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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
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.

Commentary / Asia

Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy

The new government of Imran Khan is repressing opposition voices and yielding to parties propagating sectarianism. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to help Pakistan abide by its international commitments and keep supporting democratic governance.

On 30 October 2018, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Masih (also known as Aasia Bibi) on blasphemy charges, a hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent demonstrations countrywide demanding the verdict’s reversal. The protests ended after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government offered immunity to Labaik’s leadership and violent activists and permitted the movement to submit a review petition calling on the court to reinstate Bibi’s death penalty. The government’s actions appeared to relent to a group that propagates sectarian hatred and threatens the lives of religious and other minorities. Meanwhile, the military-sponsored “mainstreaming” of anti-India jihadists (notably the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which permits such groups to rebrand and enter politics without renouncing militancy, risks further fuelling intolerance and sectarianism. Mainstreaming could also entail international sanction, given that it contravenes Pakistan’s counter-terrorism commitments. Yet another challenge lies in persistent political tensions: having come to power after contested elections in July 2018, Khan’s government thus far has done little to bridge divisions between it and opposition parties. The government has targeted opposition leaders in politicised corruption trials, while security forces’ have cracked down on dissenting voices within civil society and the media.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Leverage Pakistan’s sensitivity to its international standing and aversion to isolation, urge Pakistan to prosecute Labaik leaders and activists, through fair trials and with due process, for threatening judges and public officials, attacking police and citizens, and destroying public and private properties during the November 2018 protests; at the same time, call for parliament to enact legislation to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws that threaten the security of marginalised communities;
     
  • Also call on the government to implement existing and enact additional laws that meet international human rights standards to ban jihadists from fundraising, recruiting, and conducting attacks within the country and in the region;
     
  • Continue to support democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan, including calling for due process in prosecution of cases against the opposition and press the government to protect individual freedoms. Warn Islamabad that its failure to respect freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Rising Religious Intolerance and Violence

On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. In response, religious groups, spearheaded by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, the political front of the Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent protests countrywide, attacking police officers and citizens and destroying public and private property. By invoking highly-provocative claims of blasphemy, the several thousand Labaik protesters gained the support of many conservative Muslims. Holding “Hang Aasia Bibi” rallies, Labaik leaders accused Supreme Court judges of blasphemy, called for their assassination, and urged soldiers to mutiny against army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose religious faith they questioned. On 2 November, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with Labaik. Arguing that to do otherwise would lead to more violence, the government agreed not to take any action against Labaik leaders and supporters, releasing those responsible for inciting sectarian hatred and resorting to violence during the protests. It also agreed not to oppose a review petition to reinstate Bibi’s death sentence, to bar her from leaving the country until the Supreme Court has reached a decision on that petition, and to release those responsible for violence during the protests. Though the government may have faced a short-term dilemma in looking for a way to defuse the protests and avoid provoking wider unrest, the tensions provoked by intolerant and sectarian groups like Labaik is a problem of Pakistani authorities’ own making over decades, one that is reinforced, not lessened, by a pattern of capitulation to such groups.

Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death [in Pakistan], and those defending the innocent [...] have often been silenced.

Emboldened by the government’s backing down, Labaik threatened another protest on 24 November. The government, fearing more violence, quickly placed the group’s leaders and hundreds of activists under preventive detention. Although cases have been filed, including in anti-terrorism courts against Labaik’s top leadership, those men are still awaiting prosecution. The outcome of these cases is uncertain, but in similar instances in the past, the filing of charges has not led to prosecution, once immediate pressures are relieved and public attention wanes. Bibi, though freed by the courts, remains in hiding. Her case has fuelled the fears of religious minorities that the state cannot protect them if those responsible for inciting and using violence against their communities operate with impunity. Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, and those defending the innocent, such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed by his guard in 2011 for supporting Aasia Bibi, have often been silenced.

Labaik’s emergence and growing influence is closely tied to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services’ longstanding use of Islamists to challenge civilian rivals by supporting their forays into political life. Reportedly backed by the military to destabilise the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in November 2017, Labaik at that time accused the law minister of blasphemy and besieged Islamabad, attacking police officers and civilians. The siege ended after the military concluded a deal whereby the law minister resigned and the state gave Labaik leaders and activists immunity from criminal prosecution. In another bid to undermine the PML-N by cutting into its support base in the July 2018 election, Labaik created a political front to contest the vote even as it continued to encourage and deploy violence. Exploiting popular sentiment about blasphemy, Labaik won 2.2 million votes and emerged as the third-largest party in parliament after the PTI and PML-N. It now uses its newfound political legitimacy to raise funds, recruit and propagate a hardline sectarian agenda.

Militants Deepen their Political Clout

In addition to using Islamists to weaken other parties, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have also encouraged anti-India jihadists, including some designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations, to enter politics. Most prominent is the now-rebranded Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) – previously Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – and its charity front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. LeT/JD is included in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list. In June 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, placed Pakistan on its “grey list” due to lax counter-terrorism financing laws and enforcement. Partly to avert FATF pressure, a presidential ordinance nominally banned LeT/JD and its charity front in February 2018. But the banned group was allowed to take part in the 2018 vote through yet another front, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, though it failed to gain even a single seat. The presidential ordinance banning LeT/JD and its charity front has since lapsed.

In principle, encouraging militants to enter politics could help moderate them. In these circumstances, however, little suggests that will happen, given that the political participation of groups allied to the military is not conditioned on their abandoning violence or related recruitment and proselytising. Indeed, their rebranding and entry into politics appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep alive groups regarded as useful foreign policy proxies in the face of international pressure. The mainstreaming strategy, particularly as it pertains to groups on the 1267 list, poses risks for Pakistan at home and abroad. The failure to ban those groups and reform financing laws could see Pakistan listed on the FATF’s “blacklist” of “non-cooperative countries” next fall, with serious implications for the country’s reputation and economy. That failure also hinders any rapprochement with India: New Delhi refuses to resume bilateral dialogue with Islamabad, frozen since a 2016 attack attributed to Pakistan-based militants, until Pakistan takes decisive action against jihadists. For the region, the security risks inherent in the failure to demobilise such groups are grave: another major attack on India by Pakistan-based groups could bring the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.

Crackdowns Heighten Political Turmoil

The military’s backing of the PTI and its alleged support for Khan’s government as it targets opponents fuel the political acrimony that already marked the July 2018 election. The two main opposition parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and former President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were denied an equal playing field amid reports, as noted in the EU election observation mission’s October report, “of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs”.

Reportedly with military and judicial backing, the government is now pursuing the PML-N and PPP leadership through a legal process that is deeply partisan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, now opposition leader in the federal legislature, have been indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges without due process; the government is also lodging corruption cases against the PPP leadership. Unless the government changes course, political turmoil could increase at a time when militant threats are still acute – over 200 people died in terror attacks during the election. The government would be better served by working with the parliamentary opposition to ban and prosecute groups that refuse to shun violence and that propagate sectarian hatred.

Engaging with Pakistan

The EU should push Pakistani authorities to take steps to ease political acrimony, protect minorities and stop militants entering politics without first renouncing violence. First, in line with its traditional emphasis on the rule of law, the EU should leverage Pakistan’s concerns about its international standing to urge the government to ensure due process in prosecuting cases against opposition leaders and thus help defuse political tensions. It should warn Islamabad that failure to meet its human rights obligations, particularly in respecting freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief, could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Second, the EU should press the Pakistan parliament to amend blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Aasia Bibi’s case is one of scores in which false accusations of blasphemy have placed innocent people, particularly from religious and ethnic minorities, on death row. The EU Council has repeatedly voiced concerns about the abuse of these laws, including in their most recent conclusions on Pakistan. Updating the legislation is even more important now as Labaik is exploiting the blasphemy issue to foment sectarian hatred among parts of Pakistani society.

Lastly, though the EU has called on Pakistan to work with the FATF to strengthen its counter-terrorism financial oversight regime, it should also highlight the importance of implementing existing or drafting new laws to prevent jihadists and other militants that refuse to abjure violence from operating under changed names. In its October report, the EU Election Observation Mission rightly expressed concern about the “the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence”. So long as the state fails to take action against such groups, they will continue to fuel religious sectarianism and intolerance at home and threaten the security of Pakistan’s neighbours.