Development Advocate Pakistan: Volume 3, Issue 1
Preventing Violent Extremism
The world continues to confront significant threats from extremist groups resorting to violent means to advance their agenda–be it ideological, religious or political. The kidnapping of school girls, the brutal murder of innocent civilians or the bombing of cultural and religious places are used by extremists to terrorize, expand their grip on territory, control resources and illegal trade or compel states in adopting some of their agendas. As recognized repeatedly by the UN Security Council, violent extremism poses a significant threat to global peace and stability, with tremendous impact on social cohesion, eroding development progress and hindering future gains. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2015, the total number of deaths from terrorism increased by 80 percent compared to the previous year. This is the largest annual increase in 15 years. Since the beginning of the century, there has been a nine-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014. Pakistan endures one of the heaviest tolls in the world with over 21 thousand civilian fatalities between 2003 and 2016 according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Sustainable human development today requires human security which can only be advanced by preventing and countering violent extremism.
It is notable that despite extensive studies on the causes and drivers of violent extremism and the popularity of the subject on the conference circuit, convincing evidence on what specifically drives extremism remains thin and contested. More definitive answers are complex, intertwined with an ample set of human deprivations and context specific. For example, in Pakistan, the forms and causes of violent extremism vary widely between FATA, Southern Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi, the Baloch insurgency or the sectarian violence against Shias belonging to the Hazara Community in Quetta. Overall, violent extremism in Pakistan is a heritage of geopolitical realities as the country joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and then Pakistan's choices in Afghanistan and Kashmir, the weakness of rule of law and governance, as well as a lack of preventive actions from the Pakistani state and society. State institutions and leaders have also at times supported extremist groups and invested in extremist faith and identity based narratives ostensibly in pursuit of strategic objectives. Reversing this trend will require unprecedented action based on a national consensus not only against all forms of violence but also against all forms of extremist narratives and a greater recognition of the values of pluralism, diversity and tolerance as one of the critical founding principles of the country, articulated compellingly by Quaid-e-Azam.
Responses to violent extremism in Pakistan have mostly taken the shape of counter terrorism operations. Since 2001, the army has conducted twelve such operations to counter extremists from various areas of the country. As a result, violence has sharply declined particularly during 2015 following operation Zarb-e- Azab and the Rangers continuing engagement in Karachi. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database again, terrorism casualties in Pakistan decreased 31.5 percent from 2013 to 2015. Sectarian violence has also dropped from 558 deaths in 2013, to 276 in 2015. After the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in 2015, where more than 150 students lost their lives, the government led the adoption of the National Action Plan to deal with terror. The plan, based on a broad political consensus, included among others, establishing special courts headed by army officers, crackdown on hate speeches, madrassah reforms, control on print and electronic media to curtail propagation of extremist ideology, clampdown on financiers of terrorist networks in Pakistan, the revival of the National Counter Terrorism Authority and other measures to improve rule of law. Some measures have moved ahead including the set-up of military courts, the registration of madrassahs and closing of some suspected in spreading violent extremism. This said however, it is widely understood that overall implementation remains quite limited. While reduction in violence is an important achievement, incidences such as the attacks on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, in a children's park in Lahore and too many others show the limits of the present strategy focused on security approaches.
A long lasting solution to violent extremism requires moving beyond a short term security dominated approach towards addressing multiple root causes: factors that breed extremism in the first place. Human rights violations, weak rule of law, shrinking political space especially for young people and for marginalized segments of society, and lack of prospects for earning a decent livelihood all play in the hands of violent groups. Since violent extremism is caused by multiple factors, policies to counter violent extremism must also be diverse and holistic. Pluralism, religious tolerance, protection of minorities and freedom of expression and improving governance should be engrained in the national counter terrorism strategies. Military operations can only reduce or contain terrorist incidents; good governance, rule of law and capable civilian institutions are needed to sustain progress. The media also has a significant role to play in promoting diversity and tolerance for the public good. Besides education and employment, the state should promote youth engagement in civic activities, culture and sports especially in geographical areas where they are more vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups. Moreover, there is a need for a broad consensus recognizing that short term political, security or geopolitical objectives cannot justify support for violent extremism, particularly given its devastating consequences on institutions and society.
The world community has also realized the need for a collective and holistic approach to preventing violent extremism by addressing root causes rather than mere counter terrorism operations. At the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon presented his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. This included good governance, ensuring rule of law, promoting political participation, providing quality education and decent jobs and respecting human rights. It calls for building inclusive institutions that are truly accountable to people, and to address alienation by promoting inclusiveness and participation. In these lies some guidance for Pakistan's counter terrorism and violent extremism policies.
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