Re-strategising the anti-terror war

COMMENT: Re-strategising the anti-terror war —Dr Rashid Ahmad Khan

Terrorism is not a legal problem or merely an issue of law and order. It is basically a political problem requiring a political approach to solve it. There should be political ownership and political control over the war against terrorism as war is too serious a business to be left to the generals only

Pakistan has been waging a war against terrorism for the last nine years. Despite incurring huge losses of life and property, its efforts have often been subjected to severe criticism for lack of a comprehensive and coherent strategy, especially due to the absence of a legal framework defining the powers of the security forces engaged in operations against the terrorists, the legal status of terrorists who are captured and imprisoned, the laws under which they are to be tried for various crimes, and outlining long-term plans for their de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. The need for such a framework and a comprehensive strategy had been felt since an increase in countrywide terrorist acts, especially suicide attacks, and launch of military operations in the tribal areas during the last six years. These operations led to the capture of hundreds of militants. All of them are languishing in jails as the government does not have a proper legal framework to try and punish them. The provisions of the Anti-Terror Act, 2004 are inadequate to deal with them effectively.

To meet this need, the federal government, last month, presented in the Senate new anti-terror legislation, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) Amendment Bill, 2010. The new bill proposes to introduce amendments or add new provisions to the ATA, 2004, which was evolved through a series of amendments from the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act. The amendments in existing anti-terrorism laws have been proposed after taking cognisance of the strategy and tactics employed by terrorist organisations to carry out their malicious activities in the country.

For example, in January 2002, a number of extremist and terrorist organisations were banned. But these organisations managed to operate under new names, retaining arms and weapons and maintaining their infrastructure, training camps and recruitment centres. This happened right under the vigilant eye of the state authorities. Their members were able to move freely in and out of the country, forging inter-provincial and trans-national linkages. Under the laws proposed in the new bill, no banned organisation will be allowed to operate under new nomenclature. They will also not be allowed to run any subsidiary organisation with activities similar to those of the banned organisations. The members of the proscribed organisations will neither be able to obtain passports nor allowed to travel abroad. No bank or financial institution will provide them financial assistance, loans or cards.

Under the proposed bill, the scope of the definition of terrorism and terrorist acts has also been expanded. Through proposed amendments in sub-section 6 of clause 2 of the 2004 Act, intimidating and terrorising the public, social sector, business community and attacking or preparing to attack civilians, government officials, installations, security forces or law enforcing agencies have also been declared as acts of terrorism. Through another amendment, any person possessing illegal explosive material or having illegal links with the explosives will also be included in the ambit of terrorism.

The bill proposes to enhance the powers of the law enforcement agencies to apprehend, investigate and imprison those accused of carrying out terrorist acts. Under the existing law, the term of punishment for a person found guilty of a terrorist act is seven years in jail. The proposed bill recommends it be enhanced to 10 years. The police will be authorised to summon any person during the investigation process. In order to prevent the release of the accused on bail, an amendment in the ATA, 2004 under the proposed bill, will deny the grant of bail by any court to a person found involved in a terrorist act.

The proposed legislation arms the security forces with vast powers to detain and investigate persons found involved in terrorism. The government will be empowered to issue orders for preventive detention for 90 days to conduct investigations against an accused with a previous record of involvement in activities covered by the proposed bill, or in case a reasonable complaint has been lodged or credible information or evidence has been received about their involvement in terrorist activities. Justifying these stringent measures, the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said the bill was needed to crush terrorists, whose attacks were adversely affecting security in the country.

The proposed bill is no doubt a big improvement on the existing anti-terrorism laws in the country, which have miserably failed to act as a deterrent. But this alone cannot meet the requirements of a comprehensive and coherent strategy. Terrorism is not a legal problem or merely an issue of law and order. It is basically a political problem requiring a political approach to solve it. The legal framework suggested under the new bill is just one dimension of this approach. The other elements of this approach ought to take into account many aspects. There should be political ownership and political control over the war against terrorism as war is too serious a business to be left to the generals only. Building a national consensus on the nature and challenges posed by extremism and terrorism is vital; there ought to be a clear statement on the policy and long-term goals of the war against terrorism, removing confusion in the minds of the people caused by inconsistent and contradictory statements by the government. A programme for de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of the young people imprisoned during the military operations is paramount. Such programmes have been initiated and have met considerable success in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Last, and most importantly, the PPP must fulfil its commitment made by Benazir Bhutto, under the party manifesto for the 2008 elections and announced on Independence Day by President Asif Ali Zardari last year, to introduce political reforms in FATA. Almost all political parties and civil society organisations in the country favour the extension of the Political Parties Act to the tribal areas. The enthusiasm with which the men and women in the tribal areas welcomed the introduction of universal adult franchise in 1996 provides sufficient ground for initiating, without any further delay, political reforms in the region, where only security considerations have determined the shape and functions of politico-administrative structures. Political reforms in the tribal areas will also be helpful in the war against militants as they would provide greater transparency in the war against terrorism, solve the issue of its political ownership and ensure Pakistan-Afghanistan border security.

The writer is a professor of International Relations at Sargodha University. He can be reached at

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