The South Asia Channel

The missing piece in Pakistan’s anti-militancy puzzle

Since the beginning of 2012, all four provinces in Pakistan have experienced suicide bombings and terrorist related violence, including the most recent attacks in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, which killed scores of innocent people.  And yet over the past four years, Pakistan’s civilian government has failed to develop a counter-extremism strategy that addresses the underlying ...

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

Since the beginning of 2012, all four provinces in Pakistan have experienced suicide bombings and terrorist related violence, including the most recent attacks in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, which killed scores of innocent people.  And yet over the past four years, Pakistan’s civilian government has failed to develop a counter-extremism strategy that addresses the underlying political, social and economic causes of militancy in the country. 

While the parliament and executive bemoan the military’s marginalization of civilian institutions in tackling militancy, the fact remains that it is Pakistan’s elected officials who have foundered in the development of a civilian strategy that combats militancy.  Meanwhile, more than 30,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorism-related violence over the past decade.

In the absence of a national plan of action, the Pakistani military has pursued a strategy focused almost entirely on drone strikes, military operations and illegal detentions, tactics that disregard the rule of law and due process, and are likely to destabilize the country over the long-term.  

At a time when the government has failed to deliver, Pakistan’s civil society groups have a critical role to play.  Over the past few years, civil society actors in Pakistan have demonstrated their powers of persuasion in the face of government inaction-in the cases of the restoration of the chief justice and the annulment of the infamous National Reconciliation Order, to name just a few examples.  Effective civil society mobilization can once again pressure the government to counter militancy in the following ways:  

1.      Forge a political solution to militancy, and ensure transparency

At an All-Parties Conference last September that was also attended by the military leadership, Pakistani lawmakers pushed for negotiations with Pakistani militant groups in the tribal belt, emphasizing the need to ‘give peace a chance’.  Six months on, while military operations continue in the tribal belt, it is unclear whether Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government has developed a coherent negotiating framework within which it can engage with its myriad militant groups. 

Pakistan’s civilian leadership must now take the lead in defining a negotiating strategy with the Taliban. Getting the military leadership on board will be crucial, though, as previous peace processes have been marred by a lack of coordination.  In 2008, the newly elected provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) initiated dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban.   However, these talks lacked the support of the military and federal government. Soon after the ANP-led government signed a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e Taliban’s Swat chapter in 2008 (not to be confused with the 2009 peace deal), the military began a bombing campaign against the TTP in the tribal belt, and in the process jeopardized the ANP-brokered deal. The lack of a unified front weakened the government’s position.  

It is also extremely important to establish civil society-based monitoring and verification committees that can ensure insurgent groups’ compliance with the peace agreements reached.  Previously, the post-negotiation phases have lacked transparency, and independent groups have not had the access needed to determine which side is responsible for violating the provisions of the peace agreement.  Civil society groups should demand more transparency in this regard.

2.      Implement an anti-terror legislative regime

Pakistan’s civil society groups must pressure the government to address gaps in the criminal justice infrastructure that allow militant groups to operate with impunity, as well as to implement legislation against terrorism that already exists. 

In 1997, in response to the rising tide of sectarian violence in the country, Nawaz Sharif’s government enacted the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which created special anti-terrorism courts and expanded punishments associated with terrorism.  However, gaps remain, and according to a recent report commissioned by the Punjab government, approximately 75% of the people accused of terrorism in the Punjab province over the last two decades were acquitted due to a lack of evidence against them.

In 2010, the Interior Ministry introduced further amendments to the ATA designed to make it easier for suspected terrorists to be prosecuted. While the parliamentary committee has deliberated on the anti-terror amendment tabled before it, it has yet to make recommendations on this critical issue.   

Even when Pakistani administrations put in the effort to create anti-terror legislative regimes, they have faltered with respect to their implementation due to political considerations. Both civilian and military governments (PPP, PML-N as well as Musharraf’s regime) have courted violent sectarian outfits for electoral support and votes, and have therefore failed to apprehend their leaders.

3.      Address socio-economic imbalances

While most militant organizations have overt political or religious agendas, there are underlying socio-economic factors that are also at play.  For instance, in districts of southern Punjab, the land-owning gentry have historically been mostly Shiite, who over generations have converted their economic influence into political clout.  Consequently, the founders of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba (militant anti-Shiite organizations) were Sunni (Deobandi) men from impoverished backgrounds who won great popular support among their communities by challenging the Shiite feudal landlords in the area on both economic and ideological grounds.  In addition, the apparent complicity of the land-owning elite with the corrupt and inept local judicial and administrative systems pushed the local population toward individuals who challenge the system. 

The deeply entrenched feudal system must be challenged to reduce the social inequities found in these areas. While over Pakistan’s 64 year history, many land redistribution bills have been introduced in parliament, those most comprehensive in scope have failed to pass, not least due to the fact that many in parliament have large landholdings and stymie such efforts.  In addition, it is likely that the military, which forms part of the ‘landed elite’ in Pakistan, would also resist the implementation of such measures. It therefore falls to civil society to mobilize and push for land redistribution, which could prove to be helpful in mitigating some of the socio-economic causes of sectarian militancy in Pakistan.  

For far too long Pakistan’s civilian leadership has blamed its failure to manage militancy issues on the military establishment’s preponderance in political and security affairs of the country. This should no longer be acceptable to the Pakistani population.  Pakistan’s vibrant civil society and diaspora have an important role to play in holding the government accountable for its lack of a viable anti-militancy strategy ahead of elections next year.  Nothing else is likely to motivate the country’s elected officials to fulfill their responsibility of protecting the people of Pakistan. 

Mehlaqa Samdani is a peacebuilding associate at the Karuna Peacebuilding Center in Amherst.  She is currently working on a civil society-based strategy to combat violent sectarianism in Pakistan and blogs at ‘Politics and Peacebuilding in Pakistan’.

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