De-radicalizing the Pakistani Taliban
In July the Pakistan Army invited me to a National Seminar on De-Radicalization. The location was Swat district, which until May 2009 was a Taliban stronghold and subsequently featured heavy fighting between the Army and the insurgents. As we drove through the main road running through Mingora I saw walls pierced with bullets, cracked windows and half blown-off terrace railings. Signs of the conflict were obvious. In contrast, however, were the bustling markets and crowded streets. After an exodus at the start of the Pakistani Army’s counterinsurgency campaign Swatis had now returned to their homes and shops.
The conference, however, was not only a chance for the Pakistan Army to show off its accomplishments in Swat but also a first-time public unveiling of its post-conflict strategy to deal with former Taliban militants, especially child soldiers: systematic de-radicalization. The highlight of the conference, therefore, were a set of carefully orchestrated visits to the Army’s de-radicalization centers in various secret locations in Swat district.
The two centers I visited were Mishal and Sabaoon. The former was a de-radicalization and rehabilitation facility for adult men who had joined the Taliban. The latter is a facility for boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, many of whom were once being trained to become suicide bombers. While Mishal is under the Army’s control currently, Sabaoon is run by the Hum Pakistani Foundation and funded by UNICEF.
These centers serve two major goals: to ideologically cleanse the inmates of the Taliban’s radical teachings and to give them education and vocational skills so they can be employed once rehabilitated. Corrective religious education is an essential part of the de-radicalization programs. Clerics explain to these former Taliban members that only the state has the ability to declare jihad, that jihad against fellow Muslims and suicide missions are prohibited in Islam, and it is wrong to declare Westerners as infidels and wage jihad against them. Moreover, the boys at Sabaoon undergo a regular education based on the curricula of their provincial education commission and also learn skills such as gardening or basic computer operation. Similarly, men at Mishal are taught skills to become electricians, carpenters or plumbers.
The centers also offer psychological services to the captured militants. For example, many of the young boys had been physically and sexually abused by the Taliban and suffer from various psychological, emotional and physical disorders. Dr. Fareeha Peracha, a leading Pakistani psychiatrist who runs the center, and her team have spent time documenting the psychological condition of the boys at Sabaoon and provided treatment.
If there is one policy that Pakistan has got right in the war on terror it is this. The reality is that every militant cannot be killed. Moreover most captured militants cannot be prosecuted. As Babar Sattar, a Pakistani attorney and columnist explained during the seminar, militants hang in a state of legal limbo owing to their extra-judicial arrests and interrogations. Sooner or later many are released. An even grimmer reality conveyed by Qazi Jamil-ur-Rahman, former DIG of Malakand division (Swat), is that high risk and low risk militants are often kept in the same jails, causing radicalization within the prisons. Captured terrorists have also been able to erect terrorist networks and command centers within the prisons.
Long after the U.S. war in Afghanistan is over another more dangerous war will continue within Pakistan. Throes of militants belonging to various local and international jihadi organizations, most of them al Qaeda affiliates, will continue to operate inside Pakistan. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and various Kashmiri jihadi outfits will continue to enjoy the support from their Pakistani Taliban hosts and use this sanctuary to attack their original enemies in Central Asia, India and China. Putting captured militants through systemized de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs is a necessary tactic in the counterinsurgency in Pakistan. Not only can it save against the problems mentioned above, but also be important in ensuring long-term security in Pakistan.
The task is, of course, momentous. It must be remembered, however, that today’s rampant Islamist radicalism resulted from billions of dollars of funding and decades of jihadi indoctrination. Its remedy will also require a well-funded multinational effort. In August Prime Minister Gilani held a cabinet-level meeting to discuss implementing a national de-radicalization program in Pakistan. With the Pakistani government and Army on board and their willingness to let NGOs operate the deradicalization programs the international community has a unique opportunity for a multi-level cooperation with Pakistan, this time in the mission of peace, not war.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.
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