IN a significant and long-awaited response, Pakistanís political and military leaders have largely been able to develop a consensus on an action plan for countering terrorism. It took them 14 years to look at the gravity of the situation through the same lens. Meanwhile, thousands of lives have been lost and huge fiscal losses incurred while the negative processes of political, socio-cultural and ideological changes have taken their toll.

Will the proposed action plan prove adequate and effective to counter terrorism and reverse the whole phenomenon of religious extremism? It is a valid question especially in the context of growing extremist tendencies and the presence of a complex militant landscape in the country.

Though the challenge of tackling militancy has been huge and manifold, security institutions have lacked a proper counterterrorism (CT) framework. The announced action plan is an attempt to fill this void. The PML-N government had introduced a national internal security policy early this year and promised to make the National Counter-Terrorism Authority functional. The policy document was not coherent and failed to provide a workable CT framework. Nacta also remained non-functional, mainly because of capacity gaps, non-seriousness of the interior ministry and ambiguities about its mandate.

We can follow Western models in building a network of moderate religious scholars.
A working group of CT experts and the recently formed anti-terrorism action committee of parliament have successfully extracted a clear and workable framework from previous practices and policy documents to address the immediate challenges posed by terrorism.

However, many critical aspects of how to counter extremism have been left unaddressed in the announced action plan. A comprehensive counter-extremism strategy ó and not only objectives ó with a broader ideological, political and social perspective should complement and support the CT action plan.

Usually, the debate on counter-extremism in Pakistan is confined to three issues ó religious schooling, counter-narratives, and curriculum reforms. It is a common perception that madressahs make a major contribution to extremism in Pakistan. The religious clergy disagrees with this perception and blames mainly state-run educational institutions for radicalisation in the country. Education on the whole is a critical factor as radical elements of different types are free to use the available space within different education systems in the country.

Certainly, the main religious-ideological narratives of the state have been hijacked and reinterpreted by extremists and militants and the state has to reclaim and repair lost narratives. The larger task of countering extremism cannot be accomplished by merely reforming the curricula of schools and calling for a positive role by the mainstream media.

European nations have designed and implemented certain counter-extremism models. Most have similar components but focus mainly on two major ones: the prevention of violence through networking with vulnerable segments of society, and community engagement to counter radicalism. Their focus mainly re*mains on moderate religious messaging, rather than the reintegration of communities. Pakistanís context and the scale of the challenge are entirely different, but what we can learn from Western models is related to building a network of moderate religious scholars with a view to producing an alternative narrative.

In Pakistan, the power elites do not have connectivity with moderate religious scholars in society, and their views about religious communities and narratives are based on their interaction and working relationship with the leadership of religious-political parties. These parties may not necessarily represent moderate voices in the religious discourse. A few such voices might be found in religious-political parties, but they do not have a major impact on party policies.

There is a need to connect and bring such voices of reason into the mainstream to shape moderate narratives. To connect such voices of reason, some institutional mechanisms will be required. First of all, there is a dire need to establish a national dialogue forum. It can serve as a platform for scholars, academicians, political and religious leaders and policymakers to bring all key challenges to the discussion table to understand each otherís viewpoints. This dialogue forum will not only help connect diverse ideological, social and political segments of society, it can also create the environment for discussing critical issues.

Such an important initiative must come from the chief executive of the country, with the support of parliament. The prime ministerís office can lead this initiative, with a formal secretariat and administrative body. The national dialogue forum secretariat can have the support of a counter-extremism research centre comprising experts from relevant fields of the social sciences and religious studies. This centre can also establish a desk to monitor extremist narratives and hate speech.

Similarly, provincial counter-extremism research centres can be developed and connected with the forum. At the same time, provinces will need to establish curriculum review committees comprising educationists and experts from diverse religious, academic and political backgrounds. Such committees can be established separately within existing mechanisms, with specific tasks to regularly monitor and evaluate the impact of textbooks.

The provinces need to prioritise the registration of madressahs and to set up a mechanism to bring them under their administrative control. Interestingly, while provinces consider madressahs a federal issue, the federal ministries of religious affairs and the interior are confused about who is actually responsible for overseeing this sector. After the 18th Amendment, education is now a provincial subject and madressahs are the responsibility of the provinces, and the latter have to evolve certain mechanisms to take care of this area in education.

Another neglected area, which should be on the priority list of the provinces, is the establishment of de-radicalisation centres. So far, it is the Pakistan Army that has been running rehabilitation centres in Swat, but across the world it is considered a responsibility of the police. The provincial governments have to share this burden, which will ultimately help them control terrorism and crime.

While all these steps are important, the political and military leaderships have to realise that any CT strategy needs the cover of a counter-extremism plan.