Is Pakistan’s National Action Plan Actually Working?

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Is Pakistan’s National Action Plan Actually Working?

Two years after Pakistan unveiled its strategy for fighting terrorism, the results are mixed.

Is Pakistan’s National Action Plan Actually Working?

Army soldiers arrive at a street after suicide bombers attacked a Christian neighborhood in Khyber Agency near Peshawar, Pakistan (September 2, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

The National Action Plan (NAP) was created on December 25, 2014, in reaction to 133 children being murdered by the Taliban. Ostensibly, NAP was designed with the consent of all political parties, and the blessing of both civil and military leadership, as a comprehensive document detailing ideal steps to rid Pakistan of the menace of terrorism and militancy. Two years on, this idealism is tempered by ground realities, the limited ambit of political will, and a tenacious, unrelenting enemy. Thus, Pakistan’s course of action is nebulous, unrealized, and incomplete.

The first point in the NAP is the controversial lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty. The problem is that there is no mechanism to selectively apply the lifting of the moratorium to a particular group of death row inmates. Once it is lifted, all on death row must be put to death. During the first 13 months, there was a surge in executions, 345 to be exact, catapulting Pakistan to the country with the second highest number of executions worldwide. This year, that figure has crept up to 419. This impedance in the frequency of executions comes from pressure from civil society and rights groups. The government was mired in scandals earlier this year as it tried to execute a quadriplegic inmate. A scathing report recently also showed that the bulk of executions, an alarming 98 percent, are not related to terror convictions at all.

Setting up military courts (MCs) to convict terror suspects faster was another salient feature of the NAP. In the first full year, these courts convicted 40 individuals. In the second year, this number has risen to 85. Considering that a province like Sindh, which accounts for about 17 percent of the country’s population, had 3,360 pending cases in anti-terrorism courts (ATCs), and some cases have been in limbo for up to eight years, this rate of convictions from the MCs is simply insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem. MCs, while constitutional and legal, are not the long-term solution to a systemic problem.

Proscribed outfits in Pakistan have several points in the NAP dedicated to the mitigation and curtailment of their operations, communication networks, and funding sources. The government maintains a list of 63 banned organizations, but this list has been around since well before the NAP, and only the Islamic State (ISIS) has been added to it since the NAP went into effect in the first year. Two additional organizations were added this year, Jamat Ul Ahrar (JuA) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alim (LeJA). However, being a proscribed organization has little meaning, as there are consistent reports of their members moving freely, holding rallies and public gatherings, openly inciting hatred and bigotry, and being given airtime. Schedule IV should go into effect, restricting their movements and communications, but it is rarely applied. As proof, the country was shocked by the victory in a by-election of Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, a veritable person of interest under the fourth schedule, a son of the founder of one of the most violent sectarian groups in the country. But even this fails in comparison to reports of the Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar meeting with the heads of banned organizations in the country.

Counterterrorism, understandably, is a big aspect of the NAP, which details steps to strengthen the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), establishes a dedicated counterterrorism force, and sets generic goals as well as specific goals for improvement in the overall security situation. NACTA remains a significant challenge as the political will needed to strengthen the organization is fleeting at best. The government continues to claim, without proof, that NACTA is fully operational and functional, raising questions about its commitment and solemnity. Since the enactment of the NAP, there has not been a single meeting of the NACTA board of governors, and despite the belated allocation of funds, it has failed to set up a Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID).

The military began a comprehensive ground campaign to liberate areas that had fallen under enemy control in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, and in the city of Karachi, a massive metropolis with an estimated population of 24 million. The operation began on June 15, 2014, and in September 2016, the then-chief of the army staff, General Raheel Sharif, declared two years of success, stating that Pakistan was safer as a result of the operation. His words are not without merit. The number of violence-related fatalities in the country dropped from 7,611 in 2014 to 4,653 in 2015. Data from the first three quarters of 2016 suggests that the decline is still sharp and continuous, with 2,061 people losing their lives to violence in the last three quarters, and each quarter less violent than the one prior. The overall security situation has undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.

However, this progress a) may plateau out; b) is most certainly artificial and temporary; and c) does little to address the root causes of militancy and extremism that plague the country. The military is the primary driving force behind counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and in the case of Karachi, urban crime pacification. This is neither a perpetual solution, nor a sustainable one. The long-term solution is the complete overhaul and strengthening of the civilian law enforcement agencies and the systemic reform of the criminal justice system. The NAP also speaks about improving the criminal justice system, but to date progress on this front has been lackadaisical and stagnant. Law enforcement has seen limited improvement in select cases, such as the police force in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, but that is more of an exception than the norm.

Despite this, highly coordinated and brazen attacks in 2016 indicate that while militants and extremists have been undoubtedly weakened, their capacity has not been reduced and they still have both resources and access. In January, militants stormed a college, killing 20. In March, a local court in Charsadda was attacked, killing 16. In March, a bomb went off in a children’s park in Lahore, killing 70 and injuring 331. In August, the lawyer community in Quetta was targeted, killing 72 in a horrendous suicide attack. In October, militants infiltrated a police training center, and killed 61. A bombing at a religious shrine in November took the lives of 61. Despite a reduction overall, this shows that the enemy is obstinate and ingenious. A judicial inquiry into the August bombing recently made its findings public, lamenting the lack of government buy-in and empathy and chastising virtually every link in the chain of law enforcement and public safety.

The NAP also has stipulations for combating hatred, sectarianism, and intolerance. A report from August reveals significant movement toward the attainment of these goals. Law enforcement agencies arrested 15,259 clerics, religious teachers, and prayer leaders for delivering hate speech and inciting violence, and registered 14,869 cases. Tens of thousands of arrests were also made in combing operations across the country, while close to 6,000 cases were registered against shop owners for selling hate materials. By the numbers, the number of people who died at the hands of sectarian conflicts in the country reduced from 616 in 2013, to 420 in 2014 to 304 in 2015. In the first three quarters of 2016, so far, this number stands at 147. This shows a marked and undeniable reduction in sectarian violence across Pakistan. While not completely eliminated, this level of mitigation is a positive sign.

Crackdown on seminaries in the form of uniform registration, curriculum reform, and routing their finances through banking transactions was a highly controversial point in the NAP. This goal was so volatile that just days after the school attack, hardliner religious right parties refused to get on board with the NAP if seminaries were targeted. The net result is that even two years after the fact, progress on this objective remains stunted and negligible. Even the official form for registering the 26,465 seminaries did not have the prime minister’s approval as of September. In October, in a meeting, it was decided that the process would be “sped up” without giving any details on what said speed would entail. The government’s progress on this front has been nothing short of timid and docile.

Rehabilitating internally displaced persons (IDPs) and repatriating (or assimilating) refugees are the remaining two points of the NAP. The COAS in June stated that 61 percent of IDPs had already been successfully rehabilitated. By this count, nearly 600,000 IDPs still remain. The focus, he said, would now shift to better border management. There are between 1.5 and 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and following a border skirmish with Afghan forces that claimed the lives of Pakistani soldiers, there has been a concerted, accelerated push to repatriate the refuges. Unfortunately, the push has only garnered Pakistan ill-will from both Afghanistan and rights groups, as exemplified best by “Afghan girl” Sharbat Gula’s deportation scandal earlier in October and November. Nevertheless, the porous mountain terrain and allegations from Pakistan that Afghanistan allows its soil to be used for planning attacks on Pakistan, and vice versa, exacerbate this matter further.

All things considered, Pakistan’s military, with a long-standing history of coups and aversion for their civilian counterparts, stands as the clear victor here, and to the victor goes the spoils. The military has run very successful urban pacification and armed non-international conflict campaigns against militant and criminal elements. Their efforts can be measured from the dramatic decrease in violence-related casualties across the country in the last two years. They are not without fault, and their methods are often questionable and blur the boundary between the judicial and extrajudicial, but they have reaped immense public support and sympathy for their efforts.

The civilian government is an entirely different story. Whether it is the interior ministry, or the stillborn and flailing NACTA, or the law enforcement agencies, the implementation of NAP and its various objectives leaves a lot to be desired. There seems to be a particular bottleneck whenever the religious right is involved (proscriptions, seminaries, hate speech, etc.) There also seems to be a distinct lack of political will for reform of the criminal justice system, or the inept police forces.

More than ever, NAP feels more like a political tool than a unified, unifying plan. What started off as an integrated means to eradicate extremism in the country is now at best a sidelined instrument, with every state organ clamoring to claim the smallest of the limited victories, and scrambling to shift the blame for its many, many failures. Ultimately, Pakistan has grown surgically adept at killing terrorists, but unable (or unwilling) to kill the ideas that fuel them.

Zeeshan Salahuddin is a Pakistan-based journalist.