jammu and elsewhere, particularly in northern Indian states, Kashmiri Muslims have been harassed and attacked. Although failing to rein in such sectarian violence could further increase support for the militants in the J&K’s Muslim-majority areas, as elections approach the BJP will want to appease the sentiments of its hardline constituency that wants to avenge the Pulwama dead.

While security sweeps and arrests of scores of alleged militant sympathisers are further exacerbating tensions within J&K, there are few political avenues to assuage Kashmiri dissent. New Delhi has exercised direct rule in J&K since the governor dissolved the state assembly in November 2018. Although Kashmiri separatists want either independence or merger with Pakistan, even moderates are alienated by the gradual erosion of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which provides for a special status of greater political autonomy for J&K and the abolition of which the BJP has strongly supported. This lack of autonomy and political freedoms, combined with the heavy-handed security response, will likely lead to more violence and unrest in J&K, which in turn will likely result in more efforts by New Delhi to forcibly suppress Kashmiri dissent.

Will Pakistan rethink support for anti-India jihadist proxies?

A Pakistani rethink on the longstanding policy of backing jihadist proxies, including Jaish, depends on a shift in its powerful military establishment’s internal and external cost-benefit analysis, which as yet appears more tactical than strategic. Since 2016, following attacks on the Pathankot military base in Indian Punjab and security personnel near J&K’s Uri town – which India attributed to Jaish – India has refused to revive its bilateral dialogue with Islamabad unless Pakistan takes decisive action against all such jihadist groups. Following the Pathankot and Uri attacks, India claimed to have launched surgical strikes on terrorist targets across the Line of Control dividing Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Though Pakistan denies that such strikes took place, there are almost weekly violations of the 2003 ceasefire line by Pakistani and Indian troops, claiming scores of lives of civilians and security personnel each year.

“We will give a befitting reply; our neighbour will not be allowed to destabilise us”, said Prime Minister Modi, giving his security forces “permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response”. While offering to cooperate with New Delhi in investigating the Pulwama attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that his country would have no choice but to “retaliate immediately” if India attacked.

Concerned about heightened tensions, the U.S. has urged Pakistan to act decisively against all terrorist groups “operating on its soil”. However, Pakistan’s strategic location and the role it could play in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table could lead the U.S. to lower its pressure. Islamabad’s closest ally, China, which has thus far blocked Indian efforts in the UN Security Council to designate Jaish leader Azhar a “global terrorist”, is also concerned about the outbreak of armed conflict between India and Pakistan. However, it is unlikely to pressure Islamabad given Beijing’s unwillingness to damage its relationship with Pakistan.

If New Delhi were to opt for even a limited military strike across the Line of Control or the international border with Pakistan, that would increase the risk of conflict spiraling rapidly between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.