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Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Failures

A doctor treats an injured lawyer at the scene of a suicide attack in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta. The August 8 attack killed 75 people. Most victims were lawyers.
A doctor treats an injured lawyer at the scene of a suicide attack in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta. The August 8 attack killed 75 people. Most victims were lawyers.

Unlike in the rest of the world, December is a sad month for Pakistan. It marks the anniversaries of two of our most prominent victims of terrorism.

Last week, we mourned the death of my lion-hearted colleague Bashir Ahmed Bilour. A suicide bomber killed him on December 22, 2012, shortly after attending a party meeting -- a staple of Pakistani political culture. Bilour never gave up mingling with ordinary people despite years of threats and failed assassination attempts.

As the world prepares to welcome the new year, we remember the cruel murder of our former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27. She was killed amid a crowd of cheering supporters nine years ago.

Her murder is yet to be resolved.

Bhutto and Bilour are among more than 60,000 Pakistani victims of terrorist violence since 2003. Their suffering and the injustices that millions of Pakistanis have endured speak volumes of the failures, hypocrisy, and double-dealings of the state institutions responsible for counterterrorism in the country.

Foremost among these is the failure of the country’s security institutions to put the lives and well-being of Pakistanis before any perceived and often wrong notions and paradigms of security. It is no secret that since the 1970s, Pakistan has recruited, trained, and empowered the greatest number of jihadists anywhere in the world to undermine its enemies and secure a stable future. But tens of thousands of Pakistanis paid with their lives when many, if not all, of these zealots turned against their erstwhile allies and masters in Islamabad.

Despites the toll Pakistanis paid, terrorist networks are still considered strategic assets and used as instruments of policy in both internal and external affairs. The country’s civil and military leadership often make pious anti-terrorism noises -- perhaps to cover their tracks, deflect attention, or absolve themselves of the bloodshed that has defined recent Pakistani history.

Their failure, however, is institutional and systematic. While the world focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan as the locus of contemporary terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, Islamabad squandered years by denying the nature and scope of the terror problem it faced. Even when it grudgingly came to concede the existence of the problem, it failed to muster the political will to eliminate the threat all together.

Former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s mantra of “enlightened moderation” and the current government’s National Action Plan (NAP) proved to be camouflage for the policy of double-dealing. At most, Pakistan eliminated the “bad terrorists” responsible for attacks in the country but is still tolerant of the “good terrorists” who often target neighboring Afghanistan and India.

Fortunately, all is not lost in the complicated struggle that more than 190 million Pakistanis must wage to secure a terror-free tomorrow. I agree with a recent judicial report on one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in the country. Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s objective 110-page report on the killing of 75 people, mostly lawyers, nailed it. A generation of attorneys was killed in the suicide attack on August 8 inside a hospital in Quetta, capital of southwestern Balochistan Province.

Isa notes that Islamabad doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. “The solution to the menace of extremism and terrorism is straightforward. Abide by the laws,” he recommends. But as he rightly notes, “It is an abomination to have laws and not enforce them.”

Islamabad must now enforce the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), overhaul the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), and implement various provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code. It must also implement all 20 provisions of the NAP, which is only possible if Pakistan remains a representative democracy under the current constitution.

The entire Pakistani political and military leadership united behind NAP after nearly 150 students and teachers were killed in a school massacre by terrorists in December 2014. But Islamabad has even failed to implement a complete ban on militant factions, which had topped the NAP agenda.

Among the range of legislative and administrative measures aimed at curbing terrorism, only the creation of military courts was fully implemented. Reforms in religious schools, preventing banned organizations from opening shops under new names, mainstreaming the northeastern tribal areas, and security sweeps against militants in the eastern province of Punjab were put on the backburner. It is worth noting that the federal government initially agreed to parliamentary oversight in implementing the plan. But it later backtracked -- perhaps as an indication of its limitations and covert designs.

NACTA is a good example of how serious Pakistani civilian and military leaders are about uprooting terrorism. This organization, mandated to play a pivotal counterterrorism role, has been robbed of that mandate by the arrogance of the Interior Ministry and intelligence agencies. NACTA's calls for cooperation and coordination among various government agencies have fallen on deaf ears.

It is not surprising that in an atmosphere of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust, Islamabad has failed to formulate a counter narrative to extremism and terrorism. Many religious schools remain unregistered and unreformed. They play a major role in first radicalizing and then pushing young recruits toward terrorism through their syllabus, which is rife with sectarian hatred. Perhaps Islamabad lacks the political will to combat terrorism because such measures will unseat the “good terrorists” -- militant groups that mostly fight in Afghanistan or launch attacks in India.

Pakistan can open a new chapter in its antiterrorism struggle by probing major recent terrorist incidents in an open, transparent, and comprehensive judicial inquiry. Its findings and abiding recommendations will end the current games being played in the name of countering terrorism and provide a road map for an effective and meaningful war on terrorism.

Politician and public intellectual Afrasiab Khattak is a former member of the Senate, the upper house of Pakistani parliament. He also led the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.