From Pakistan: Ruses that distract from a Counterterrorism strategy

Mosharraf Zaidi, International Political Analyst

One of the important but widely neglected debates that needs unpacking in Pakistan is the one between counterinsurgency, counterterrorism (CT)  and counter-extremism. This is a uniquely Pakistani challenge, and looking elsewhere for inspiration may be of limited utility.

Written by Mosharraf Zaidi


The discussion that has helped shape US policy in the Afghanistan-war theater has been one in which counterinsurgency advocates square off against counterterrorism advocates. Counterinsurgency advocates argue that neutralizing threats to US national security requires the engagement of host-nation citizens, winning their trust, de-legitimizing the insurgents, and engendering citizen confidence in the host-nation government’s competence and legitimacy.

Counterterrorism advocates, though no less humane, recognize the inherent limitations of power (hard or soft), and want to concern themselves largely with terminating specific, known threats to national security. Of course, there is no clean distinction between the two approaches and indeed, what we’ve come to know as the ‘Obama surge’ is a halfway compromise between classical counterinsurgency – which many in the US defense establishment have come to believe in strongly, due to its supposed success in Iraq – and counterterrorism, which regardless of its externalities, has helped yield the scalps of dozens of Al-Qaeda members.
Whatever the dynamics of the debate between COIN and CT may be, for the Pakistani state and Pakistani society, they mostly hold academic value. There is a Pakistani debate that needs to take place, parallel to but not modelled on the US-policy debate. There are three distinct, concurrent and inter-related challenges that Pakistan faces, which require serious thinking.

  • The first challenge is the one presented by the insurgency whose epicenter is North Waziristan, (though its impact is international). Insurgents have taken over Pakistani territory there and do not recognize the writ of the Pakistani state. This is not a matter of Pakistani ego, or sovereignty, however we may define these things. It is a matter of security. Pakistan cannot and must not tolerate places where people can learn how to become suicide bombers, or fedayeen attackers.
  • The second challenge is a clear and full-blown terrorism problem, whose epicenter is constantly shifting. Wherever attacks may occur, they take place because terrorists are able to procure the logistical and operational necessities to undertake terrorist projects, such as bombing shrines, mosques, universities and marketplaces. Repeated and sustained terrorist attacks in Pakistan suggest that the terrorist enterprise in Pakistan enjoys freedom of movement, freedom of procurement, freedom of training, freedom of information and communication,and, quite disturbingly, freedom from the course of law.
  • The third challenge is an obvious and unchallenged problem of religious extremism.The epicenter of religious extremism is the institution of the political articulation of faith in Pakistan. This means that physically there is no epicenter here. Religious extremism is a national problem, transcending demographics, class and ethnicity. Of the three problems, religious extremism is the one that has been around the longest, the one that has the deepest roots in Pakistani culture, the one that has enjoyed the patronage of the state, the one that has the demonstrated ability to undermine linear and rational public policy, and the one that will – because of all the aforesaid factors, take the longest to unpack and resolve.

These three challenges, though distinct, are obviously interlinked. The problem of localized insurgency in FATA is of course exacerbated by the fact that there is a countrywide network of terrorists – some sectarian, some nationalist and some commercial. The problem of terrorism is of course, exacerbated by the fact that religious extremism dominates the narrative of institutionalized religion in Pakistan.

The inter-linkages between the three however should not deceive us into thinking about overarching solutions to the three distinct challenges. Because the three challenges are different in size, scope and the degree of their immediate threat to human life in Pakistan (and beyond), each of them needs to be dealt with through clearly articulated strategies. To solve complex problems, we need to first respect and acknowledge their complexity. There is no single-line, or one-size-fits-all approach to deal with the triple threat of a localized insurgency in FATA, a randomized terrorism problem and a national extremism problem.

Perhaps the first and most important step is to identify who the primary protagonist must be in each of these three distinct, but related conflicts. If insurgents are the bad guys, who are the good guys? Who is best suited to play the role of counter-insurgents? Is it the conventional military, or is it paramilitary groups like the Frontier Corps? Is the police force a viable counterterrorism instrument? Does a police force exist in FATA? What is required to enable policing in FATA?

Thus far, Pakistan has fought the insurgency in FATA and earlier, last year, in Swat, using two instruments: negotiation, and conventional military warfare, including ground troops and aerial strikes. This is not how you fight an insurgency. That is how you fight India. To use a hackneyed and tired metaphor in Islamabad, you can’t keep using a jack hammer to try and kill agile, determined and poisonous flies. The approach to the FATA insurgency is all wrong.

What about fighting the menace of extremism? Counter-extremism is a popular topic for anyone interested in Pakistan. This is for good reason. Extremist ideas have been the core stimulus behind 21st century global terrorist enterprises. Yet not every extremist is a terrorist. Can we prosecute every extremist for having extreme ideas? Clearly, this is a slippery slope. Drawing a clear line between religious folks with extreme notions of what’s right and wrong and terrorists who want to kill people is hazardous and complex. What would determine the line?
The issue of who the protagonist should be in the case of terrorism is less controversial – it is the government. This is why Pakistan needs to articulate a politically viable, parliament-endorsed, comprehensive counterterrorism (CT) strategy. The freedom that terrorists enjoy in Pakistan is a product of the failure of civilian law enforcement and civil administrative structures.

Calls for a CT strategy are premised on the competence of the federal and provincial executive authorities – and their ability to effect specific actions, when instructions to undertake those actions are made in clear and comprehensive terms.
Regulating the chemicals’ sector, fully resourcing the police services, establishing special protection for judges adjudicating terrorist trials, limiting the access of intelligence organizations to criminals in the care of the police, and carefully monitoring the arrival and departure of terror-tourists who come to this country to join terrorist groups, are all measures that a comprehensive CT strategy could help devise.
Counterinsurgency and counter-extremism raise unusually difficult questions for a young democracy. It is the very nature of the challenges they pose. Pakistanis should only entertain them after they are presented with a comprehensive written document articulating the country’s counterterrorism strategy. Any other discussions in the

Pakistan Map

absence of a CT strategy are a deliberate ruse to distract and deflect attention from government incompetence. (Editor’s emphasis)

Pakistanis must not stand for these sleights of hand. Forget the hard questions. Nine years and 30,000 deaths later how can the government be taken seriously in the absence of a CT strategy?

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