Counterterrorism Farce – Aasim Zafar Khan

Pakistan has a brand new counter-terrorism force (CTF). The first batch of nearly 500 corporals, as they have been named, has recently graduated from an intensive course on investigation, intelligence and special operations. The trainings have been conducted by senior members of the Turkish National Police along with local counterterrorism experts, with a budget of Rs300 million, and this first batch is soon to be deployed across Punjab.

The chief minister calls it an ‘historic moment’, hailing the new force as the vanguard in the fight against ‘terrorism, extremism, and sectarianism’. The CTF has been raised as a vital component of last year’s National Internal Security Policy (NISP), which calls for ‘the establishment of a modern, well-equipped Federal Rapid Response Force (RRF). The total strength of the CTF is 1500, which will be spread across Punjab. Special police stations will be established initially in Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Multan. That’s 1500 CT specialists, for a population expected to touch 101 million in 2015.

And while all this sounds great, as is often the case with this current government of ours, all is not hale and hearty.

The following was the eligibility criteria for prospective applicants: a) BA/BSc or equivalent qualification with minimum second division grades; b) domiciled in Punjab; c) age limit 18 to 25 years. And the minimum endurance requirement was a) 1 mile run in 8 minutes for men, and 14 minutes for women; b) 3 chin-ups; c) 20 push-ups in 90 seconds and d) 20 sit ups in 90 seconds. There was also a minimum physical measurements requirement, but hopefully you’ve already gotten the idea.

There was no requirement of prior experience in counterterrorism, policing, or intelligence work. Nor for dealing with suicide attacks, remote-controlled bombs or hostage situations.

As such, the people who enrolled for this force (and have now graduated), are people with MBAs, doctors, engineers and the like. Anybody who couldn’t find a job jumped at the opportunity. And I don’t blame them. After all, it’s Rs75,000 a month. (In contrast, a constable earns about a puny Rs25,000 a month. But these are counterterrorism corporals!)

The only question to ask is this: are they fit for the job? Can somebody be taught the science and art of counterterrorism in under a year?

The answer is a resounding no.

Why then, was there the need to raise a brand new cadre with zero experience?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: because everybody else is taken.

The Elite Force (EF) was originally raised for counterterrorism. However, today all that they do is provide security cover for politicians, senators and the like. Rumour has it that only 10 percent of the Elite Force is available to protect the common Pakistani.

And then there’s the Special Branch (SB). Their core objective is to become the effective eyes and ears of the government and thus assist it in policy formulation, ensuring safety of life and property of the people and maintenance of law and order. But what the SB has been relegated to is snooping on politicians. Who’s drinking what, who’s sleeping with whom and other such racy matters. Yes, they also cover political rallies, corner meetings and the like. But you get the drift.

Two solid organisations, built specifically from within the police and intelligence quarters, for counterterrorism have been relegated to political duties and dirt gathering.

Hence the need for the CTF. By the by, these newly-made CT experts are on a three-year contract, with zero career advancement possibilities. While they have jumped into the frying pan because of their patriotism and the lucrative salary offered, expect major attrition as they realise exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Politicians need security. Everyone understands that. But not from such specialised forces. Take the United States Secret Service (USSS) as an example. It has two areas of responsibility, one of which is the protection of designated current and former politicians. And by association, it also secures all events where these designated politicians are to be present. If anything, Pakistan needs its own version of the SS. The political desks of the SB need to be abolished, and the EF must be released from its political duties.

These two organisations, if allowed to do what they were supposed to, would be a much stronger CT tool than the farcical CTF. But given the current levels of bureaucratic and political involvement within our law-enforcement agencies, the CTF was the best we could do.

Also, the CTF is currently Punjab specific. But as anybody worth their salt in counterterrorism knows, the nerve centre is not Fata, not Punjab, but Karachi. And the city by the sea is a complete different can of worms. A deadly mix of sectarianism, militancy, gangs and armed wings of political parties makes Pakistan’s largest city the most difficult to tackle. Word is that a thousand strong CTF will soon be established for the province. One thousand experts. For a population of at least 42 million.

As a former police officer told me recently, the entire concept of the CTF is nothing more than a band aid on a terminally ill institution.