US Help Won’t Solve Pakistan’s Terrorism Problems

Earlier commentary on The Diplomat raised useful points regarding how the resurgence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threatened U.S. interests in the region and suggested that Washington support Islamabad’s counterterrorism capabilities to turn the tide of a terrorist wave.

But it could be argued that the United States, Europe, and other countries and international organizations were already helping Pakistan improve governance, infrastructure, economy, and counterterrorism capacities in the newly merged districts (NMD), the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). So long as Pakistan lacks the political will to root out terrorism on its western borderlands, any international efforts would be in vain.

Pakistan integrated the former FATA region into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018 and replaced its colonial legacy with Pakistan’s legal, administrative, and policing structures. These modern practices would serve as a deterrent against the prospects of the imposition of antiquated Shariah rules in the region by violent extremist organizations.

The provincial government launched the 10-year Tribal Decade Strategy (2018-2028) with the pledge to allocate 100 billion Pakistani rupees annually and another three-year Accelerated Development Program to improve public service delivery and fill the development gaps in the former FATA. These were great initiatives.

At the same time, Pakistan’s international partners came forward with financial resources and technical assistance to address weaknesses in the governance and policing system that made these areas vulnerable to militancy.

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In 2018, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched a five-year “Merged Areas Governance Project” (MAGP) in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and British Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). These programs promoted awareness among people in the newly merged districts about the importance of the alternative dispute resolution mechanism, administration model, and policing system through training and workshops.

The Accelerated Skills Development program of the UNDP and USAID aimed at providing trade and occupational skills to over 5,000 people to integrate them into local enterprises. USAID has also been involved in the construction of 1,300 kilometers of roads, including four major trans-border trade routes that facilitate inter-state trade and expand business opportunities for the local people.

The European Union’s five-year Aid to Uprooted People (AUP) program (2016-2021) facilitated the rehabilitation of temporally displaced people after the military operations in tribal lands from 2006-2016. Its skill development and livelihood support programs enabled young people to contribute to the local economy.

Germany also worked on a vocational training and skills development program assisting over 8,000 people in the NMD. About 70 percent of the trainees either started their own business or got a job in existing local businesses.

The larger purpose of all these initiatives is to rehabilitate the post-war infrastructure; empower the local community and build resilience among them against violent extremism; and assist the provincial administration in providing effective service delivery to build trust between the state and citizens.

Besides supporting the civilian administration, foreign donor organizations are also investing in the policing structure of the merged areas. In July 2022, the UNDP and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police announced the first “Policing Plans for the Merged Areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” with funding from Japan. The plan offered a framework for people-centered policing and emphasized improving the policing infrastructure and addressing capacity shortcomings.

Separately, in 2021, the U.S. consulate in Peshawar inaugurated a police training center and 10 check posts in the NMD to help the KP police augment the mainstreaming process of the informal policing personnel.

In June 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), in collaboration with Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and with funding from the EU, transferred 20 armored vehicles to the KP police. These vehicles would facilitate the swift mobility of the counterterrorism force in the dangerous environment of the newly merged districts.

Despite the various efforts of countries and multinational organizations, the Pakistani government has shown a lack of commitment toward economic development and law enforcement in the newly merged districts.

Under the Tribal Decade Strategy, the government had pledged 100 billion rupees per year. In January 2023, it was revealed in the Senate Committee on States and Frontier Regions that the federal government had disbursed only 85.5 billion rupees in the last four years – a shortfall of 385.5 billion rupees.

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Another report submitted to the Pakistani National Security Committee in December 2022 disclosed that the KP government was spending 96 percent of the police budget on salaries and allowances and only 4 percent on operations. There were no provisions for the procurement of counterterrorism equipment and technology. These statistics raised question marks on the counterterrorism capabilities of the KP police, especially in the merged areas in the context of increasing exposure to far-better-equipped terrorists. (TTP militants are using night vision goggles and sniper rifles that U.S. forces left in Afghanistan.)

More worryingly, in the last two years, the KP government had issued no grant for training of the former volunteer force (Khassadars) and levies in the NMD, nor has it planned any training for them in the coming year. The three-month training course for new recruits only provides introductory-level training and education. The local police thus remain badly undertrained – despite the fact that the provincial police force of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has far more efficient police training schools of investigation (including digital forensics and tracking), intelligence, tactics, and counterterrorism.

Strikingly, the TTP is increasing the use of the internet and social media apps to spread its ideology and provide training and explosive materials through online channels to potential “lone wolf” attackers. In comparison, the social media regulation and digital tracking capabilities of police in the merged areas remain non-existent.

All these shortcomings essentially stem from relying on short-term tactics (militarized policing) at the cost of sustainable counterterrorism strategy (civilian law enforcement). Counterterrorism and counter-violent extremism are essentially law-enforcement domains led by police and supported by intelligence agencies and the army.

After the military operations cleared the tribal belt of terrorists, the next step could have been to invest in civilian policing and strengthen the counterterrorism department in the tribal areas with advanced training, resources, infrastructures, and equitable salaries.

Instead, the militarization of policing in the ex-FATA region has contributed to incidents of widescale targeted and extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and extortion. This situation and the resurgence of the TTP in the merged areas have generated massive uproar among the local people; they have staged days-long protests in various districts. They are also against the revival of military operations.

Pakistan’s retired high-ranking police officials insist that military operations against terrorists are counterproductive in the long run. As former Inspector General of Police Tariq Khosa has argued, “It is the certainty of punishment – not its severity – that deters terrorists and promotes rule of law.”

Lastly, it could also be argued that all these investments and criminal justice reforms would prove insufficient to root out militancy and violent extremism if the country’s policy elite remains divided over the definition of terrorism. For example, without taking into confidence different political parties, the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government wanted to resettle the TTP militants in the newly merged districts. The action led to widespread protests across the ex-FATA region and invited critical press, which showed that civil society was against the move. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto accused the PTI leadership of being sympathetic to the TTP cause and having released TTP prisoners during their government (2018-2022). Not least, the debate within Pakistan is still rife over whether the Afghan Taliban are terrorists or harbingers of peace in Afghanistan.

Until Pakistan’s policy elite and civil society demonstrate a serious commitment and consensus, foreign investment in governance and policing system alone would fall short of eliminating terrorism and violent extremism in the country.