The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) terrorist attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar, on December 16, 2014, killing 132 children and several teachers, many from Army background, was traumatic; its intensity and cruelty shocking civil society in Pakistan, much in the same way as the public flogging of a woman by the Taliban in Swat did in April 2009, though with far more tragic consequences this time.
The Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan was undertaken from June 2014 after a lot of dilly-dallying by politicians and abortive peace talks with the TTP. `Zarb-e-Azb’ was the Pakistan Army’s unilateral decision. The civilian government was left with no choice but to fall in line. After Peshawar, politicians found it easier to support the crackdown.
A 20 point National Action Plan (NAP) to tackle terror was announced. This too was Army-driven. It included a declaration of intent to execute convicted terrorists under a fast track process, lifting the moratorium on death sentences. It was decided to strengthen and activate the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA). Units of a Federal Counter Terrorism force were to start functioning in all four provinces. Revamping and reforming the criminal justice system is also envisaged, to strengthen counter-terrorism measures, including granting powers to provincial Criminal Investigation Departments (CIDs) to intercept terrorist communications.
Countering propagation of hate speeches and extremist publications, choking finances for terrorists and terrorist organisations, ensuring that proscribed terrorist organisations do not re-emerge under different names, taking effective steps against religious persecution, registration and regulation of madrassas, monitoring their sources of finance, banning any glorification of terrorism and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media were other facets of this `noble intent’.
However, the fragile consensus to deal with this difficult problem has dissipated from the very outset. Though nine Military Courts have been set up to function for two years by passing the 21st Amendment to the 1973 Constitution and amending the 1952 Army Act, questions about their constitutional veracity were raised. They were seen as ` a very dangerous option’ entailing risks of irreversible miscarriage of justice, wherein` a category of Pakistanis will not deserve the same rights and safeguards as normal citizens’ and `there will be no presumption of innocence’ nor` appeals to appellate courts’. `The presiding military officer will be judge and juror’. A public interest litigation challenging its validity is pending before their Supreme Court. A stay order on executions has been passed. It has even been suggested that `a fifth military coup’ may have silently taken place with the unanimous consent of the National Assembly.
Religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JuI) joined this bandwagon of protest. Maulana Fazlur Rehman denigrated the government’s `non-serious attempt to convert an Islamic state into a secular one’.
A crackdown against criminals and terrorists in Karachi has been made part of the NAP. Apex Committee meetings were held in Karachi, associating Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as other politicians and senior army commanders. The Pakistan army chief decried the continuing political interference in the functioning of the police in Karachi. He emphasised the need to allow impartial, merit based functioning of the law and order machinery in the city. On March 11, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) headquarters at 90, Azizabad, Karachi, was raided by Pakistan Rangers. Several MQM (A) party workers were arrested.
This did symbolise a change in political realities in Pakistan. Having been unable to effectively cope with internal security issues, especially religious extremism and terrorism, the civilian federal and provincial governments have begun leaning heavily on the Army to pick their chestnuts from the fire. This has been described by political analysts in Pakistan as an `evolution of a new Civil-Military hybrid’.
Will this be temporary or permanent?
The Nawaz Sharif government faces a peculiar dilemma. It can neither afford to alienate the Army top brass nor completely delink itself from right-wing sympathisers of militancy and the madrassa establishment. Therefore, it appears to have adopted a midway approach, conceding space to the Army for now, on counter-terrorism and other related matters, in return for letting the current civilian arrangement drift on till 2018.
Religious hardliners and sectarians groups, especially those entrenched in Punjab do not accept these developments and may try to scuttle implementation of the counter-terrorism agenda in future.
Three imambargahs packed with worshippers were attacked in Peshawar and Rawalpindi in early 2015. Shias in Pakistan continue to be targeted single-mindedly and with a vengeance by outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
Hazaras are fleeing Balochistan, and barricades surround segregated Shia urban neighborhoods in Quetta. Christian congregations have also been targeted in Peshawar and Lahore.
A plethora of militant organisations continue to flourish across Pakistan. A cleric-criminal alliance emerged as a product of deep-rooted social imbalances and state patronised jihad in the 1980s. Religion-based militant groups gained strength from this attitude. Over the passage of time, these militant groups got stronger and gradually became independent. Many have turned against the State and others (even Lashkar-e-Taiba?) may do so in the future.
Tribal areas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) became important for militants to keep their networks intact and expand their infrastructure. Afghan refugee settlements in Peshawar and Quetta provided space to criminals involved in smuggling arms, explosives and communication tools, besides serving as recruitment centers for potential terrorists. Also, in many cases, militants used these settlements as hideouts. Prisons in Pakistan hold thousands of militant detainees, many of whom have not been tried in court yet. These serve as safe havens, enabling networking, recruitment and running of cells to radicalise fellow inmates. While the military aspects of `Zarb-e-Azb’, clearing and holding militancy infested areas have progressed considerably, civilian efforts to re-settle internally displaced civilians (IDPs) are wanting.
Though the need for regulating the curriculum and financing of madrassas has been recognised in the NAP as vital to control or reverse the tide of Islamic radicalisation, the policy of `enlightened moderation’ has remained on paper. Reform efforts were quietly stymied for lack of adequate political will in the face of orchestrated opposition from the ulema.
In terror-related cases, the lower and higher judiciary has failed to dispense justice in an expeditious manner. Protection of prosecution attorneys or witnesses has been lacking. Conviction rates in charge-sheeted cases have been abysmally low. Important criminal cases involving known terrorists/terror groups were frequently adjourned on flimsy pretexts.
In comparison to the power of the religious right, the fecklessness and lack of spirit of the liberal left stands out. Whereas half-tutored and half-lettered battalions of the religious right are ready to take to the streets at a moment’s notice, liberal activists like the recently assassinated Sabeen Mahmud wage their battles in isolation and in dwindling numbers.
In this backdrop, it would be naïve to expect the Army to make a clean break from spawned terrorists of different hue or take the lead in reversing the religious narrative. Nevertheless, for the time being, the new politico-Army arrangement seems to have engendered hope that religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism will somehow be brought under control. However, this may prove to be a double-edged sword if civilian institutions and processes for countering terrorism fail to emerge stronger. This will need civilian political will, which is lacking. Would the continuity of this “diffident political-will” lead again to a collapse of democracy in Pakistan? Only time will tell.