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The South Asia Channel
Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge
With the world's attention turned elsewhere, Pakistan has persisted in its efforts to counter violent extremism.
Of late, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, the international discussion around countering violent extremism has centered on Western societies and the threat posed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, terrorist threats within and emanating from Pakistan persist. While it may be tempting to dismiss Pakistan’s efforts to counter violent extremism as a lost cause of little importance, given the shift of emphasis to the Levant, local efforts to prevent the recruitment of the next generation of extremists in South Asia continue to require support.
From a counterterrorism perspective, Pakistani law enforcement is constrained in its ability to effectively prosecute terrorism. The United States Institute of Peace published a report explaining why those who join terrorist organizations are unlikely to be successfully prosecuted: justice system-wide case management and procedural deficiencies, witness intimidation, and a lack of coordination between law enforcement actors, all pose structural impediments to the successful prosecution of terrorist suspects. In an environment in which severe limitations hamper law enforcement, the first steps toward radicalization are often the last opportunity to prevent an individual from becoming a danger.
There is no single path along which individuals radicalize. It can happen through a combination of ideological, psychological, and community-based factors. In Pakistan, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education cites risk factors such as mental health disorders, thrill-seeking complexes, unemployment, food insecurity, financial incentives provided by violent organizations, social norms that justify violence, glorification of martyrdom, religious intolerance, limits on civil rights, and lack of rule of law. The Brookings Institution adds that individuals who speak out against groups like the Taliban are targeted with violence and a history of extremist religious education through madrasas.
Most extremist recruitment in Pakistan is done in person. Contrary to some broader global trends in jihadist recruitment on social media, a recent report by the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy notes that most recruitment to extremist groups in Pakistan is based on coverage of extremism in traditional media and complementary in-person recruitment, notably by local religious actors.
Pakistan and the international community have made efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment. Pakistan increased financial oversight of the madrasas that can sometimes give oxygen to extreme interpretations of Islam, and according to the ICRD report, were the third most important factor driving radicalization. According to the ICRD, the number of government-registered madrasas has jumped to over 14,000, from 6,000 in 2008. There are 35,000 in total — there’s still a long way to go. The government has also invested in rehabilitating former extremists to prevent them from returning to their causes. Other initiatives include a military-sponsored radio station to counter Taliban propaganda in Swat Valley, conflict resolution skills for women, and related community-based efforts. For its part, the U.S. government has given about $30 billion to Pakistan since September 11, 2001, for a variety of military and civilian assistance, including programs ranging from economic development in the tribal areas to promoting messages that counter those of ideological extremists.
However, many of those efforts have only shown short-term payoffs, and the level of funding pales in comparison to what’s needed. In addition, many of the radicalization risk factors in Pakistan may be exacerbated by the security-focused priorities of the Pakistani and U.S. governments. Thus, funding from those sources is often tainted from the outset.
The outlook is grim. The internet helps groups like the Islamic State to rapidly disseminate their messaging, and reduces the time it takes for someone to radicalize. At the same time, a new trend is emerging: extremist recruitment on Pakistan’s university campuses. The rise of an Islamic State affiliate in the region may further bolster the incentives for other violent groups to intensify recruitment and attack planning, lest they lose ground to the newcomers.
Stemming these trends by developing an effective countering violent extremism program for Pakistan will require three key efforts. First, more expansive and comprehensive work and funding. Second, the money for such programs should be channeled to private foundations that provide livelihoods and the protection of individual freedoms. Emerging market investors interested in reducing their risk premium in the region should also be involved in efforts to counter violent extremism through corporate social responsibility and similar initiatives that support local communities. In any such investments, funding should not be channeled solely through the U.S. and Pakistani governments. Third, the United States must reconcile its expectations and its broader foreign policy. Encouraging a securitized posture and raining drone strikes while also sprinkling a small amount of foreign assistance may seem like an ideal combination of strategic initiatives, but reliance upon military action is likely to cancel out any prior good deeds.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images