Public Opinion and Counter–Terrorism Strategy

In democratic political settings, public opinion is essence of governance which not only facilitates rulers in implementation of their policies smoothly but can also remove irritants in political spheres. In the words of William Shakespeare, “public opinion is the mistress of success” and according to Blaise Pascal, “it is queen of the world.” Though its formalized tabulation can be traced back in the history of city-states of ancient Greece but term 'public opinion' was firstly coined in the Seventeenth century, when coffee-houses and subsequently in 18th and 19th centuries gentleman clubs played pivotal role in making and shaping the public opinion in the politics of England. Now with the invention of mass and social media, the concept of public opinion has completely revolutionized – without favourable public opinion every action of the state bound to have negative repercussions.

A critical relationship has developed between state policies and public opinion – public opinion is the true reflection of political dispensation. Abraham Lincoln has also emphasized that public opinion is everything, with it nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed. Terrorism is ideologically driven conflict with political objectives and being fought between State Actors (SAs) and Non-State Actors (NSAs) right in the public-yard. Public has become critical stakeholder in fight against terrorism and with increasing casualties and losses of people vis-à-vis SAs and NSAs, their opinion have acquired key role in the counter-terrorism meta-narrative, because an army may win thousands battles in counter-terrorism regime but cannot win the war without winning the public support.

Positive and negative perception both have significance in combating terror. Both adversaries can develop epistemic justification for launching their vilification campaign to tarnish the image of their opponents. Counter-terrorism meta-narrative has to address negative aspects which are having potentials of spoiling the image of SAs and picking up exploitable themes generated by NSAs to expose their face in the public. Ingredients of Public Perception

Centre of gravity of counterterrorism campaign rests in public opinion and NSAs' leadership, but the public opinion has relatively more significance. In counterterrorism meta-narrative, non-kinetic efforts should aim at building a favourable public opinion whereas kinetic efforts should focus on NSAs' leadership. Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Ex Ambassador and, Dr Shabnam Fayyaz, professor at Quaid-i-Azam University and expert on counterterrorism policy, have also endorsed the significance of public opinion with the unique words that the positive public opinion helped Pakistan Army to launch successful operations in Swat and South Waziristan Agency, and it is going to be precondition for extending operation to North Waziristan Agency.

Speech of Sufi Muhammad, Supreme Leader of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) about disregarding the Constitution of Pakistan, flogging incident of a girl in Swat and Malala's episode proved to be catalyst incidents in the war on terror. These incidents discredited the NSAs and the public opinion swung in favour of SAs. Public opinion has catalyzing role in War on Terror (WOT). This war cannot be won unless the public divorce the NSAs and distance itself from their narrative. This can help to dry up the bases of NSAs including sympathizers and support groups who are living in the masses and playing significant facilitating role in conduct of terrorist activities.

Cultivation of perception including making, shaping and maintaining favourable public opinion has become herculean task in obtaining antagonistic milieu. Military planners and strategists often overlook this aspect during the planning phase of operations and are unable to measure up the effect of public perception on kinetic efforts truly. Realistically, public opinion rests in justness of the cause, either of opposing forces can turn the public opinion on their side provided they can convince the masses about justness of their cause.

Sequentially, justness of the cause is linked to legitimacy of acts of state/ NSAs and legitimacy is connected to transparency in actions. These relations are fundamental in developing the public perception because it bolsters moral ascendency for winning the hearts and minds of masses. Securitization process can play a pivotal role in developing, shaping and maintaining positive public opinion before initiating kinetic prong against the NSAs. Securitization process can keep the counterterrorism effort and masses on same wavelength which should become punch line of counterterrorism meta-narrative.

Practically speaking, kinetic prongs are initiated against the NSAs and subsequently a psychological campaign is launched to win the hearts and minds of the people for building favourable public opinion.

This is a gross blunder in counterterrorism planning regime. Psychological campaign including securitization process for winning the hearts and minds of people must precede the kinetic prongs. Perception of masses ought to be managed before it is mystified by NSAs propaganda. NSAs can only win, if they are backed by public opinion because militarily they are far inferior to their adversaries. Idealistically speaking, time and space of kinetic prong against the NSAs should be determined by the public – only on their demand. However, it can also be manipulated through securitization efforts. Collateral Damage and Public Perception

Another sour point in counterterrorism regime is 'Collateral Damage' which is embedded in any type of kinetic efforts against NSAs, particularly in built up areas and directly influences the public mood. A kinetic prong without precise intelligence will be counterproductive because any military / police operation without tangible results like arrests, killings of terrorists or recoveries etc will alienate the public owing to collateral damages. It is extremely impossible to avoid collateral damages in such police/ military operations in buildup areas against NSAs. Collateral damage is catalyst in swinging the public opinion on either side.

Victims of collateral damage need prompt response which can be in shape of sympathies and compensation. A quick compensation of collateral damages should be part of military strategy and it must be made before NSAs sympathize / compensate the victims of operations. Delays and shallow promises for compensation of collateral damages will help to broaden the base of NSAs networks and it acts as catalyst in their recruiting phenomenon.

Hearts & Minds

Battle for hearts & minds can only be won, if law enforcing agencies respect civil liberties and principles of good governance. The Constitution of Pakistan has guaranteed the fundamental rights of people, which include freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to bear arms etc, which must be upheld in the fight against terror, because real security can only be achieved through respect for human rights.

SAs are far superior militarily, and during conduct of operations, may violate the fundamental rights of citizen unintentionally which provides justification and opportunities to NSAs for exploitation and helps in gaining sympathies. Violation of fundamental rights of people causes narcissistic injuries and such humiliation instigate the victims to take revenge. Vengeance promotes violence hence SAs should be careful during all operations. Respect for fundamental rights help in crafting conditions for perpetual peace in the society.

Mass Media

Mass media plays a significant role in cultivation of public perception; shaping public opinion on a variety of important issues, both through the information that is dispensed by them, and through the interpretations they make out of this information. They also play a large role in shaping modern culture, by selecting and portraying a particular set of beliefs, values, and traditions, as reality. That is, by portraying a certain interpretation of reality, they shape reality to be more in line with that interpretation. This overwhelming penetration of mass media in human lives has bolstered the role in cultivation of public opinion and reinforcing their religious and social believes. Even media can dictate the people, what to buy, wear, think, read and eat etc.

This role of media in daily lives of people can be used to mitigate the violence from the societies and promote culture of peace. Obtaining support of media should become fundamental ingredient of counterterrorism strategy for cultivation of perception to support the kinetic efforts of SAs.

Way Forward

WOT is unconventional war which has to be fought unconventionally – relatively more reliance on unconventional means than conventional tools. The public has become a major stakeholder because this war is fought right in the public-yard. Both SAs and NSAs need favourable public opinion to turn the table on their opponents, but public opinion would swing in the favour of those who convince for justness of the cause, legitimacy of acts and transparency in actions.

NSAs cannot win this war because militarily they are far inferior and only public support can strengthen their position. In democratic settings this war should be fought legitimately and despite of NSAs coercive and brutal activities, SAs should exercise strict restraint in violating the law of the land. Public support will extend morale ascendency and helps to curtail the period of violence.

Counterterrorism meta-narrative should focus on the aspects for cultivation of public perception favourable for keeping the public and SAs at same frequency. The SAs should hold regular briefings on conduct of WOT and share all the atrocities of NSAs with the public upfront. A regular press briefings on conduct of counterterrorism campaign and sharing all the details of operations conducted, arrests made and activities of the NSAs will greatly help to cultivate the positive public perception to win the hearts and minds of the general people.

The writer is a PhD scholar (Peace and Conflict Studies) at NDU, Islamabad.

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