AFTER declaring a ‘caliphate’ in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, the self-styled Islamic State group has unleashed a reign of terror in this region. The recent attack on the prison in Jalalabad shows how it has put its blood-soaked ideology into practice. Major gains had been made against the terrorist group in the Middle East towards the end of 2017, with both American- and Iranian-backed coalitions separately pounding the group’s positions in Syria and Iraq. While IS may not be completely eliminated from its erstwhile bastions in the Middle East, it is certainly a shadow of its former self, as the ‘caliphate’ at one time appeared poised to march on Baghdad, while it had established a ‘capital’ in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
There are lessons for the international community in the rise of IS and its hate-filled ideology, principally that such movements should not be taken lightly and that states need to stay ahead of such groups that use a mixture of religious symbols, charisma and acts of terrorism to brainwash potential recruits. Moreover, poorly governed spaces offer such groups a haven where they can train, rest and regroup. At the present time, ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan offer an ideal location for the Khorasan chapter of IS to establish itself and carry out terrorist attacks. The raid on the jail is proof that the deadly group is capable of wreaking plenty of havoc if left to its own devices. Around 30 people have been killed in the prison attack, which was ostensibly launched in reaction to the recent killing of a senior IS leader by Afghan forces near Jalalabad. Back in May, IS was involved in an attack targeting a police officer’s funeral — also in Nangarhar province — that killed over 30 people, while a chilling strike on a maternity hospital in a Shia-dominated area of Kabul, also in May, is widely believed to be the work of the group. As per a recent UN report, while IS in Afghanistan is in “territorial retreat”, the terrorist group “remains capable of carrying out high-profile attacks in various parts of the country”.
The fact is that unless there is durable peace between all Afghan factions — particularly the government and the Taliban — IS and those of its ilk will flourish in the chaos. Moreover, the ‘caliphate’ has many ideological fellow travellers in this region. These include thousands of TTP militants who are currently sheltering in Afghanistan, as well as other sectarian and extremist groups. If IS strengthens its foothold in Afghanistan, many of these militant groups will naturally gravitate towards it, creating a new security nightmare for the countries of South and Central Asia. The peace process between Kabul and the Taliban lumbers on, with a wobbly Eid truce largely holding. However, the longer the Afghan imbroglio drags on, the more strength IS will gain, threatening internal peace, as well as regional stability.
A SIGNIFICANT course correction seems to be on the horizon for the country’s commercial aviation sector. Some days ago, a special cabinet committee met to finalise a government plan to bifurcate the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority into two separate regulatory and operational oversight entities — the Pakistan Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority and the other the Pakistan Airports Authority. The CAA board has decided to review the move and present its input after incorporating the members’ concerns, one of which involves security. The move to outsource airports has been in the pipeline for some time; in fact it was proposed under the last PML-N government, but nothing came of it. When the PTI came to power, it revived the plan.
The proposed bifurcation of the CAA is a step in the right direction. For some time now, lobbies within Pakistan’s aviation sector have been influential enough to resist reforms that would have enforced discipline and enhanced accountability, particularly where the national flag carrier is concerned. As a result, matters continued to slide. The PK-8303 air crash and the ‘dubious licences’ fiasco dealt a huge blow to the state’s credibility in managing aviation safety, and the need to change course acquired a new urgency. If the bifurcation goes ahead, it may be simpler for practical reasons to retain the regulatory body’s name as PCAA, separate the other functions and place them under PAA. Most importantly though, the regulatory entity must be staffed with professionals: they should be experts who can ably run its various units such as flight operations and airworthiness inspectorates. Qualified personnel should be given the responsibility to implement the ICAO, FAA, EASA and aircraft manufacturers’ guidelines, standards and directives. This is a critical regulatory function where the CAA has performed shabbily. And appointing officers on deputation from the military and civil bureaucracy to undertake these specific functions is not the answer. The government must not rush into legislative changes to bring about this new system before doing its due diligence. Civil aviation authorities in developed countries can be a useful guide for Pakistan to review and from where it can adopt best practices. The CAAs in these countries function purely as regulators whose responsibility is to ensure safety through oversight of operators. In these places, the management of airports — even air traffic control and radar — is outsourced; the regulatory body is the final authority on safety regulations compliance by all parties concerned.
EVEN though the Gandhara Trail was earlier cancelled due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, with the number of cases steadily rising in the country in April, the KP government has now ‘hinted’ at kick-starting the much-anticipated tourism initiative after Eidul Azha. This venture would see tour operators take hundreds of tourists and pilgrims to Buddhist sites in Taxila, Swabi, Peshawar, Khyber, Mardan and Swat. It would undoubtedly be a wonderful way of highlighting Pakistan’s rich and diverse heritage. One hopes to see the Gandhara Trail operate smoothly and successfully in the coming months, and to see tourism reopening, albeit in small and organised pockets. There is no doubt that the global tourism sector has been badly hit due to the pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and the closing of borders.
Pakistan may not be an international hub for tourism, but it has similarly suffered, especially at a time when efforts were underway to increase travel to and within the country. According to a World Bank policy brief on tourism in South Asia, Pakistan could suffer a loss of $3.64bn due to the pandemic, jeopardising around 880,000 jobs in the tourism sector. Now, as the number of Covid-19 cases seems to be on the decline in Pakistan, small gatherings in open spaces, following all SOPs can perhaps be considered in the months ahead. However, even if there is some reason for optimism, the authorities must remain cautious, as the threat posed by the virus is far from over. For instance, it has also been reported that during the Eid holidays, thousands of tourists were barred from entering Swat and Manshera, leading to a long queue of cars at the entry points. This shows that there is still some distance to go before the situation can return to normal. The days following Eid and Muharram will be crucial in gauging the threat from the virus, and whether or not it is safe to begin reopening the tourism sector.