Since 9/11, the United States and its international partners have attempted unsuccessfully to persuade and pressure Pakistan´s military to act decisively against homegrown and foreign terrorists. Ten years later, the result is that terrorist rot has spread in Pakistan, with civilian casualties outpacing those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorists using sanctuaries and bases of operations in Pakistan are not only targeting NATO and Afghan forces but civilians as well, launching cross border attacks such as the one in Mumbai in 2008. All the while, plot after disrupted terror plot in the United States, including the Times Square bomber, and Western Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, is traced back to Pakistan.
Rooting out the terrorists -- whether by force or through hearts and minds -- is a patch solution to a potentially endless problem. The real solution could begin and end in one completely overlooked place -- Pakistan´s criminal justice system.
The failure of Pakistan´s criminal justice system to pre-empt, investigate, and convict terrorists and other major criminals is alarming. A low conviction rate, hovering between 5 to 10 percent, is unsurprising in an already decrepit system where investigators are poorly trained, and prosecutors, also poorly trained, fail to build cases strong enough to stand in court. Corruption and intimidation run rampant in a system that lacks the most basic of modern tools, including forensic evidence and timely access to telephone records. Police and prosecutors gain confessions by coercion -- testimony that is inadmissible in court. There is no witness protection program and judges, who do not have access to security, are afraid to dole out harsh sentences to accused or convicted terrorists. It´s very common for militants and other violent criminals to be released on bail, and their trials drag on for years without conviction. The few who are actually sentenced and jailed continue to operate their illegal connections from within prison walls.
The failure of prosecutors to achieve convictions in major cases, such as the June 2008 Danish embassy bombing, the September 2008 Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad, or the March 2009 attack on a police academy in Lahore, further emboldens terrorists and weakens public confidence in the state´s ability to respond to terrorism. Until and unless there is meaningful civilian control over counterterrorism policy, accompanied by the necessary investments in police and prosecutors to enhance investigative capacity and case building, and until judges and witnesses are protected, even those terrorists that are captured and tried are likely to go scot-free.
Given the gravity of the situation, reform of the anarchic criminal justice sector should not only be a top domestic priority but should also receive far more attention and resources from Pakistan´s international partners. Pakistan´s international allies must recognize that an enhanced and reformed criminal justice sector remains the best and only sustainable option if the criminal genie is to be put back in the bottle. As yet, this support remains limited, with international attention and resources still disproportionately allocated to a military-led counterterrorism effort that is unlikely to make Americans and Europeans -- or Pakistanis -- safer.
Indeed, the Pakistani military´s approach has proved counterproductive, defined as it is by haphazard and heavy-handed force against militant networks, shortsighted peace deals, and continued support to India and Afghanistan-oriented jihadi groups. Moreover, the military´s tactics of illegal detentions, forced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings provoke public resentment and greater instability, undermining the fight against violent extremism. The United States should send an unambiguous message that the military´s gross human rights violations are unacceptable by conditioning military assistance on credible efforts by the military leadership to hold officials accountable for such actions. It should also allocate the necessary resources to modernize and enhance the counterterrorism capacity of the police and civilian intelligence agencies. Shifting the focus of security assistance from a lopsided partnership with the military to the civilian law enforcement agencies would make Pakistan a strong criminal justice partner and yield long-term counterterrorism dividends.
Samina Ahmed is South Asia project director at the International Crisis Group