How to Deal with Extremism in Pakistan?
Daily Times, March 20, 2008
The aspirations of the Pakistani people must be central to the war on extremism in Pakistan. Anything short of that would be unacceptable to the Pakistani population and disastrous to US interests in the region
The recent surge in extremist violence across Pakistan requires a dramatic shift in the current campaign against terrorism, in Islamabad as well as in Washington. Already, in early 2008, Pakistan has suffered the tragic consequences of more than 100 suicide and other bomb attacks, with more than 30 people killed in Lahore in a recent attack.
The recent parliamentary elections provide an opportunity for a citizen-driven campaign to reduce violence against civilians. Indeed, the one area of post-election political convergence is that extremist violence is now a critical threat in Pakistan.
While there is no easy solution to violent extremism, Pakistan’s newly elected parliament must demonstrate responsibility and leadership in developing a Pakistani-driven approach. Until recently, the fight against Pakistan’s Taliban was seen as Washington’s war. This perception is rapidly changing among Pakistanis as militants continue to target innocent civilians in Pakistan’s cities and villages.
A recent poll conducted by the independent group, Terror Free Tomorrow, showed approval ratings for Osama bin Laden have dropped significantly from 46 percent in August of last year to 24 percent in February. In addition, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda have dwindled to 19 percent and 18 percent respectively.
Disillusionment with the extremists must be galvanised into a plan of action at this key juncture. Experience has demonstrated that successful counter-terrorism policies have surge capacity so that they can capitalise on the “mistakes” of the terrorists, especially when they kill innocent civilians. Surgical counter-terrorism (which need not be militarist) should focus on opportunities for generating revulsion, and changing minds, when extremists attack their own “people”.
US policymakers should respect the mandate given to Pakistan’s democratic representatives and allow them the political space to evolve home-grown solutions to the growing challenge of militancy. Only then can the United States provide effective assistance and develop a viable and trust-based relationship with the Pakistani people.
How can Pakistan’s political parties meet this enormous responsibility?
Two strategies could make a difference, but only if they are developed and managed by Pakistanis, with the United States playing a secondary and supportive role.
First, Pakistan’s new leaders should begin a national dialogue on the sources of terrorist violence. The discussion must reach beyond parliament to the Pakistani people, and be held in the media, in town halls, in the virtual world, and even in the tea house. Included in the dialogue should be tribal elders from FATA (not just pro-government elders but also the mushiraan who are financially, and otherwise, independent), members of the FATA Lawyers’ Forum, the Tribal Union of Journalists and other FATA activists.
The debate on terrorism should not remain confined to the Taliban and Al Qaeda or to FATA but ought to include the various extremist challenges Pakistan faces. For instance, sectarian violence between the Deobandi and Shia sects is the main source of terrorist violence in Pakistan and claims hundreds of lives every year.
Pakistani leaders ought to engage with non-government organisations, women’s rights groups, educators, and religious leaders to develop a grassroots strategy to address the underlying causes that lead to these violent acts. All political parties should join to convene a national dialogue to adopt a new approach, and then they can request that the United States and other allies redirect part of their existing military aid packages to the desired course of action.
A second initiative should be a greater focus on improving public safety. There is broad agreement that the military-centred approach, with a limited focus in FATA, is not working. While technical training and modern equipment will be necessary for Pakistan’s soldiers, renewing the Pakistani community-policing model developed in Karachi during the tumultuous 1990s is a critical step.
Community policing can help isolate terrorists within their environments, and push insurgents away from their support base. A critical element is public awareness campaigns, which explain to local constituencies how terrorists also target ordinary civilians. When applied successfully, these campaigns can help erode the tacit support for terrorists amongst the population, and thereby elicit public assistance in tracking down terrorists. On occasion, they prevent attacks.
Such a campaign could help to counter the extremist rhetoric that has dominated the airwaves in the towns and districts of Pakistan. Militants in Pakistan’s northern areas have adroitly used FM radios to indoctrinate young minds with sectarian and hate-filled speeches. While anti-terror legislation exists that forbids incitement to violence and hate-speech, perpetrators are almost never apprehended. Media outlets should push for the investigation of these cases and engage with religious scholars to provide counterarguments that promote religious diversity and pluralism.
If implemented with broad public engagement, these locally driven efforts will improve the rule of law and invigorate the judiciary — critical elements for the long term reduction of violent extremism.
The United States can help in two ways:
1) by supporting the engagement of Pakistan’s political parties and its people in the campaign against extremist violence; and
2) by improving its own knowledge of Pakistan and the domestic causes and sources of terror.
The aspirations of the Pakistani people must be central to the war on extremism in Pakistan. Anything short of that would be unacceptable to the Pakistani population and disastrous to US interests in the region.
Rick Barton and Karin von Hippel are Co-Directors of the PCR Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, which previously published A Perilous Course: US Strategy and Assistance to Pakistan. Mehlaqa Samdani is an advisor to their work on Pakistan