As John Kerry visits Pakistan, hopes rise for counterterrorism cooperation

The visit by John Kerry coincided with the reopening of the school in Peshawar that was devastated by a Taliban attack Dec. 16. That attack has galvanized Pakistan like no other before it.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shortly after arriving in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday, January 12, 2015.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Pakistan Monday with US hopes for counterterrorism cooperation buoyed in the wake of “Pakistan’s 9/11” last month – the slaughter of more than 130 children in a Taliban attack on a Peshawar school.

But even as Pakistan’s leadership commits to a fight with extremism that for decades has been marked more by Pakistan’s hesitation and even encouragement of certain militant groups, concerns are mounting that a new antiterror campaign will mean a trampling of basic civil rights.

Another worry is that Pakistan’s post-attack political unity is already fraying, as the country’s principal Islamist political parties reject aspects of the government’s new get-tough program.

As Secretary Kerry arrived in Islamabad for talks late Monday and Tuesday, rumors swirled that the chief US diplomat would visit the Peshawar school where Taliban fighters on Dec. 16 killed 150 people, mostly children, in what the militant group said was a revenge attack.

State Department officials would not confirm a Peshawar visit, which was hinted at by Sartaj Aziz, national security adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as he met with Kerry Monday. But US officials were clear about the point of Kerry’s unpublicized stop in Pakistan following a weekend visit to India.

“We’ll be very clear, as we have on previous occasions, that the Pakistani fight against [militants] has to root out all militant groups,” a senior State Department official said in briefing reporters about Kerry’s visit. Kerry’s “core message,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would be US insistence on a “real and sustained effort to constrain the ability” of all extremist groups operating in Pakistan.

Kerry was accompanied by Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of US Central Command, underscoring the security focus of a visit that is also expected to touch on economic issues.

The United States wants the redoubled effort to take on not just the Pakistani Taliban – which claimed responsibility for the Peshawar school attack in retribution for the military’s anti-Taliban offensive in the disputed North Waziristan region – but also the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The Haqqani network is active in neighboring Afghanistan and – according to the US – is supported by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence services as a means of maintaining influence in Afghanstan, in particular vis-à-vis India. Lashkar-e-Taiba is thought to have organized the deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in 2008 and is dedicated to battling Indian rule in Kashmir.

Kerry’s arrival in Pakistan Monday coincided with the reopening of the Army Public School in Peshawar that was devastated by the mid-December attack. Pakistani television showed boys arriving for school in ties and sweaters, flashing the V-for-victory sign, and vowing not to back down before the terrorists.

The attack galvanized Pakistani society like no other before it. The government seized on the public unity to reinforce its antiterrorism campaign, including by creating military courts to try terrorism suspects and by lifting a four-year-old moratorium on capital punishment for terrorism-related crimes.

Pakistani authorities have wasted no time and have already carried out nine executions under the reestablished death penalty.

So far, only Pakistan’s main Islamist political parties have stood against the tide of widespread support for the new measures. But some Pakistani legal scholars and international rights organizations are warning that the new powers granted the state – and in particular the military – could undermine Pakistan’s fragile democracy. Rights advocates are also condemning the military’s growing limitations on media access to areas of operation in the stepped-up battle with the Taliban.

“Misusing military courts, a resumption of executions, and denying media access to conflict areas is a recipe for renewed human rights violations rather than a rights-respecting response to militant atrocities,” says Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, in a statement on the new measures.

“Trampling rights,” Mr. Kine said, is “no antidote to atrocities.”

Some Pakistani legal experts are particularly wary of the new provision to use military courts for trying terror suspects, saying it risks undermining the rights guaranteed defendants under Pakistan’s Constitution.

At the same time, however, supporters of the measure point to the extremely low conviction rates in the country’s civilian courts that specialize in terrorism cases. Studies show that threats against the civilian courts and their judges have made convictions of terrorists a rare occurrence.

In any case, it seems unlikely that Kerry will pressure the Pakistanis to ease up on the antiterror measures, since the US has hardly ceased since the 9/11 attacks from pressuring Pakistan to get tough on terrorism. Before a dinner meeting with Prime Minister Sharif, Kerry offered America’s condolences for the Peshawar attack and pledged US support for the country’s battle with terrorism, according to the Pakistani press. And Sharif hailed the “vital” role the US plays in Pakistan’s regional policies.

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