Pakistan’s current situation is a true reflection of the proverbial saying that troubles never come alone but in battalions. Amidst the fallout of last year’s flashfloods, an afresh wave of violent extremism has surfaced at such a critical time when the country is already grappling with a serious political turmoil and the worst-ever economic crisis of its history.
Historic devaluation of Pakistani rupee coupled with skyrocketing hike in electricity, petroleum and commodity prices have led the society to an economic disaster. People are losing their jobs, small and even large businesses are closing down and poverty is going up, churning out plenty of raw material in terms jobless youths as an easy prey for the perpetrators of terrorism and violent extremism.
The saga going on for the last one and a half year has started producing visible results. As for the law and order, the gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that 99 terrorism incidents were reported from across the country in the month of August which is the highest number in any single month since November 2014. According to the data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS) the attacks resulted in 112 deaths and 87 injuries, mostly among security forces personnel and civilians. There was a 93 percent rise in militant attacks compared with July as 54 attacks were reported in July. At least 22 suicide attacks took place in the first eight months of 2023, in which 227 people were killed and 497 injured.
The country has seen a staggering increase in terrorism incidents during the last one and a half years. According to the annual Global Terrorism Index (GTI), released by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), there is a whopping 120 per cent increase in terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan in 2022 compared to the previous year. The report claims that it is the second largest increase in terrorism-related deaths worldwide in 2022, with the toll rising to 643 compared to 292 deaths the previous year.
Earlier in the month of August, an unfortunate incident of religiously motivated violence took place in Jaranwala Tehsil of Faisalabad district. Enraged mobs attacked Churches and the houses of local Christians over alleged reports that Quran pages were desecrated by them. Quoting the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), the CNN reported that at least 17 churches were vandalised in Jaranwala. Police arrested over 145 person on their alleged involvement in attacks.
Besides this, the emergence of highly violent and extremist behaviours among young political workers in the country is another alarming issue. The country witnessed a series of violent incidents during the last few months. The way the young political activists staged violent demonstrations reflected a new kind of violent and extremist behaviour among youth. Some quarters tend to undermine the gravity of this situation by simply dubbing it as a tug of war between two sides to hold sway over power, but it is not as simple as they try to portray it.
The aforementioned examples indicate two things: first the country is in the grip of terrorism stemming out of lingual, religious and regional extremism as well as political instability; second the centre stage in almost all of the above-mentioned incidents is held by the young people.
It may not be out of place to mention here that Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people ever recorded in history. According to the National Human Development report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), about 64% of the total population of Pakistan is below the age of 30. As per the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) statistics more than 45% of eligible voters are below 35 years of age. However, the snag is that a big portion of this young force is already jobless. As per an International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimate, the unemployment rate between the ages of 15 and 24 in Pakistan is 10.8% which is higher than other countries in the region like India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Pakistan needs to generate 1.3 million additional jobs on average every year as the number of people attaining working age is most likely to jump from the current four million to around five million by 2035.
There is no doubt that the state and nation are striving hard to cope with the law-and-order situation, counter violent extremism (VE) and terrorism in the country as well as revive the economy. In a recent meeting with the business community in Karachi, the Chief of Army Staff Gen. Asim Munir assured them to bring about $100bn investment from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait to heal country’s sick economy. He also discussed multiple issues ranging from gas, power, exports, corruption to the role of bureaucracy, smuggling of Iranian petrol, the culture of tax evasion, privatisation of sick SOEs, the return of illegal Afghani people to their homeland and non-filing of tax returns.
On the other hand, the state has adopted a number of initiatives to introduce a counterterrorism narrative and integrate this argument into policy discourse. A review of state’s endeavours to counter extremist behaviours and trends in the country in recent past reveals that the Ministry of Interior established National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in 2008. Feeling the gravity of the situation, the state stepped up efforts in 2014 and launched an initiative titled National Action Plan (NAP) to counter violent extremism. It’s revised version—National Internal Security Policy (NISP-11)—was launched in 2018 followed by National Counter Extremism Policy Guidelines (NCEPG 2018).
The initiatives like National Action Plan, Paigham-e-Pakistan, Dukhtran-e-Pakistan and National Security Policy offer great insight into the issue besides proposing multiple well-thought-of solutions. The solutions offered through these initiatives include a sort of national curriculum for the containment of violent extremism and terrorism, academic reforms, teachers’ training, elimination of hate material, reforms in madrassah education, positive use of social media, promotion of extracurricular activities among youth, rule of law, removal of sectarianism and a careful analysis of increasing sense of insecurity among youth. Under the Paigham-e-Pakistan and some other initiatives, Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) activities are being held at various universities and colleges across the country where youths are being trained on a narrative of peace, interfaith and inter-sect harmony.
However, a lot more is yet to be done to tackle the situation. Since the youth seems to be the most affected group of current political upheaval, economic crisis and terrorism in Pakistan, the socio-economic analysts believe that the secret of Pakistan’s progress and prosperity too lies in the meaningful engagement of young men and women in both economic and political activities. The state and the society need to join hands to tackle the issue. Multiple short and long-term policy measures are needed to overcome this challenge and secure the society, especially the youth, from falling prey to extremist narratives by keeping them away from this new wave of radicalisation.
Given the size of Pakistan’s young population and its projected growth, it is important to include the voices of young people in policies and initiatives, especially those that impact them.
Digital technologies are being utilised as vibrant new media platforms across the world to engage young people. However, it is somewhat an unexplored area in Pakistan. In order to fully exploit the potential of both the youth and the technology for youth employment, entrepreneurship and engagement, the government ought to ensure young people’s access to technologies. Short and long term courses to teach as to how to use new computer and internet-based technology may be launched with a special focus on developing practical skills.
The country needs to ensure the participation of young people in decision-making processes. Enacting laws which make it mandatory for the governments at federal, provincial and local levels to consult and engage young people on the policies and interventions that affect them can give them the chance to voice their concerns and put forth their suggestions.
Student unions at universities and colleges used to perform as a major platform for the political training of young people besides creating opportunities for their engagement in healthy activities. The government should lift ban from these unions to create opportunities for positive engagement of young students, though some checks may remain in place to prevent political parties’ intervention and keep the union activities on the right track.
Except for the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency’s (PILDAT) young politicians fellowship programme, there is no other considerable formal platform in Pakistan for engaging young people in policy-making processes. If we want to better understand the needs of young people, we need to create more likewise platforms for bringing young people onboard for policy-making.
Active participation of the youth in political process is a healthy sign for the state. In order to give the youth an exposure to decision making on development process, budgets, spending and planning at grass-roots level, two-way youth engagement platforms may be established at local government level. Similarly, initiatives to encourage young people to vote are likely to bring them into a very healthy activity besides strengthening the democracy. I believe that the solution to the prevailing political turmoil also lies in a strategy that keeps the youth into political discourse. It will be wiser to give a political antidot to politically infected youths.