By Zahid Hussain
March 13, 2019
THE latest crackdown on outlawed militant outfits and their charity wings may appear to be conducted with more seriousness of purpose than before, yet there are questions about the undefined policy of mainstreaming elements that are willing to give up militancy. Some forces contend that bringing these elements into the political process would help defuse a delicate situation. But doing so without a clear policy will open up another can of worms.
While the government claims to have devised a three-pronged — economic, political and administrative — strategy to deal with the problem of militancy that has put Pakistan once again in the eye of the storm, there is still no clear national policy to achieve those objectives. Perhaps the thorniest issue pertains to the question of dealing with the thousands of activists affiliated with extremist groups that have continued to operate despite being outlawed.
In a countrywide swoop, the authorities have reportedly taken control of scores of religious schools and arrested several activists of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), listed as terrorist entities by the UN Security Council. It is not the first time such actions have been taken against these groups. It has almost become a ritual to clamp down on them after each crisis and under international pressure.
Almost all previous actions against these groups had proved largely cosmetic. There was hardly any serious effort to take the campaign to its logical conclusion. As a result, these groups kept resurfacing after the pressure was over. This has been evident over the last 15 years since a decision was taken to outlaw jihadist and extremist religious groups, manifesting a nonchalant approach towards a most serious security and diplomatic challenge.
Political expediency and the old habit of creating distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants made it harder to deal with the problem. There has hardly been any tangible sign of containing the activities of the groups that are now under intense international scrutiny. In fact, groups like JuD, though apparently involved in charity work, are alleged to have expanded their operations in the past, despite being put on the terror watch list. There are few who believe the argument that the group was only involved in charity work and had no connection with extremist politics.
Where the JeM is concerned, this outlawed group has been blamed for militant attacks across the LoC including the one on the Pathankot airbase three years ago. There were claims of a crackdown on the madressahs allegedly run by the group then but afterwards this action seemed to have petered out. The group has come into international focus once again in the latest Pakistan-India military stand-off.
Indisputably, there is a greater resolve now to wind up all jihadist outfits and their offshoots because of domestic and external compulsions. There is a tangible move to effectively implement the ban. Of course, the timing of the action is extremely important. Last year, the FATF, the global watchdog on money laundering, had placed Pakistan on its grey list for not doing enough to prevent terror financing and money laundering. The threat of being blacklisted will remain if Pakistan does not strictly implement the anti-terror measures required of it.
Moreover, Pakistan now faces much greater international pressure in the aftermath of the recent crisis with India. It appears almost certain that the UN Security Council sanctions committee will declare JeM leader Masood Azhar a global terrorist. In the past, China had blocked the move on technical grounds, but it would be difficult to do that now.
That would oblige Pakistan to act against Azhar. It would have been much better for Pakistan not to have tarried until now; it should have taken action against these non-state groups much earlier because of its own security considerations. That would have also saved it from diplomatic embarrassment.
There is no room any more for any expediency and slackness in dealing with outlawed militant groups. The argument presented by some that these outfits have not targeted the Pakistani state is not acceptable because it is equally dangerous for our national security if non-state actors who are accused of using our territory to strike beyond the borders are not reined in.
There should not be any problem now in taking decisive action against the groups that Pakistan itself has banned with the civil and military leaderships standing together on the issue. There is also a consensus among all mainstream political parties on fighting militancy and violent extremism. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to draw a clear line of action.
More importantly, there is a need for greater clarity on the contentious issue of mainstreaming former jihadists. Surely it is a serious question regarding what should be done about the thousands of activists who had been allegedly involved in the past in militant activities and charity work. There is no denying that there has to be a national policy on how to allow repentant former militants to come back to society.
The biggest nightmare for the security agencies is JuD workers joining terrorist groups in fighting the state. According to one official estimate, there are thousands of well-trained former militants who are to be reintegrated in the society. There has also been some suggestion that those having renounced militancy should be accommodated in government and private-sector jobs.
There is some weight in this argument. But there has to be a clear policy and a strict process of scrutiny before they can be reintegrated. Otherwise, the dangers of allowing unrepentant militants to operate with impunity and spread their radicalised worldview to the rest of society are only too obvious.
Any arbitrary decision about mainstreaming militancy could be extremely damaging. Allowing the banned groups to turn into political parties would be a dangerous move. There has to be a process through which the former jihadists are strictly scrutinised before being reintegrated into society. The success of the latest operation depends on whether we have learnt any lessons from our past policy failures.
Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.