The more the US demanded of Pakistan, the further Pakistan removed itself from tackling the root causes of terrorism – and believing its public opinion that it is worth doing.
After the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned to power, Pakistan should move away from the Western anti-terror discourse (CT) that emerged during the last two decades of the so-called “War on Terror” (WOT).
In its place, Pakistan should forge an indigenous security narrative to create much-needed public responsibility for combating extremism.
Terrorism in Pakistan predates the WOT and did not end when the US left Afghanistan. On the contrary, because of the WOT and a host of other factors, including Pakistan’s dichotomous CT and regional policies, terrorism and its underlying causes have worsened.
Today, radical and extremist groups are more firmly anchored in Pakistan’s political landscape than ever before in its history. To reverse the extremist tide, Pakistan should take a long-term view of the problem, for which indigenous discourse with strong public ownership is essential.
At the same time, Pakistan also has to face its national identity crisis, which may open the space for radical and extremist groups to (re) define its national identity in accordance with their self-proclaimed narrow worldviews. Doctrinal change in internal security policy would arguably provide only a temporary respite, as has been shown in the past, but for a long-term solution it is necessary to face the constant question of Pakistan’s national identity.
Without popular support, reversing the rising tide of extremism would remain a difficult task in Pakistan. In 2015, after the massacre of 153 school children and employees in Peshawar, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan worked out a consensus that is anchored in a 20-point roadmap called the National Action Plan (NAP) to combat extremism. However, the implementation in the NAP has evaporated in recent years.
One of the main lessons of the WOT is that kinetic skills, while necessary, are not sufficient to overcome extremism. A series of non-kinetic actions within the myriad of local conflicts is equally important for developing holistic political responses.
So far, Pakistan’s internal security policy has countered extremist groups through kinetic measures. Now Pakistan should develop the much-needed non-kinetic approaches to address the root causes of extremism and radicalism.
The setback of the stories
The security discourse developed in the shadow of the WOT treated extremism in Pakistan either as a result of its alliance with the US or as a negative spillover of the Afghanistan conflict. To be precise, Pakistan provided logistical support to the US and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan and granted the US support rights to the Shamsi and Shahbaz air bases for drone operations in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh.
During this period, domestic measures against extremism, such as the stationing of troops on the Afghan-Pakistani border and reforms to the madrassa, were seen in Pakistan as an emergency war imposed by the US in exchange for economic and security assistance. All USA “do more â€, Pakistan’s demand increased the perception on the ground that Pakistan was fighting the war of the former along its north-western border areas.
In addition, with a few exceptions, the post-September 11th Western discourses viewed Pakistan stereotypically as a security threat, a pioneer and helper, or worse, a sponsor of extremism. This clichÃ©d characterization of Pakistan in Western discourses undermined efforts to develop an indigenous security narrative against extremism.
For example, the U.S. drone strikes in the former federally administered tribal areas (FATA) now affiliated with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province violated Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and reinforced extremists’ portrayals of the Pakistani Army obeying America’s commandments. In particular, the civilian casualties in the US drone attacks in the former FATA region undermined the powers of the Pakistani state. Hence, the development of an indigenous security discourse remained hostage to Pakistan’s conflict-ridden alliance with the United States.
In contrast to Western discourse – which portrays Pakistan as a security threat – Pakistanis are the main victims of militant violence emanating from the country. Up to 80,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives to terrorism in the past two decades, on top of a whopping $ 150 billion in economic damage.
This is not to say that the Pakistani state’s ill-considered policies in Afghanistan since the 1980s have not helped foster a culture of religious intolerance and militancy in the country. Undoubtedly, flawed government policies remain the most critical variable of the myriad of extremism and radicalism challenges Pakistan faces today.
However, the situation has changed a lot over the past twenty years. Without taking into account the local contexts and nuances of a complex and diverse threat landscape, the monocausal explanations that make state policy responsible for everything that is wrong in Pakistani society are too simple and reductionist. Despite this uncomfortable reality, the underlying purpose of developing an indigenous security discourse in Pakistan should be to initiate a bold debate in the country following the US exit from Afghanistan.
In retrospect, the WOT has had a paradoxical impact on Pakistan’s diverse threat landscape. On the one hand, it made the threat landscape more complex, deadly, and ubiquitous. For example, in the past twenty years the number of militant and insurgent groups in Pakistan has increased. Extremists have permeated all segments of Pakistani society. Unlike the conventional view that extremists and terrorists are from Pakistan’s peripheral tribal areas and are primarily trained in madrassas, recent trends have highlighted the infiltration of extremism in Pakistan’s educated urban middle and upper middle classes as well.
On the other hand, the WOT forced Pakistan to realign the training manuals, strategic doctrines and threat perceptions of its security forces from conventional warfare against India in order to combat asymmetrical conflicts against a large number of violent non-state actors in the former FATA region and Balochistan.
In addition, Pakistan has put in place a well-defined institutional infrastructure to deal with extremism. For example, in 2009 Pakistan created the National Counter-Terrorism Agency, the country’s leading CT body, and counter-terrorism departments in the provincial police force, and passed new laws to facilitate the fight against militancy.
A step back
The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has encouraged Pakistani extremist groups. Some of them have already become aggressive in their activism, border on vigilante justice and violence and demand a theocratic rule in the style of the Taliban in Pakistan. In a sense, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is redefining Pakistan’s conflict-ridden relationships with a range of religious and radical groups.
In the age of social media, Pakistan would have a hard time glossing over the dichotomies and paradoxes emanating from its confused identity crisis. As long as the jury does not know what the purpose of founding Pakistan was, an Islamic or a moderate Muslim state, the country will continue to become Sharia movements such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi. who try to forcibly redefine the national character of the country in accordance with their narrow worldviews.
As a result, unless the issue of national identity is addressed holistically, Pakistani efforts against extremism will go in circles.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for Pakistan. Efforts to turn the tide of growing extremism require a cross-generational effort within the framework of a nationwide societal approach. This generational work should focus on the youth, who make up 64 percent of the Pakistani population and are expected to increase to 230 million by 2030 and to 280 million by 2050.
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