Pakistan’s counter-militancy framework is fatally simplistic while threats pile on
Pakistan is one of the most impacted countries by a multifaceted and ever-evolving militancy threat landscape in the world. On the one hand, Pakistan is grappling with faith-based militant groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Daesh-Khorasan and the ethno-separatist insurgency of Baloch groups on the other. However, Islamabad’s Preventing and Countering Extremism (PCVE) framework has not evolved with the same rapidity as its multifaceted militant threats. In the face of a dynamic and fluid threat environment, Pakistan’s static PCVE program has gaping holes and capacity challenges. Against this backdrop, this article will highlight some key challenges to improve the country’s PCVE response.
In this regard, the foremost challenge is the counterproductive one-size-fits-all PCVE approach. As mentioned, extremism in Pakistan is dynamic and multifaceted; hence, it necessitates a nimble and agile PCVE response with tailor-made strategies to differences as aspects of the problems, such as gendered dimensions, varying geographical contexts, diverse narratives appealing to different segments of society for a dissimilar set of reasons. In other words, extremism is context-centric and case-specific, requiring informed policy interventions for effective mitigation strategies. At this juncture, Pakistan has a generic set of policies for very complex and diverse extremism challenges, resulting in mixed results.
The second challenge confronting Pakistan’s PCVE strategies is the lack of empirical and evidence-based research on extremism. In Pakistan, three types of scholarship exist on the issue of extremism: i) anecdotal research grounded in circumstantial evidence, ii) descriptive accounts of militant groups, their leaders and operatives as reported by different journalists, and iii) academic research, which is mainly based on published secondary and tertiary sources. Keeping the above in view, militant scholarship in Pakistan is faced with the classical dilemma Marc Sageman has highlighted in his seminal writings. He maintains that ‘terrorism scholarship’ is facing a situation where “the intelligence community knows everything but understands nothing, and the academia understands everything but knows nothing.” Pakistan’s militant scholarship more or less finds itself in a similar situation, and the disconnect between the practitioner and academic communities has been costly for the country’s internal security. As long as these gaps are not filled, and PCVE policies are not grounded in evidence-based research, the threat of violent extremism will continue to grow. In other words, the correct diagnosis must precede any prescription.
The third challenge that Pakistan’s PCVE framework must overcome is the lack of a culture of expertise and professionalism. Most counter-terrorism institutions in Pakistan, including the National Counter Terrorism Authority, operate on bureaucratic ad-hocism generalism. Each component of the PCVE framework, such as counter-radicalization, counter-narrative and militant rehabilitation, among others, requires niche expertise, which Pakistan currently lacks. The absence of well-trained and professional manpower capable of effectively running different components of the PCVE strategy has undermined the policy interventions. Due to a hostile and unstable neighbourhood, easy availability of weapons, widespread political and socio-economic grievances, border disputes, presence of a plethora of militant groups of various hues and colours, a large segment of unemployed and disenfranchised youth and anti-establishment tendencies in the peripheral border regions, terrorism in Pakistan is likely to persist. Hence, Pakistan will have to adopt a generational approach to tackle the persistence of extremism in the country, for which trained and professional manpower is essential.
At this juncture, Pakistan has a generic set of policies for very complex and diverse extremism challenges, resulting in mixed results.
Abdul Basit Khan
The fourth challenge is the disconnect between different PCVE elements and their ad-hoc application. For instance, given the magnitude of the extremism problem in Pakistan, counter-radicalization and de-radicalization efforts have to work in tandem. Conceptually, de-radicalization is individual-centric while counter-radicalization is environment-specific. While de-radicalization rehabilitates arrested militants, counter-radicalization promotes a culture of moderation, tolerance and pluralism as an anti-dote of religious extremism. With de-radicalization and counter-radicalization efforts not working in consonance and on consistent basis, the chances of a rehabilitated militant’s re-radicalization are very high. Critically, rehabilitating a de-radicalized militant in an environment where all elements of radicalization already exist is a non-starter.
The fifth challenge which has undercut the PCVE policies is the existence of contradictory laws and policies which have enabled the growth of extremism in Pakistan. A case in point is Pakistan’s pro-Taliban Afghan policy until recently, which not only created an imaginary bifurcation between the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterparts but also distinguished between the so-called good and bad Taliban. So, while Pakistan was trying to counter violence unleashed by TTP in the country, it conveniently ignored the fact that the root cause of the problem was the pro-Taliban Afghan policy, which created room for the so-called ‘bad Taliban’ as well. Hence, without revisiting such paradoxical policies and laws, the PCVE policy alone cannot fix Pakistan’s extremism predicament.
The final issue confronting Pakistan’s PCVE initiative is the contested national character of the state. The debate on whether Pakistan was created as a theocratic state or a moderate Muslim state is still unsettled. This confusion has provided enough space for violent confessional movements like TTP, the Lal Masjid Uprising and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi to (re)define the country’s national discourse in line with their ideological worldviews. If the state does not articulate a long-term national vision consistent with democratic aspirations and pluralist values, PCVE interventions alone cannot overcome the extremism challenge.
As Pakistan is trying to pivot from geopolitics to geo-economy under a new security paradigm, it will do well to address the discussed PCVE challenges for ensuring internal and external peace. As long as Pakistan does not address its internal security problems comprehensively, attracting foreign investment for economic reconstruction will prove to be an uphill task. Development is the outcome of peace and vice versa: a peaceful Pakistan is the gateway to economic prosperity and well-being.
— The author is a Senior Associate Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X: @basitresearcher.