Inertia of the mindset


Counterterrorism is a lot more than just metal scanners and barbed wires

On Thursday, the world over, fourteen people lost their lives to acts of terrorism (including a terrorist attack in Iraq, Israel and shootings in the United States). On the same day, in Pakistan, 114 people lost their lives to terrorism, in four separate and distinct attacks, carried out by different groups and outfits, in three unconnected and independent provinces. The bombings in Sawat (claiming 22 lives) was carried out by those who want to impose a militant brand of Islam across the country; the shootings in Karachi (claiming 6 lives) was a manifestation of people killings their brethrens for family/internal disputes; and the twin-bombings in Quetta (claiming 86 lives) were carried out by one sect of Islam against another, simply for believing in something marginally different from the one another. There can be no cavil with the idea that Pakistan – undisputedly – is home to global terrorism. A place where no man or beast is safe. A place where the barbarianism of the terrorists is matched, in equal proportion, with the spinelessness of the government, the apathy of the people and the impotence of the security forces.

But let us pause and ask where does our helplessness against the terrorism stem from? Why do we, day after day, watch our streets get awash with the blood of the innocent, and turn a blind eye? Why does every conversation about countering terrorism – be it between two citizens at a paan shop, or some extravagant drawing room – end with some version of “there is nothing we can do… he or she, this or that is to blame!”? Does a solution even exist? And if so, is it existentialist in nature, or can we implement actionable steps towards it?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the longer-term sustainable (permanent) solution to countering our plague of extremism lies in educating the population. We have all heard this. We all, at some level, believe in it. But this is a long road and will take the course of at least a generation. And none of us know exactly how to get there.

Let us get the next obvious thing out of the way: the government is to blame! For its inefficiencies, for its focusing on turf wars rather than governance. For the corruption and for propagating a system that perpetuates the interests of the (elite) few, at the cost of the downtrodden many.

The reason I wanted to get these two things out of the way was because frequently, by pointing towards such reasons (read: excuses), we conveniently conclude our conversations about the scourge of violence. And these goals – of a universally educated society and a clean and effective government – are so elusive in nature that they serve as an effective excuse for us to not deliberate structural solutions, and simply continue with our sense of ‘victimhood’.

Away from the overarching ideas of good governance, any discussion of countering the threat of extremism and violence has to start with a reform of our security agencies – and in particular the police. Why has the police force, in all of our provinces, been less than effective in cracking down on these militant organisations? The attacks of Thursday were not all carried out by cave-dwelling militants of the tribal areas – the most destructive were carried out by the banned Sunni outfit of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose members reside in the heart of our towns and cities. Still, why has the police been ineffective in either apprehending their members before any attack, or carrying out effective action against their leaders in consequence of these attacks? Is it a lack of will? Is it bad leadership? Or a lack of priority towards countering terrorism (since so much of the police is focused on VIP security)? Has police training evolved, over the past decade or so, to keep pace with modern day terrorism? Do they have the necessary equipment and weaponry? Or is it a failure of their intelligence (special branch)?

A casual conversation with senior police officials would reveal that it is a mixture of all of these issues (though they would be apprehensive in admitting the lack of effective police leadership). However, when pushed for an answer, they would admit that the modern day terrorism, almost touching 200 million people, has crept up on them faster than they had imagined. And that over the past decade or so, while militant groups were training in sophisticated explosives and deadlier ways of carrying out their attacks, the police has not ‘evolved’ to combat this threat. The police structure still works on the 19th century colonial model. Most pertinently, no major investment has been made in modern technologies and methods of surveillance and intelligence are still primarily based on human feelers.

Increasing the salaries, or teaching the police how to crawl under a barbed wire, or how to shoot while lying down at a target 50 yards away is no longer the requisite training to counter terrorism. Even the (ridiculous) ideas of getting the SHO elected (courtesy: PTI) will not help the police in countering what happened in Quetta three days back. This particular issue – of antiterrorism – will not be solved by introducing reforms in the process of registration of FIRs, or even by ensuring security of tenure among the leadership. Pakistan’s police must graduate from being a colonial force to embrace the modern methods of countering terrorism. Metal scanners and barbed wires are no longer sufficient. Money, training and effort has to be invested in developing new technologies, methods of better surveillance of suspected militant hideouts, automated lists of members of banned outfits, and a legislative regime that provides legal cover to a new age of anti-terrorism.

Regardless of what political party comes to power, of who gets appointed as the provincial IGP, until a concerted effort in this regard, with investment in technology and an unconventional mindset that breaks away from our rugged colonial procedures, is adopted, we will forever live in the fear of being killed – any moment – on the corner of every street in Pakistan.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]