Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to build an effective counter-narrative to extremism in Pakistan?

Confronting Extremism Through Building an Effective Counter-Narrative

This article was originally published in the Development Advocate Pakistan on April 25, 2016.

While Pakistan is using kinetic means to push back terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it is still struggling to find an antidote to religious extremism and bigotry that provides space for extremist thinking and consequent violence across the country. The ideas of pluralism, religious harmony and openness to diverse political views have slowly given way to narrow mindedness, sectarianism and intolerance. The democratic experience is equipping Pakistan to revive its balance in the socio-political domain, but it is a fact that the social space in the country today is highly contested between extremist and progressive elements of society.

The blame for these trends within the media and policy circles of Pakistan is often directed towards regional conflicts, political grievances, and socio-economic challenges leading to growing instability. While this is all true, what is often disregarded is the reality that extremist groups in Pakistan have developed and introduced their narrative across the society in a gradual and relatively imperceptible manner through media, religious education infrastructure, and penetration in state institutions. Authoritarianism and poor investment in education allowed such narratives to grow faster than usual. Muhammad Feyyaz of LUMS in his insightful paper focusing on the absence of a counterterrorism narrative in Pakistan, accurately argues that there is a virtual vacuum for the terrorist organizations to propagate their narrative at will. He further maintains that many youth embrace radicalism because such views are not challenged by an alternative discourse in the country. An absence of investment in ideas to prevent extremism has allowed the extremist narrative to grow almost unchallenged for quite some time. Those who attempt to stand up to extremism are touted as liberals and foreign agents, etc. in an effort to discredit their discourse. In a nutshell, the core factor at play here is the extremist narrative and hence the need to develop and support a strong and indigenous counter-narrative.

There is an increased realization in Pakistan concerning the importance of countering the narrative of violent extremism, however any meaningful effort in this direction requires three important steps: a) A clear understanding of what are the central features of the extremist narrative in the country and its sponsors; b) Developing an outline of the counter narrative, and finally and importantly, c) Which institutions can play a constructive role in challenging the narrative and how. This essay is primarily focused on the third step but the first two issues will also be discussed to explain what dynamics are at play and the most critical challenge of implementing the counter narrative strategy. The role of political parties and the law enforcement agencies will be evaluated and analyzed as potentially the two most influential and relevant institutions in this context.

Main Features of an Extremist Narrative

There is a wide variety of extremists in Pakistan with fluctuating agendas and objectives, ranging from spearheading a radical revolution in Pakistan, to converting it into an Islamic caliphate, to sanctioning Jihad against India to win over Kashmir, and supporting global radical movements. The Zia era (1979-88) played the most devastating role in pushing Pakistan in this direction. His protégés and products-both in the military and political arena-groomed and sponsored local extremist and militant groups that continue to play havoc in the country. Some of these extremist groups believe in taking up arms and adopting violent measures, whereas others focus on operating more surreptitiously by bullying progressive elements and expanding their influence through educational institutions, charity organizations and media outlets. The word “Islamic” is used here to connote the interpretation of Islam according to these extremist groups. Below are the 10 primary features of the core narrative of Pakistani Muslim Extremists to provide a glimpse into extremists’ thinking patterns. Some of these may sound a bit simplistic and generalized but the purpose is to provide a context for thinking about the counter-narrative building challenge.
  • Islam is under threat globally and Western states, especially the United States, are at war with Islam. The focus here is to create polarization through inculcating a sense of fear and existential threat.
  • Muslims must aspire to change the global status quo and challenge all those opposed to an Islamic worldview through all means available but preferably through use of force and violence.
  • Pakistan was established as an Islamic state and it must strictly adhere to Islamic principles as viewed and interpreted by these groups; Pakistan’s constitution and laws must be fully revised towards this end.
  • Democracy is contrary to an Islamic system of government.
  • Pakistan’s rulers and powerful institutions including military, are allies of the global anti-Islamic forces and must be resisted and targeted.
  • Minority Muslim groups and non-Muslims living in Pakistan cannot enjoy full status as citizens of the country and they cannot be allowed to practice their religious beliefs in public. They cannot be allowed to project and propagate their views openly.
  • Pakistan’s art and cultural activities must be allowed within the bounds of Islamic values and the state should impose curbs on any western inspired or liberal oriented practices.
  • It is legitimate to take law and order in one’s hands for enforcing Islamic laws. In other words, vigilante action is permissible for such actions.
  • Any challenge to Islamic laws and values in any form is deemed as blasphemous to be punished with death or severe penalty.
  • Women should be restricted to the home and should follow an Islamic dress code in public.

Outline of an Effective Counter-Narrative

It is important to emphasize here that the counter-narrative is not only geared towards extremists but also towards those who are often dubbed as members of the “silent majority” or more accurately, silent spectators. They either have mixed opinions or lack the courage to take a public position. These “independents” are potentially more open to ideas directed at preventing violent extremism. The ideas are mostly couched in religious terminology, as unfortunately twisted and misinterpreted religious ideals are a significant and critical part of the extremist narrative. This approach is also deduced from the research showing that when extremists feel that their core values or identity are being threatened, “material incentives to encourage compromise backfire,” and hence counter extremist narrative has to be framed in the same context as the one that extremists draw on. Arguably, that is a potent way to delegitimize extremists’ narrative. In some instances, creating a doubt in the mind of the extremists about the authenticity of their flawed beliefs can do the trick. Here are the five central pillars of a counter narrative for Pakistan:

  • Pakistan was established for Muslims to pursue their economic, social and political goals as free citizens and for breaking the chains of marginalization on religious lines. The sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in 1947 will go to waste if Pakistan cannot give equal rights and respect to its minorities. Muslims belonging to all major traditions and sects of Islam led Pakistan’s freedom movement, and non Muslims living in Pakistan today made a conscious decision to stay in Pakistan and have played a constructive role during the formative years of Pakistan.
  • Islam was brought to South Asia through the message of love, inclusivity and harmony taught by the great Sufi saints. None of Islam’s luminaries called for imposing Islam on anyone through force, subjugation or creating fear. The teachings and works of these sufis, such as Bulleh Shah, Data Ganj Bakhsh, Bari Imam, Rahman Baba and Lal Shahbaz Qalanadar constitute the most powerful elements of a counter-narrative to extremism in Pakistan and broader South Asia. Their works must be included in the school curriculum in Pakistan.
  • Democracy provides the most efficient and peaceful channel for making leaders accountable, consulting public opinion and establishing justice-the three central principles of governance in Islam. There is no other system that nourishes the idea of equality the way democracy does-another of the critical themes of Islamic teachings.
  • Taking laws into ones hand has neither any sanction in Islam nor is it conducive to the functioning of any state or society. Vigilante action leads to chaos and anarchy that can destabilize societies quickly and severely with long-term consequences. In comparison, rule of law-based societies are at peace with themselves and they prosper in economic terms. Islam is acknowledged globally as one of the great religions of the world and it is also the fastest growing religion internationally. Islam’s contributions to scientific learning and human civilization are too strong to be erased through any limited wars of the modern era. Any wars in which Muslims are involved cannot be deemed as Islamic wars per se. Muslims should be proud of their history and identity and must aspire to contribute to humanity in a constructive, peaceful, and educative way.

The Role of Political Parties and Law Enforcement in Countering the Extremist Narrative

The responsibility of building a counter-narrative does not lie on the shoulders of state institutions alone. At a broader level, extremism is a byproduct of societal developments and hence any effective response has to emerge from a grassroots level. Political parties have to think beyond reaching the power corridors; they have to take responsibility for properly imparting civic education to their members also. More so, Pakistan’s major political parties have nationwide infrastructure to support counter-narratives generated at the local community level. It appears that the potential contribution of the country’s mainstream political parties in influencing this arena is underestimated. Extremists have targeted Pakistan’s major political parties, especially Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM), during election seasons and this clearly indicates the depth of the extremists’ understanding of the challenge posed by political parties to their narrative. Political parties can contribute in developing as well as popularizing counter-narrative to extremist thought by, for instance:
  • Being inclusive and opening up representation opportunities for the disenfranchised and especially young members of society-both men and women-who can communicate with the younger generation more effectively. By also recognizing that political and social alienation combined with state repression (mostly happening under military dictatorships) push marginalized groups to violence.
  • Preparing leaders who have a clear understanding of extremists’ worldview and training them to challenge bigotry in their constituencies through political outreach activities.4 Training legislators about the nuances of law-making (for instance on how to induct FATA into mainstream Pakistan) and on how to discourage extremist tendencies through better and targeted laws.
  • Shunning extremists in their ranks who build their political appeal by yielding to radical ideas.
  • Enabling second and third tier political leaders to contribute towards democratic governance which helpsmitigate the risk of violent extremism.
  • Nurturing tolerance through their manifestos and broader political outreach, emphasizing the importance of reconciliation, dialogue and peaceful settlement of disputes both internally and externally.
  • Realizing that legitimacy of the counter-narrative message is linked with the legitimacy of the messenger and hence the charisma and credentials of political role models can have a great impact on society.
  • Empowering communities and strengthening their resilience against extremism.

The role of a criminal justice system in general, and policing in particular, in crafting and implementing the counter-narrative is critical. Given over emphasis on kinetic means-both in Pakistan and globally-the centrality of police’s role in the field of counter extremism and counterterrorism is often overlooked. Police incompetence and reputation of corruption also comes in the way of taking this institution as a serious contender for any constructive role in society. This will have to change if Pakistan is to develop as a functional and progressive state. It is so because extremism first introduces itself in the shape of hate speech, bullying and intimidation. Police forces, if properly resourced and trained, are the first line of defense in such instances. Extremists gain space and strength as the state fails to stop them at the outset of their nefarious actions. The state at the most basic level on the ground is represented by its law enforcement capacity. Hence, a police role can be instrumental in nipping the trouble in the bud.

The role of police in developing a counter-narrative is also critical given its access to investigation and interrogation reports of extremists and terrorists. In my research, I have come across many instances where police officials are among the very first ones to pin point new extremism trends in society. They are also among the first responders who get a glimpse of the network building of criminals and militants. The early interrogation reports of militant suspects are a treasure trove for developing a counter-narrative to extremism and militancy. Perusing written and electronic materials that generate hatred and incite violence, as well as pursuing legal measures against such efforts is also a police task that is rarely undertaken. At present, Pakistan lacks the organizational mobility needed to make best use of the vast data that the state has access to. The state authorities are not even cognizant of this potential it appears. The idea of National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) was an effort in this direction but it has taken a very long time for it to be established, made functional and properly resourced. NACTA, if empowered, will also require major support from the military and intelligence apparatus to emerge as a central resource that can provide critical input to Islamabad to devise effective counterterrorism strategies and develop a powerful counter-narrative to extremism. Pakistan cannot afford to delay investment in its civilian law enforcement infrastructure for better policing as well as for it to perform the critical counter extremism role.

Hassan Abbas is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. He is also the author of ‘The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier’

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fall & Rise of Taliban: A Lecture in Islamabad

Sponsored by American Institute of Pakistan Studies:

A lecture was organized under the SPIR Lecture Series on November 26, 2015 at School of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Hassan Habbas from National Defense University, Washington D.C. gave a lecture on “Are Taliban History: How and why they survived for over two decades in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Director SPIR, Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal formally started the session by the welcome address.

Dr. Hassan Abbas is a Pakistani-American academic in the field of South Asian and Middle Eastern studies. His research focuses on security issues pertaining to governance, law enforcement and counterterrorism in these regions. Dr. Abbas was a civil servant in Pakistan.

Dr. Abbas raised a major concern about the reasons of terrorism and the inability of Pakistan and Afghanistan to curb its prevailing influence. He highlighted five major concerns for Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. According to him the prevailing influence of Taliban in Afghanistan is due to its inability of national building through the soft power projection and functioning of state through flawed criminal justice system. The ethnic tensions in the political hierarchy of country cause economic and political imbalance and in history Afghanistan remains a rentier state which remains the main cause of major powers’ intrusion inside Afghanistan.

Tahreek-Taliban-Pakistan is a quite influential non-state actor in Pakistan and its influence is prevailing due to the internal political and constitutional vacuum between federal regime and FATA. The tribal disconnect inside FATA between the tribes creates space for non-state actors. He highlighted the essential crime and terror nexus in Pakistan. Most of the sprinter groups associated with non-state actors involved in the terror activities are not to be merged with terrorist, instead of criminals.

Dr. Abbas concluded his presentation by emphasizing his note about mainstreaming FATA, through constitutional reforms and institutional buildup. After the lecture, a healthy question answer session was held.

ISIS & The Future of Iraq: A Talk at the Habib University, Karachi

The Future of Iraq: YCSD holds Public Lecture with Dr. Hassan Abbas
Habib University website, November 24, 2015
Sponsored by American Institute of Pakistan Studies:

KARACHI, November 24, 2015: Habib University’s Yohsin Center for Social Development (YCSD) and Office for Global Engagement (OGE) hosted a Public Lecture with Dr. Hassan Abbas – Professor and Chair of the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at National Defense University in Washington, DC. on November 24th. Bringing with him great insight into the examination of geopolitical roots of the expanding chaos in the Middle East as well as Saddam Hussein’s legacy, he led a riveting discussion at the Tariq Rafi Hall, this being the third and final lecture of the current semester at Habib University.

Led by the moderator of the Public Lecture, Dr. Hafeez Jamali, the event started off with an introduction of Dr. Hasan Abbas. Listing out his career trajectory, the moderator spoke of his professional and academic achievements, also informing the audience of how Dr. Abbas has remained a former member of the Board of Trustees at Habib University.

Dr. Abbas took the stage with great enthusiasm, commenting on his delight at being back at Habib University, at “seeing the dream turn into reality”. To delve into the state of Iraq and ISIS currently, he listed out three questions:
Who is behind ISIS, what inspires these young radical Muslims to be sympathetic to the ideology of ISIS?
How do we understand the rise of ISIS, is it a symptom or a cause?
What inspires these nearly 200,000 young people, with their foreign schooling and further education from regions such as France, UK, US, Middle East and so on, to drop everything and fight for the “cause”?

In order to answer these questions, Dr. Abbas set up a historical context for his audience, where he mapped out the ethnic identities of the current population of Iraq. He said that each of these identities have their own sense of rights, of what they’re entitled to and where they belong. He spoke of how, since the middle of 2014, one third of Iraq is under the control of ISIS, while one fifth of the entire population live in the area controlled by them. Furthermore, 10,000 people were butchered just in the last year by ISIS, while 200,000 remain internally displaced. Nearly 2 million refugees make up this area, thus why would the population that does turn to ISIS, do so?

For complete article, click here

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Iraq vs ISIS: How can the U.S. Help?

Iraqis hate our policy of containing ISIS
Tom Ricks Blog, Foreign Policy, November 18, 2015

By Hassan Abbas
Best Defense guest columnist

In June 2014 I witnessed thousands of Iraqis throng the offices of top Shia clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani, asking for a religious injunction to proceed towards Mosul and fight the Islamic State. It was not a choreographed exercise. People were genuinely moved to make a difference.

A Jihad fatwa was indeed issued as a result encouraging Iraqis to join military for the purpose but the fervor — even though it mobilized thousands — was not a substitute for a coherent Iraqi policy to defeat the Islamic State.

As a result, Iraq now is bleeding to death at the hands of this vicious and fanatical group that is empowered by conflict in Syria, poor governance, and sectarian bigotry. It is difficult to deny that the US occupation inadvertently set it in motion. Since that day in Iraq, over ten thousand people have been brutally killed, over two and a half million displaced, and around two hundred thousand are now refugees in neighboring states. Islamic State thugs now control nearly one third of Iraq — areas where about one fifth of the Iraqi population resides. The Iraq-Syria border no longer exists. Iraqis feel abandoned.

American public skepticism about another ground war and concerns about Baghdad’s capacity to be inclusive are weighing heavily on President Obama’s mind apparently as he has largely ignored Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s pleas for stronger U.S. support to tackle the Islamic State. It leaves Iraqis puzzling over the United States’ real intentions — adding to the long list of challenges for the future of US diplomacy in the region.

I have traveled to Iraq thrice since then and have spent much time talking to a broad segment of Iraqi society and leaders, from college and seminary students, to several prominent religious and political leaders in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. At a September 2015 conference in Baghdad, I interacted with politicians and government officials whose views were consistent with what I have been hearing throughout my travels: they harbor deep skepticism about U.S. intentions in Iraq. They seriously doubt that President Obama’s directive to “degrade and destroy” the terror outfit is for real. A leading Iraqi politician asked me whether Americans only seek to “contain” the Islamic State, or if we are also contemplating the “elimination” of this menace. Time and again, I heard confusion about actual U.S. policy. This lack of clarity about U.S. intentions and policy has even lead to conspiracy theories that the United States supports the Islamic State.

Why do Iraqis feel this way is not that hard to grasp. For both Sunni and Shia in Iraq, their stark reality is that the Islamic State continues to expand its operations and strengthen its support base in Iraq and Syria. If a U.S.-led international coalition, one supported by regional players, is not showing real results on the ground—the conclusion is that the response itself is weak and half-hearted.

The United States has its own list of complaints ranging from Iraq’s increasing “reliance” on Iran and linked support to Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. For any change in Iraq’s regional policy inclinations, U.S. officials need to regain the trust of Iraqi partners. The Obama administration cannot ignore that the splitting up of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines — a phenomenon already in motion — is a recipe for perpetual war and further empowerment of radicals across different Muslim groups living in the region. To remain aloof at this hour is self-defeating.

The emerging terrorism hub in and around Iraq has become far more threatening to global security than the Taliban revival in Afghanistan, where Obama is wisely adjusting his policy.

A unified and democratic Iraq is still possible. U.S. assistance to the Abadi government should be linked to constitutional reforms — to decentralize power and move towards establishing a federation — and improvement in rule of law, but the important point is that critical U.S. military assistance is sorely needed and should not be delayed. Iraq is asking for more intrusive and extensive air strikes targeting the Islamic State. Its military is not a professional force by any stretch of imagination but it is far better to engage them than militias and tribal groups. Iraq needs modern military hardware and training so that Iraqi security forces can dismantle Islamic State infrastructure in Iraq setting the stage for governance reforms. Abadi is far more amenable to these ideas than Maliki. At the end of the day, a sustainable victory against the Islamic State will depend on every Iraqi citizen getting treated equally and justly.

It is worth noting that despite many failures and weaknesses, there are bright points in Iraqi security forces’ record. They have shown some signs of improvement and potential in recent military offensives against the Islamic State. It has at least been able to successfully secure the South of Iraq. And when around 15 million pilgrims travelled to Karbala last December for the annual religious commemoration known as ‘Arbaeen,’ the security forces effectively safeguarded the Najaf-Karbala area — an area that ISIS has repeatedly threatened for sectarian reasons. Additionally, Iraqi society is showing resilience and unity in the face of deteriorating governance. Both Shia and Sunni are participating in the street protests against corruption and lawlessness indicating that Iraqi society can overcome the wounds it suffered over decades of oppression, occupation and violence.

Helping Iraq upgrade its security forces — including its civilian law enforcement & paramilitary capability — will also lessen its reliance on Iranian backed militias that are a death knell for institutional capacity building. The US can — and must — help Iraq tackle the Islamic State challenge in a decisive fashion and convince those fighting the Islamic State that it is indeed on their side.

Hassan Abbas is Professor of International Security Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs in Washington DC & a senior advisor at the Asia Society. He is author of The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan Afghanistan Frontier. The essay reflects author’s personal opinions, and it does not necessarily reflect the views of the NDU, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.

The Fight Against the Pakistani Taliban: Consequences

The Fight Against the Pakistani Taliban: What Are the Costs?


In December of 2014, the Pakistani Taliban waged a brutal assault against an army-run school in Peshawar, leaving 145 people dead — 132 of them uniformed school children.

It was the deadliest single attack in the history of the Pakistani Taliban — known also as the TTP — prompting the government to bolster military efforts to beat the group back.

These military campaigns, however, have brought unintended consequences, as some militants have been driven from strongholds in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and the Swat valley, and taken refuge in the slums of Karachi, a city of more than 20 million people.

This migration has shifted a growing share of the burden of fighting the Taliban from the army, to local police units, often in conjunction with a paramilitary force known inside Pakistan as the Rangers. Police and the Rangers have helped drive down violence against citizens in Karachi, but critics have complained about their tactics, which are alleged to include torture, extrajudicial killings, and the disproportionate targeting of certain ethnic groups.

For more on the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan, FRONTLINE spoke with Hassan Abbas,who served in the administrations of former presidents Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf and is author of The Taliban Revival. Abbas is now a professor of international security affairs at National Defense University and is a Senior Advisor and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.

This is an edited transcript of a conversation held on Nov. 13th, 2015.

The Pakistani Taliban emerged in 2007 as a unified group in Pakistan. How big of a threat are they today, eight years later?
The Pakistani Taliban emerged as an umbrella group in 2007. They were called the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. It was a new command and control system for about 30 to 40 tribal, criminal, and extremists gangs.

In 2004 and 2005, the number of suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan was maybe one or two. But from 2006 onwards there was a sharp rise. And then from 2007 to early 2014, they had not only expanded the operations, they had actually created havoc in Pakistan, in alliance with Al Qaeda.

The violence impacts Pakistan’s economy. Foreign investment will not come if they see the suicide attacks happening in Lahore, in Islamabad, in Peshawar. In some cases, the Taliban went after judges, they went after lawyers who were prosecuting TTP cases, and journalists as well. Through very targeted fear creation, they were able to create an environment in which people could not speak against TTP.

I think their real success moment came during the 2013 elections, in which they created an atmosphere in which political parties considered relatively liberal or progressive could not go out and campaign. By creating fear in a political sphere, they were able to influence the election results, and that, from a Taliban point of view, was a huge success. Not that it was a pro-Taliban religious extremist group that won the election, but they were able to influence the result.
What differentiates the Pakistani Taliban from the group in Afghanistan?

The Afghan Taliban are mostly the Pashtuns who were living in Afghanistan. Many of them were trained in Pakistani madrasas, but they associate their group with the Taliban government of 1996 to 2001.

The Pakistani Taliban is a separate group living on the Pakistan side of the border, and they emerged much later, in 2007, as a coherent group.

There is one group that connects them, which is the Haqqani Network. They had moved back from Afghanistan after the Afghan jihad, and they were thriving in the Pakistani tribal belt. This is the same area where the Pakistan Taliban operated. But the Pakistan Taliban, by and large, are only targeting the Pakistani army, Pakistani police, Pakistani citizens. The Afghan Taliban were focused on Kabul. The Haqqani group, though they were living among the Pakistan Taliban, they were not looking towards Islamabad; they were always looking towards Kabul. So this categorization is important — they may all look alike, speak the same language, have the same narrative, but on the ground, these are different groups.

In the 90s, the Pakistani defense establishment deemed the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to be pro-Indian. They wanted to use the Afghan Taliban to counter Indian influence. There was a perception that the Afghan Taliban were friends. It turned out after 9/11 that the Afghan Taliban were giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda. But Pakistan continued to deem them “good,” or pliable Taliban. The problem for the military establishment was the later cross-pollination with the Pakistani Taliban, who became the bad Taliban. Unfortunately for the Pakistani security establishment, acquiescence of the good Taliban made the bad Taliban stronger.

Pakistan has stepped up its counter-insurgency campaign, especially in the wake of last year’s Taliban attack on the Peshawar school. How successful has that campaign been?

The operation, to my understanding, has been the first major well-coordinated, planned, thought-out operation against the TTP. The campaign is not only restricted to the tribal areas, but also in Peshawar and Karachi — because the TTP had expanded networks and alliances all across Pakistan.

I was in Pakistan a few months ago and I interviewed security officials, even those who are critical of the military operations, and there was a kind of consensus that [the campaign] has been quite successful, at least in the tribal areas. The TTP’s hubs, which were in two or three important areas, have been cleared. The leadership is on the run. About 70 percent of the infrastructure in the tribal areas has been dismantled.

TTP is not dead — their alliances with other militant groups are still alive and kicking. But it is on the run, and there are no special sanctuaries for them to operate freely. As a result, the number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has significantly declined.

For complete Interview, click here

Monday, January 26, 2015

What Pakistan needs to do for effective and sustainable counterterrorism - Herald (January 2015)

Measure for measure: What Pakistan needs to do for effective and sustainable counterterrorism
By Hassan Abbas, 
Herald, January 2015 Annual edition

“Extremis malis extrema remedia,” is how a famous Latin saying goes, expressing the idea that “extreme situations require extreme remedies”. This sounds logical on the face of it but in reality it is a myth. Over the years, I have heard from so many Pakistani friends with various backgrounds that “Pakistan needs an Imam Khomeni”, implying that nothing short of a bloody revolution, which may take thousands of lives, is going to work for the country. Those who make this argument know little about the causes that led to the Islamic revolution in Iran – or for that matter the factors leading to the French or Russian revolutions.

The idea of military courts to tackle terrorism is a similar notion based on the fallacy that the use of hard power can deliver goods under all circumstances. Military means can indeed be – and, perhaps, must be – part of the solution when it comes to counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan but the nature and extent of the terrorism problem in the country requires a much broader, comprehensive and long term solution.

In the same vein, the government’s newfound zeal to execute those convicted of terrorism is a sop to those asking for extreme remedies. Death by guillotine has never been an effective counterterrorism tool and it never will be. Radicalisation and misdirected religious zeal need a different set of solutions. Simply put, an extremist state of mind that took decades to nurture and develop cannot be cured overnight through quick-fix measure such as hangings and military courts.

Dynamics of a counterterrorism policy

It is true that Pakistani policymakers are far clearer today about the roots and dynamics of terrorism in the country than before, and denial of reality is less of a serious challenge now than it was earlier. Still, it will be a while before this developing consensus against terrorism can mature into policies and strategies that really can rid the country of terrorism. Military operation in North Waziristan targeting the infrastructure of Pakistani Taliban – as important and critical as it is – is only a tactical maneuver. Similarly, the public pronouncements after the Peshawar school tragedy are the beginning of a potential transformation in policy. On their own, these statements do not yet a coherent policy form.

For a counterterrorism policy to be effective, the government must realise that Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its lacklustre approach in facing militancy head on for too long. The security and intelligence sector, too, has been quite unimaginative when it comes to its core mission of safeguarding the country from internal threats. Its overly imaginative concerns about external threats have sapped its energy and professional capabilities. In defence circles any interpretations that point out these gaps are deemed unpatriotic and unworthy of any serious consideration. Only exposure to other narratives and open mindedness can treat this fixation.

While the eyes must be focused on future, a clear understanding and recognition of past mistakes is necessary. An open national dialogue on the subject, which is slowly taking shape thanks to electronic and print media, must continue without fear or favour.

Pakistan’s current counterterrorism resolve, indeed, has the potential to transform into an effective policy but for that to happen the country’s leadership – both political and military – will have to adjust their priorities and make some compromises. The key components for any effective counterterrorism policy to come together are public awareness about what has been going on so far as well as the possible consequences of what many happen in the future. Given that rampant insecurity in the country with negative consequences for the economy may have already started galvanising people behind a robust policy to root out terrorism, such awareness creation is likely to find a ready audience. The most important stepping stone for such an awareness campaign should be the creations and propagation of a strong narrative on who the Taliban are and why they are the enemies of both the state and the society.

*Knowing the enemy

The genesis of the Pakistani Taliban owes a great deal to the history of lawlessness, tribalism and Pakistan’s perennial neglect of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]. Genuine political and economic grievances, coupled with Pakistan’s controversial role in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, have turned out to be the defining impetus. Their fake claim to religious knowledge allows them to bend religion the way they want, and mixing Islam up with their tribal cultural values has made it a successful enterprise…

Despite their capacity to conduct attacks anywhere in the country, including on the most sensitive of security targets, the Pakistani Taliban are not a mainstream force and are unable to develop into a wider political movement. While they face certain fractures due to the making and breaking of tribal alignments in FATA, their strength also lies in having foreign warriors, especially Arabs and Uzbeks, in their ranks. The Punjabi Taliban, which also recruit from among retired security officials and educated urban professionals, have added a lethal capability to the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban fit perfectly into the category of ‘terrorist organization’. Joining the battlefield in Syria is a new craze among its followers…

Despite some differences in approach and outlook, the various Taliban factions in Pakistan and Afghanistan share information, logistics and (at times) manpower resources. They rent weapons to each other and coordinate recruitment of suicide bombers. They also coordinate the targeting of those who challenge their ideas. Attacks on peace jirgas and assassinations of progressive elements on both sides of the Durand Line are now the norm in the area. Tribal ethos, Pashtun ethnic chauvinism, radical religious doctrine and political-cum-economic grievances provide a bond for this new generation of warriors.

The common thread running through the various Taliban factions is their strategy, which relies heavily on the perception of inevitability and a lack of time constraints. The funding streams of the Taliban – private donors in the Gulf, the illicit drug economy and extortion rackets in major economic hubs such as Karachi – provide them with a sustainable basis of support that not only enhances their capacity for insurgency and terror, but also connects them across the region….

Streamlining counterterrorism strategy

Along with narrative creation and awareness raising, the government must take concerted steps to streamline sectors such as judiciary and policing. Many other states have gone through terrorism related challenges and Pakistan should not shy away from learning from them. One document that can provide a broad outline for an effective counterterrorism policy is the Rabat Memorandum on Good Practices for Effective Counterterrorism Practice in the Criminal Justice Sector. This memorandum was developed in a February 2012 meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a multilateral “platform that focuses on identifying critical civilian [counterterrorism] needs, mobilizing the necessary expertise and resources to address such needs and enhance global cooperation”. The forum comprises 29 countries, including Pakistan.

As a participant in the Rabat Memorandum, Pakistan should diligently put into practice the following recommendations by the forum:

1. Protect victims, witnesses, informants, undercover agents, juries, investigators, prosecutors, defence counsel and judges in counterterrorism cases.

2. Encourage cooperation and coordination among domestic government agencies that have responsibilities or information relevant to counterterrorism.

3. Provide a legal framework and practical measures for electronic surveillance in counterterrorism investigations.

4. Provide for the lawful exercise of pre-trial detention of terrorist suspects.

5. Develop practices and procedures to encourage international cooperation in counterterrorism matters.

One thing that these guidelines make clear is that there is no shortcut to developing a sound counterterrorism strategy. Military and intelligence services can play a vital role in supporting the civilian law enforcement organisations in following these guidelines. But, as a Rand Corporation study, titled How Terrorist Groups End, states, effective police and intelligence work, rather than the use of military force, deliver better counterterrorism results.

By following a policing and judicial system that according to reputed think-tanks and global forums, are necessary for counterterrorism, Pakistani government can set the ball rolling for bringing about peace in the country. At the same time, however, it will have to focus on five additional critical factors that can enable it to devise a functional and sustainable counterterrorism policy. These factors are as follows:

1. The roots of militancy and extremism in Pakistan are inextricably linked to regional conflicts and, therefore, there is no denying the fact that any effective policy will have to cater to regional dynamics as well. Pakistan, however, must start by setting its own house in order. The terrorism problem in Pakistan is the most serious one in the region.

2. Pakistan’s military establishment arguably is now more focused in achieving its counterterrorism objectives than it was in the past and, in the process, it is trying to stop distinguishing between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban”. The political and bureaucratic elites, which have developed their own priorities likewise to remain relevant to the domestic power politics, will also need to make such a shift.

3. In parallel to countering terrorism through criminal justice system, deradicalisation programmes through economic and, especially, educational measures will be critical. There is no readymade formula available for the Pakistani situation. The government will have to invest in scholars and researchers from the relevant fields to figure out the most suitable model. Only professionals should lead deradicalisation projects.

4. Pakistan will need international support in this endeavour and the area where this international support is needed the most is forensics. The government must send its law enforcement officials to international training institutes for the purpose at a scale at least similar to what is available to the armed forces for training opportunities abroad.

5. Merely arguing that Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) are distorting Islamic teachings and beliefs is insufficient for counterterrorism purposes. A counter narrative crafted by progressive and educated religious scholars, challenging the credibility and devious messaging of extremists, is another urgent task awaiting state support.

Bureaucrats – both civilian and military -- have a tendency to assume that they have answers to every situation provided they are given the authority and resources. That has been a bane of Pakistan. For developing and promoting a counter narrative to extremism and bigotry, the fields of art, culture and literature are far more powerful mediums than bureaucratic and administrative measures. Pakistan has no dearth of talent in these fields.

In the religious sphere also, many poetic and literary works of Sufi saints are available that can pose serious theological challenge to the extremist narrative. It is ironic how Pakistan has failed to utilise such treasures not only to defeat extremism but also to promote pluralism and religious harmony.

*An excerpt from the author’s book, The Taliban Revival

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

ISIS Eyes Influence in Pakistan ?

Policy Brief: ISIS Eyes Influence in Pakistan: Focus, Fears and Future Prospects
Jinnah Institute, December 21, 2014
By Hassan Abbas

The rapidly expanding militant force in Iraq and Syria known globally by its Arabic acronym Daesh (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham) or in English ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is neither a myth nor does it appear to be a fleeting phenomenon. Tragically, it is real and has historical roots. The militant group has succeeded in rapidly taking control of a large tract of territory in Iraq, as well as erasing parts of the border between Iraq and Syria, conceptually establishing its writ in a way that is more than a sanctuary but insufficient to place it in the category of a state. At best it is a fluid state at the moment – with its foundations soaking in blood and its architecture being constructed on the pillars of brutality, fear, oppression and distortion of Islamic principles. Its genesis in the contemporary context is not organic in nature but arguably a product of mistaken and misdirected global policies. History too has played its hand but the recent turmoil in Middle East, sectarian proxy wars, and confused handling of the Arab spring, have all influenced this state of affairs. The Al-Qaeda narrative has also contributed to this rise as an effort to establish an ‘Islamic State’ with military objectives and expansionist ideals. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self appointed ‘caliph’ of the ISIS lacks any religious credentials and doesn’t even have support of major extremist Muslim groups around the world – but he has what none of them have – direct control of territory where around 8 million Muslims live. The five-year ISIS expansionist program is evident from the map that it purportedly released showing Pakistan as part of its ‘Khurasan’ province.3

For complete brief (pdf) click here

India - Pakistan Relations After Modi

Indo-Pak Relations: A Window of Opportunity that has Almost Closed
Economic & Political Weekly, Vol - XLIX No. 51, December 20, 2014 By Neeti Nair

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, with its massive majority, presents a real window of opportunity to interrogate and deepen processes already at play between India and Pakistan. However, the recent resurgence of Hindutva over governance amounts to letting go of this opportunity.
Neeti Nair ( is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, United States. She is the author of Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Harvard and Permanent Black, 2011.

Scholars, foreign policy analysts, and journalists focusing on Indo-Pak relations have long described these relations as “intractable”.[i] Even those analysts who have highlighted the recent “unprecedented initiatives taken by individual policymakers” have been guarded against such optimism; they have noted the “dictates of state-level pressures” and “political and institutional opposition in both countries”.[ii] They refer, in particular, to the pressures exerted by allies and the opposition on weak coalition governments — the norm in India for the last two decades. This essay contends that the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, with its massive majority, presents a real window of opportunity to interrogate and deepen diplomatic processes already at play between India and Pakistan. However, the recent resurgence of Hindutva over governance amounts to letting go of this opportunity.

Writing on the eve of the 16th Lok Sabha election results, Pranay Sharma, foreign editor at Outlook magazine, said that it is likely that regional parties would be part of the coalition at the centre. He also highlighted the attendant opportunities and difficulties that such an arrangement would entail for the crafting of a new foreign policy.[iii] The BJP hardly needed any allies to form government: with 282 seats, they had won over half the seats in Parliament. Commentators who tried to read between the lines of BJP’s electoral campaign and Narendra Modi’s new pan-Indian appeal argued that this was a mandate for development and governance, not Hindutva.[iv] This much was clear: the newly formed government had a solid majority to take significant steps towards transforming Indo-Pak relations.

Squandering Away the Opportunity

The Modi government’s early days suggested precisely this possibility. For his swearing-in ceremony, Modi invited all of India’s neighbors, including Pakistan. The symbolism of the shawl and sari that were exchanged between Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi (for the former’s wife and the latter’s mother) garnered much attention in the media and raised hopes of a new beginning in Indo-Pak relations. Some journalists also pointed to the fact that it had not been easy for Nawaz Sharif to ride roughshod over the army’s objections and come to India.

The tide began to turn later in the summer, after Modi took charge. There was heavy cross-border firing, which reportedly resulted in the death of five civilians and one Indian constable, across the LoC between India and Pakistan in October-November 2014.

For complete essay, click here

Yale Press Blog: 'Inside the World of ISIS — The Arab Taliban'

Inside the World of ISIS—The Arab Taliban
 Yale University Press, December 11, 2014
By Hassan Abbas

During my recent travels to Iraq, I heard first hand stories about the genesis and rise of Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham). The rapid expansion of this deadly militant group over a significant chunk of Iraq materialized through sheer brutality, oppression, and tyranny. A large section of the Syria-Iraq border region has evaporated in the process enabling collaboration and synergy among battle hardened militants from the Syrian warzone—an incubator for the new generation of terrorists. These militants are made up of Salafi strategists; foot soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan (financed largely by wealthy donors in Qatar, Kuwait & Saudi Arabia); and fighters belonging to Zarqawi inspired “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” In the case of Iraq, old Baathists (who are careful to wear masks during ISIS parades) also jumped in the fray in hopes of reclaiming at least some part of their lost power and prestige. Credible media reports maintain that militants from over 80 countries— including Western states—are represented in the conflict theatre. Leading this dynamic and diverse bunch of thugs is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of ISIS, who is the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of this so-called “Islamic State”—a fluid state at best which, in reality, is a professionally guarded and well equipped sanctuary of terror. Massacring Muslims and non-Muslims alike and beheading any Westerners that they can get their hands on are the trademarks of ISIS.

The idea of ISIS is neither new nor unique. Their tactics are modern but their ideology borrows from an extremist strain within the Muslim discourse. In more ways than one, the group is a byproduct of modern Muslim Wars. This includes internal conflicts as well as violent regional rivalries ranging from Iran versus Saudi Arabia to the Israel-Palestine clash. Many observers in the Middle East I talked to also blame the Western powers for their unconditional support and arming of “rebels” in Syria who ultimately grew into ISIS.

Shia versus Sunni is yet another lens through which this crisis is being viewed, but an astute Iraqi-American scholar told me that within Iraq many Shia political leaders view the ISIS onslaught primarily as a Sunni versus Sunni encounter inspired by regional oil politics. Turkish over-enthusiasm to expand its regional influence muddied the waters too.

For complete article, click here

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Daish Expanding Tentacles in Pakistan

IS recruiting thousands in Pakistan, govt warned in 'secret' report
Mubashir Zaidi, Dawn, November 8, 2014

KARACHI: The provincial government of Balochistan has conveyed a confidential report to the federal government and law enforcement agencies warning of increased footprints of militant organisation Islamic State (IS), also known by the Arabic acronym Daish, in Pakistan.

The ‘secret information report', a copy of which is available with DawnNews, is dated October 31, and states that IS has claimed to have recruited a massive 10 to 12,000 followers from the Hangu and Kurram Agency tribal areas.

"It has been reliably learnt that Daish has offered some elements of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wai Jamat (ASWJ) to join hands in Pakistan. Daish has also formed a ten-member Strategic Planning Wing," the report from the Home and Tribal Affair Department of Balochistan says.

The report states that the IS plans to attack military installations and government buildings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in retaliation to the army-led Zarb-i-Azb operation in North Waziristan and also plans to target members of the minority Shia community.

The Balochistan government called for heightened vigilance and security measures in the province as well as the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to prevent and pre-empt such attacks.

It has moreover called for sensitising law enforcement agencies on the issue and an increased monitoring of LeJ members.

The warning comes days after six top commanders of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), including its now defunct spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, have announced their allegiance to IS's caliph Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi Al Qureshi Al-Hussaini..

The Taliban spokesman said he, along with TTP chief for Orakzai Agency Saeed Khan, TTP chief for Kurram Agency Daulat Khan, TTP's Khyber Agency chief Fateh Gul Zaman, TTP’s Peshawar chief Mufti Hassan and TTP’s Hangu chief Khalid Mansoor, have announced their allegiance to Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi.

Earlier in the week, Shahidullah Shahid was replaced by Mohammad Khurasani as the new TTP spokesperson

The Islamic State's presence has not been officially established so far.
Perceived threat?

Security expert Dr Ejaz Hussain believes that Pakistan faces a perceived threat from the IS but it can mature into a real threat if they succeed in aligning themselves with the splinter groups of mainstream militants groups, including the TTP.

“If the Pakistan security apparatus fails to check their footprints, it could be a setback for them in future. It appears that the IS wants to focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly the time when US forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. If not checked, IS will pose a major threat to South Asia and the Persian Gulf,” Hussain told Dawn.

IS, which is led by Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi, is currently based in Iraq and Syria and occupies border areas. It is accused of killing hundreds of Muslims and some American and UK citizens, which include journalists and aid workers.

Wall-chalking has also begun to appear in support of IS in some cities of Pakistan, including Karachi and Khanewal.

ISIS Makes inroads in Afghanistan & Pakistan - Foreign Policy South Asia Channel, Sep 30, 2014