Deradicalization emerging as a hot topic in Pakistan
A recent confessional video statement from a former radical spokesman has sparked debate over whether, when and how to engage with militants
On April 26, Pakistan’s army released a confessional video statement from a former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) mouthpiece. Liaquat Ali Khan, alias Ehsanullah Ehsan, was – before his surrender – the spokesperson for the banned Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of TTP.
Ehsan was the man who claimed responsibility, on behalf of the group, for some of Pakistan’s worst terror attacks, including the one in the town of Swat, in October 2012, in which the activist Malala Yousafzai was severely injured.
On May 4, in a significant development in neighboring Afghanistan, the warlord and chief of Hizb-e-Islami (HeI), Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, returned to Kabul after 20 years of self-imposed exile. This followed HeI signing a peace accord with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration in September.
Gulbuddin’s return has sparked debate about the reintegration of militant outfits. In Pakistan, Ehsan’s video has had a similar effect.
For many in Pakistan, particularly the families of terror victims, any notion of an amnesty for violent extremists is anathema. The people of Pakistan have suffered much in a wave of terror that has killed some 60,000 Pakistanis in recent years.
Debate was sparked, however, when an Islamabad-based think-tank – the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) – organized a working group session in March about the reintegration of militant outfits into the mainstream political arena. The head of the proscribed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), Maulana Ahmed Ludhyanvi, and Hafiz Masood, a senior Jamat ud Dawah (JuD) leader, were also invited. Both organizations said they wanted to play an active role in the country’s political landscape. The ASWJ is, indeed, already part of the electoral process.
Amir Rana, a counter-terrorism and PIPS director, told Asia Times: “The government can offer amnesty to banned groups that agree to give an undertaking that they will obey the Constitution of Pakistan, quit and denounce all kinds of violence and militant activities, shun all criminal activities including spreading hate messages, and most importantly register themselves with the relevant authorities.”
“Giving amnesty to militants like Ehsan and bringing them into the public could prove counterproductive as his surrender is not part of any reintegration or deradicalization efforts”
Marvi Sirmed, a social rights activist and Special Correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times, says, however: “Any re-integration of these organizations must be preceded by disarmament and then de-radicalization. Their deradicalization would [involve] denying the right of Pakistanis to wage jihad in Kashmir. They [would] have to spend a sandwich period of a couple of years in ‘de-learning’ the jihadi ideology.”
Deradicalization programs are currently running in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, an initiative was launched in 2009, back when when General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani was army chief. The army currently operates two centers but neither is equipped to deal with hardcore militancy.
Pakistan has negotiated with the banned TTP on four occasions in the past. These negotiations were intended to convince militants to lay down their arms, but ultimately they failed to achieve that aim.
The return of Ehsan has clouded the entire debate over reintegration. “Giving amnesty to militants like Ehsan and bringing them into the public could prove counterproductive as his surrender is not part of any reintegration or deradicalization efforts,” says Rana. “The state should only focus on those groups which have potential to be reintegrated.”
Pakistan needs to develop stronger mechanisms for deradicalization before the process of reintegration can happen. Experts believe Pakistan’s militant landscape is complex and threatening and requires a multi-pronged approach to neutralizing it. Parliamentary oversight is important and a truth and reconciliation commission at national level could help to “mainstream” those willing to shun violence. Any reintegration of banned organizations before their de-radicalization is complete could be lethal for a society that already shows signs of imploding.
Syed Arfeen is an investigative journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. He tweets @arfeensyyed