Pakistan’s new counterterrorism approach will fail unless rule of law reigns

Pakistan’s new counterterrorism approach will fail unless rule of law reigns

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Pakistan’s 11th attempt at combating terror and militancy ‘Operation Azm-e-Istehkam,’ has been announced in the middle of the disorder — from rampant bad governance, lawlessness, and socio-economic crises — that it seeks to resolve. There is no question that with militant violence surging, something needs to be done. However, every new counterterrorism policy we announce starts with much fanfare, like the National Action Plan once did, before it fizzles out. The question is whether there is genuine political determination this time around.

Bad policies and selective friendships with militant groups have fueled Pakistan’s terror woes. The ‘problem’ the state is now readying to combat has been apparent for a long time. Why was it allowed to go on for so long? Even now, without genuine political will, combating violent extremism remains a pipe dream. The strategy of maintaining only a token civilian government has not worked, and has led inevitably to un-evolved, frail civil institutions and a polarized judiciary- all controlled by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. 

As Inspector-General of Punjab and Sindh, I would often be baffled by state policies. Even when the country’s security forces were combating major existential threats, the police force was told to carry on with business as usual. Both proved to be more show than substance. Political recruitments continued unabated in that period; we were continuously deprived of operational autonomy and I was constantly uncertain about my tenure. Nothing has changed. Today, none of the police chiefs are independent, nor are they consulted regarding major security operations. The ‘real’ decisions are still made elsewhere, leaving first responders with only a token voice.

As IG of Punjab and Sindh, I would often be baffled by state policies. Even when the country’s security forces were combating major existential threats, the police force was told to carry on with business as usual. 

Dr Syed Kaleem Imam

I am often reminded of how deranged our government-level policymaking can be. As Inspector General of Police for Islamabad during the early Swat operations, I witnessed massive displacement and relentless attacks on the capital. The Lal Masjid operation, which was launched to root out extremism, ended with appeasement, despite brave sacrifices. While Aziz, who was often seen brandishing an AK-47 and threatening the state, was compensated. 

These experiences underscored to me that flashy operations are often futile. Establishing and enforcing the rule of law through an apolitical police force is the only viable, long-term solution.

Consider that all of Pakistan’s anti-terror operations so far have only achieved ‘relative stability’ at the cost of thousands of martyrs among the security forces and countless civilians caught in the crossfire, not to mention the thousands displaced from their homes. Sure, many militants have been eliminated, but the scourge persists. Criminality and violent extremism continue to thrive, feeding on social fault lines that have never been addressed. 

The ground reality is that Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has been a comedy of errors. A muddled strategy and a toxic mix of geopolitical chaos have ensured constant turmoil. Conflicting policies and harboring dangerous groups under secret accords have kept threats alive- with institutions reluctant to upset the “good” radicals.

Rebranded after the political opposition’s criticism, ‘Vision’ Azm-i-Istehkam promises to target militants and religious fanatics ‘indiscriminately.’ Aiming to prevent violence like the kind seen during the recent Sialkot and Swat lynchings, the operation follows over 1,000 terrorism-related incidents in 2024. Strengthening prosecution and regional cooperation have been placed on its agenda as if previous efforts had overlooked those goals.

The state’s renewed desire for ‘stability’ has not received broad political support. Public resentment is at its peak, and unless the operation is smartly tailored to avoid disrupting daily life, it risks worsening the instability problem rather than resolving it. 

If the state, for once, starts thinking wise and acting decisively — honoring its words with deeds, respecting due process, and focusing on progress through consultative actions rather than any individual’s or group wishful plans — we might reclaim the ground we’ve lost.

We must also realize that, without additional resources for police and civilian departments, the effort will be short-lived. Proactive actions will be crucial to its success, with intelligence units finally doing their job. Extrajudicial measures will be counterproductive and will only allow militant as well as criminal groups to capitalize on public anger. If driven by the overreach of one institution, it can also prove costly to others in terms of lives lost.

For once, the ‘azm’ for ‘istehkam’ (the resolve for stability) should provide meaningful closure to 22 years of ‘adm istehkam’ (the lack of stability). Militancy is just a symptom of the actual problem: extremism. The deep fractures within our society have always been the real issue requiring reconstruction. We must rebuild citizens’ trust in the state. Otherwise, our fractured social contract may prove to be our Achilles heel.

– The writer is a former federal secretary and Inspector General of Police. X:@Kaleemimam. Email:[email protected]

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