Shaken by multiple terror attacks across the country from the day it assumed office, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government wants to formulate what it calls a “comprehensive security policy” for Pakistan. The idea cannot be faulted. Pakistan has been caught in a maelstrom of terrorist violence since 2002 and at least two governments (2002-07 and 2008-13) have failed to address the problem in any meaningful way. So, it’s good if the present government thinks it is important to figure out what needs to be done instead of being reactive.
There’s a catch, however. The government, for all its good intentions, may come up short.
The Abbottabad Commission Report and security policy
If the government wants to develop a security policy, it must read the leaked Abbottabad Commission Report (ACR) - and very carefully. That document, while trying to find out how and why Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, lived in Pakistan undetected for nine years, comes up with findings and observations that clearly spell out all the weaknesses in Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) strategy.
The ACR speaks of the “Governance Implosion Syndrome” as the key reason for the inability of the State of Pakistan to find bin Laden, who was hiding in plain sight and, before settling down in Abbottabad, also moved around. The finding is important because it makes it very clear that any successful counter-terrorism strategy will have to be holistic and cannot afford to focus only on the hard aspects of security.
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Pakistan’s focus, until now, has been on military operations. While that effort was necessary to wrest control of areas under the direct control of terrorist groups that are loosely conglomerated under the banner of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan since 2007, it has plateaued. The reprisal attacks come in the urban centres where terrorist groups have an asymmetrical advantage over the State. The military is not trained for CT operations and the police, for the most part, do not have the capability to mount an effective CT response.
The ACR, in trying to connect the dots, comes up with a very important observation: an effective security policy, while improving the capacity of the police, must go beyond a narrow definition of security and, by implication, a CT strategy.
Let’s take the bin Laden case to see the various stages where his presence could have been detected. The land for his compound in Abbottabad was purchased through a bogus identity card. This means that Ibrahim, one of the Kuwaiti brothers who bought the land, managed to stay outside Pakistan’s digital database and by doing that remained untraceable. The building plan for the house was approved illegally and Ibrahim avoided paying the property tax for the entire duration that bin Laden lived in that house. The essential point in this story is that Ibrahim managed to take care of basic logistics, undetected, through illegal dealings with functionaries of the State.
Now turn this around. Imagine that Ibrahim could not secure the land the way he did. Imagine also that his attempt to purchase the land illegally had him caught at that stage. Suppose that he had managed to cross the first hurdle. The next snag would have been to get the building plan approved. Let’s assume that he had to submit a plan according to the requirements. If he were to then construct the house in violation of the original plan, he could be caught doing so by the inspectors who are supposed to inspect the site during the various phases of construction. One can go on.
None of this happened, of course. From the first person who got his palms greased to subsequent stages involving other functionaries, everyone got his share and helped Ibrahim and his master stay below the radar. None of these functionaries was performing the hard-security job and yet, as should be evident, every one of them was essential to detecting the presence of a wanted man.
Governance implosion and security
There is no direct evidence so far that any of those functionaries in the various civilian departments was knowingly complicit in hiding bin Laden. But their actions make two things clear.
One, graft is an accepted part of the routine functioning of government departments dealing with day to day life in Pakistan, and creates spaces within the system that can help hide people like bin Laden. Two, merely improving the capacity of the police and other security agencies to detect and apprehend those who pose a threat to the State, important though that is, will still fall short. Any security policy must also sensitise the entire government machinery, including those working in government departments that deal with everyday life and ostensibly perform non-security functions.
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They must be made to realise that they too are playing a security role in an environment where the adversary is elusive and the State’s effectiveness to fight back is directly proportional to the State’s ability to improve its reach.
The ACR’s use of the term “governance implosion” is therefore apt. Every government functionary, civilian and military, at every stage helped hide bin Laden, even if unwittingly. While the intelligence agencies need to be restructured and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate divested of its self-appointed role as a counter-intelligence agency - that job entrusted to a separate agency - the fact is that without a strategy to improve the functioning of the civilian administration and making petty officials aware of the danger of helping someone live below the radar, Pakistan cannot have an effective security policy and, by extension, a CT strategy.
The questions raised by the ACR provide an excellent beginning for developing a comprehensive and coordinated CT strategy. They focus on the larger-than-life role of the ISI that has sapped the energies of other agencies; the inability of the police to do effective policing because the current force structure is ill-suited to CT operations; the general apathy of government departments towards following rules meant to streamline the daily lives of people and help the State keep track of citizens; and, last but not least, the broader problem of civil-military imbalance on the one hand and the abdication of responsibility by the civilian principals on the other.
Without studying the findings and observations of the ACR, the Sharif government, notwithstanding its sincerity in formulating a security policy, will at best work out one with a narrow focus. But to do that the government must, first, release the report officially for an informed debate.
Ejaz Haider is the Editor for National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan.
Follow him on Twitter: @ejazhaider
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.