By Zeeshan Salahuddin
Much has transpired in Pakistani society since the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, ten weeks ago. The brazen assault that left 152 dead, mostly children, demonstrated once again the appalling penchant for violence among extremist groups in Pakistan and provided a rationale to galvanize a divided, irresolute, and discordant nation.
With the exception of a few extreme right-wing organizations and political parties, the civil military leadership, the political establishment, its bureaucracy, as well as the general public all agreed on the need to eliminate terrorism from Pakistan. For that end, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laid out a 20-point agenda, titled the National Action Plan (NAP), in a televised address on December 24, 2015. The plan detailed steps the government would take to systematically eradicate violent extremists and their ideology through a combination of concerted military campaigns along with sweeping, punitive legislation.
So began a paradigm shift in Pakistan, with the civil-military leadership ostensibly united in their discourse with a public now willing to disavow terrorism once and for all.
In perhaps the most surprising sign of a monumental change in focus and ideology among the uppermost echelons of power in Pakistan, private funding of extremist activities from Saudi Arabia—a state most in Pakistan turn a blind eye to—was recently called into question by the foreign office. Additional steps to deter funding for terror include the registration of millions of mobile phone SIM cards, systematically documenting known financial supporters of terror, tracking the highly nomadic and geographically dispersed Afghan refugee population, and curbing online presence of terror networks.
“There shall be no distinction between good and bad Taliban,” said the prime minister before the All Parties Conference shortly after the massacre, referring to a major change in a decades-old policy of providing tacit state benefaction to certain terrorist groups.
Of course, undoing such intense and secretive relationships is easier said than done, since state support for terror from Pakistan dates all the way back before the Afghan-Soviet war to the altercation with India over Kashmir. In the two months since the NAP was announced, progress has certainly been made but also seems to have stagnated, further hampered by a series of sectarian attacks in the country that left 104 dead this year, as of February 15, 2015.
Specific points of intent and enforcement within the NAP can be divided into four broad categories. The first comprises of lifting a de facto moratorium on executions for convicted terrorists and paving the way for the formation of military courts for trying terror suspects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these first two points in the NAP were implemented posthaste. Since then, nearly two dozen have been hanged with many convicted for attacks on the military. Meanwhile, the national assembly passed the 21st constitutional amendment, thus providing a legal basis for the creation of said military courts.
The rest of the NAP remains a cocktail of tangible steps, status quo rhetoric, confusing and partial policy, and inexplicable silence. For instance, the second category of NAP reforms largely aspires to keep banned terrorist outfits from operating in Pakistan, even under a different identity. Militant organizations that have enjoyed state patronage in the past, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba, are now outlawed, but neither finds any trouble functioning in the country using the cover of relief organizations. These are just two of the 71 separate banned organizations still active in Pakistan. To date, no concrete strategy has emerged to enforce this section of the NAP, despite substantial dialogue and rumors of banning major organizations such as the Haqqani Network.
Thirdly, points of the NAP meant to curb hate speech and religious extremism in various forms and funding sources for terror outfits have seen momentum, but also have come under heavy fire from right-wing parties. For instance, 580 cases have been registered against individuals for spreading hate speech/literature, while 40 printing presses charged with providing said material have been seized and shut down since December 24, 2014. There has also been a crackdown on the use of loudspeakers in mosques for any purpose other than calls to prayer, such as inciting hate or violence, resulting in 2,497 arrests.
Seminaries or madaris, long-viewed as one of the primary sources of radical extremism, have also come under scrutiny since the enactment of the NAP. Doing so calls into question both their sources of funding as well as the knowledge and life skills being imparted to students at these institutions. Figureheads of the Pakistani political right, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam's Fazl-ur-Rehman and Jamaat-e-Islami's Siraj-ul-Haq, have been the most vocal dissenters of such policies, alleging everything from Western conspiracies to a bastardization of Islamic value, culture, and laws.
Conversely, a fourth and final category of points in the NAP concerning expression, such as a complete ban on providing media attention to terrorists or their cronies, seems to have been largely ignored by both the media and the government. Talat Hussain, a senior host on one of the largest private television channels, was publicly derided for airing an interview with the head of an organization believed to be an offshoot of a banned outfit. However, the controversy both originated and remained confined to the private sector. The government has officially taken no steps to address Hussain’s actions, despite having a committee officially dedicated to such matters.
Lastly, a few points on the NAP are substantially vague, such as the formation and strengthening of a national task force, coordination units, and an anti-terrorism infrastructure, as well as equipping autonomous provinces with additional powers to curb extremism. These points are intangible, and the precise mechanisms described may even need further legislation in order to come to fruition, thus creating a limbo state where progress on these goals is tricky to measure.
Pakistan has seen well over 13 years of violent extremism, but the root of this problem dates back several decades. The process of reversing this ideological shift, both at the official level and throughout a highly divided society with large elements of radicalization is a long, bumpy road, and one that will take generations to successfully traverse. The shift is undeniable, and while progress has been a step above glacial, it is at least a move in the right direction for Pakistan.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
[Photo courtesy of bm1632]