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Pakistan Needs a Homegrown Counterterrorism Policy

The “war on terror” is an American idea that only made matters worse.

By , a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
A Pakistani spectator carries a placard denouncing terrorism.
A Pakistani spectator carries a placard denouncing terrorism during a cricket match at the Younis Khan cricket stadium in Miranshah, the former stronghold of al Qaeda and Taliban militants, in North Waziristan near the Afghan border on Sept. 21, 2017. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

There are many lessons to be gleaned from the U.S. failure in Afghanistan. Some of the key ones involve counterterrorism: what works, what doesn’t. The answers, however, aren’t the same for every participant, or for every situation. An approach pursued by a distant superpower like the United States—actionable intelligence and superior firepower, all at the service of a nebulous and never-ending “war on terror”—clearly can’t work for a country like Pakistan, which can’t run away when things go bad. That’s why Pakistan urgently needs to revise its counterterrorism policies, away from kinetic operations and toward winning hearts and minds.

As it is, the war on terror—so much a part of the local vernacular that it’s known by its acronym, WOT—has arguably made matters worse for Pakistan, where extremism and terrorism have only become more entrenched.

There’s a longstanding and widespread perception, for instance, that radical militants in Pakistan are generally madrassa-educated youth from tribal and rural backgrounds. That may have once been true. But recent trends indicate extremist ideology has now permeated Pakistan’s educated middle and upper-middle classes. To confront this spread, Pakistan needs to develop a homegrown counterterrorism approach that is more nuanced and holistic—and cleansed of the taint of American involvement.

There are many lessons to be gleaned from the U.S. failure in Afghanistan. Some of the key ones involve counterterrorism: what works, what doesn’t. The answers, however, aren’t the same for every participant, or for every situation. An approach pursued by a distant superpower like the United States—actionable intelligence and superior firepower, all at the service of a nebulous and never-ending “war on terror”—clearly can’t work for a country like Pakistan, which can’t run away when things go bad. That’s why Pakistan urgently needs to revise its counterterrorism policies, away from kinetic operations and toward winning hearts and minds.

As it is, the war on terror—so much a part of the local vernacular that it’s known by its acronym, WOT—has arguably made matters worse for Pakistan, where extremism and terrorism have only become more entrenched.

There’s a longstanding and widespread perception, for instance, that radical militants in Pakistan are generally madrassa-educated youth from tribal and rural backgrounds. That may have once been true. But recent trends indicate extremist ideology has now permeated Pakistan’s educated middle and upper-middle classes. To confront this spread, Pakistan needs to develop a homegrown counterterrorism approach that is more nuanced and holistic—and cleansed of the taint of American involvement.

In retrospect, the war on terror under the shadow of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan hindered Pakistan’s efforts to push back against extremism. Pakistan’s domestic initiatives, such as the decision to station paramilitary Frontier Corps troops on the Afghan border, the proscription of Pakistan-based militant groups focusing on Indian-controlled Kashmir, and the implementation of reforms in conservative madrassas, were all viewed by many Pakistanis as part of a larger U.S. strategy or plot.

The war on terror under the shadow of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan hindered Pakistan’s efforts to push back against extremism.

Moreover, U.S. drone strikes in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not only bolstered the militant narrative that Islam and Muslims were under attack, but also strengthened the impression that Islamabad was fighting Washington’s war.

Though Western policy analysis often characterizes Pakistan as an enabler, abettor, or—worse—a sponsor of extremist groups, Pakistanis are the main victims of terrorism in the area. In the last two decades, as many as 80,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives in the war on terror, and Pakistan has incurred a whopping $150 billion in economic losses. Those numbers don’t encompass the damage to Pakistan’s reputation and its pluralistic ethos.

Of course, terrorism in Pakistan is partly the outcome of its own problematic regional policies, particularly those pursued in Afghanistan since the 1980s. But those mistakes are not the sole drivers of extremism anymore. In the last 20 years, new factors have emerged, primarily linked to socioeconomic grievances, political alienation, ethnic marginalization, the country’s complex identity crisis, and the quest of Pakistani youth for a sense of belonging. An overemphasis on Pakistan’s regional policies advances outdated and simplistic explanations of a complex problem. Again, more nuance is required.

Pakistan’s terrorism woes are invariably linked to its historical identity crisis—namely, whether the country was created to be a theological or a moderate Muslim state. As long as Pakistan does not address this issue, the country’s struggle against extremism will go nowhere.

Since its creation in 1947, successive Pakistani civilian and military regimes have appeased the religious right to seek legitimacy. In doing so, they have inadvertently handed these forces outsized ideological clout. Despite the religious right’s poor electoral appeal and negligible footprint in mainstream politics, it seems to dominate Pakistan’s national discourse. If this debate is not settled, various Sharia movements such as the Red Mosque Uprising, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will appear and reappear, again and again, in different forms.

Yet it’s also true that the role of Islamist ideology and narratives as producers and enablers of extremist violence in countries like Pakistan is exaggerated. Islamist ideology and narratives can provide a moral cover to legitimize extremist violence. But as a religion, Islam itself is not inherently violent.

With the exception of Takfiri-Salafist ideas—which incite violence against the Shiite community, or view rivals as apostates deserving death, or call for the overthrow of the state—most Islamist narratives and ideologies in and of themselves do not contribute to extremist violence. Rather, it is the way some radical and extremist groups use ideological narratives to achieve their stated political goals that makes them violent.

In Pakistan’s diverse and complex threat landscape, not all militants, particularly those at the lower level, are ideologically motivated per se. Arguably, the motivations of extremist radicalization in Pakistan are as complex and diverse as the militant landscape itself. Most would-be radicals joining extremist groups in Pakistan—except for those joining sectarian organizations—are not ideologically driven.

Among those joining the lower ranks of militant groups, the majority appear to be motivated by a diverse set of grievances, including poverty and joblessness, political disenfranchisement, and ethnic marginalization, particularly among the Baloch and Pashtuns. Some seek vengeance over personal losses sustained in U.S. drone strikes or the Pakistan Army’s military operations. In the case of jihadist groups, these grievances are expressed through the medium of religion.

To address the problem, it’s clearly counterproductive to fault Islam. Instead, the underlying grievances must be addressed. Such an approach would encourage domestic buy-in for counterterrorism operations while also disrupting militant recruitment.

A well-meaning and effective counterterrorism approach would have three key components: a message, a messenger, and an audience. The acceptability of the message and credibility of the messenger are crucial to ensure an audience, and to achieve wider resonance and traction. The message should be nuanced and sensitive to local contexts and requirements. If the language is religiously neutral and the message is attuned to Pakistan’s culture and norms, ordinary Pakistanis could own the fight against extremism and terrorism.

During the war on terror, terrorism has been used as a label of convenience by both state and nonstate actors. The excessive use of terms like violent jihadism, Islamo-fascism, and Islamist extremism has strengthened the impression that the war on terror was being waged against Islam rather than against specific extremist groups. However, at the same time, Pakistanis are well aware of the dangers of extremism and terrorism. This provides a clear opening to push back against these dangerous trends, provided that more nuanced language is employed.

The war on terror experience also shows that Pakistan’s army cannot kill its way to victory as long as underlying grievances remain unaddressed. Even in cases where kinetic counterterrorism operations lead to an immediate decline in terror incidents, those reductions are likely temporary. The underlying structural causes of violence will not only persist, but potentially worsen.

For example, the radical TTP, which splintered into several factions due to military operations in 2014, has since reunified and revived its operational strength, carrying out near-daily attacks in the ex-FATA region. This is happening at a time when political resentment there and in Balochistan is increasing over the usurpation of political rights and the lack of inclusive development where local communities’ needs are factored in while devising development plans.

Pakistanis are well aware of the dangers of extremism and terrorism. This provides a clear opening to push back—provided that more nuanced language is employed.

Currently, most of the development in Balochistan is taking place under the auspices of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is focused on infrastructural development. But the demands and the needs of the local communities in different areas of Balochistan such as Gwadar are linked to more immediate daily-life issues such as clean drinking water, electricity, job creation, health facilities, and education—rather than big highways, bridges, and airports. Moreover, despite its low-intensity nature, the current wave of insurgency in Balochistan which began in 2003 is the longest of the previous four four waves, dating back to 1948.

Finally, Pakistan needs to focus more on the needs of its youth. Pakistanis under the age of 30 represent 64 percent of the country’s population of roughly 220 million—a number expected to rise to 280 million by 2050. This is the demographic group most involved as perpetrators of terrorism, and also the group most affected as victims.

It will be pivotal to develop an educational curriculum in Pakistan that imparts critical thinking to youth—to enable them to process diverse ideas and philosophies more deeply—instead of blindly buying in to propaganda. Such an education would also create employment opportunities, helping to alleviate one of the other factors fueling extremism.

Decades of war in Afghanistan have caused incalculable harm to Pakistan. It will also take decades—a generational effort that involves all the levers of state and society—to push back against extremism and terrorism. This is only possible if Pakistan owns both the problem of extremism and its local solutions.

This piece has been adapted from the author’s working paper for Tabadlab, a Pakistani policy think tank.

Abdul Basit is a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher

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