Qaiser on “Pakistan’s Jihadist Cauldron: Between National Interest and Liability”

Photo: The Friday Times

CDA Institute Research Associate Adnan Qaiser examines Pakistan’s outlook towards religious militant extremists.

National interests of states are often blind-and brutal; yet they call for some rationality considering interlinked global destinies in the 21st century. Pakistan is often blamed for talking one policy on jihadists while walking another. However, inheriting a weak military at the time of subcontinent’s partition in 1947 and having remained a ‘national security state’ – facing existential threats from its archrival India – Pakistan had been obliged to patronize ultra-religious and right-wing conservative forces as an extension of its defence and foreign policies, a fact acknowledged by Pakistan’s former president, General Pervez Musharraf. Though it must be pointed out that Pakistan disregarded the very principle of intelligence-craft – that of devising elimination plan of an ‘asset’ concurrent to its creation – allowing these jihadist groups to turn into a Frankenstein’s monster, targeting their own creator and becoming a liability.

Despite proxy wars remaining in vogue (in the Middle East, Ukraine and Georgia, for instance), the present international climate is loathe to broadly approve non-state-actors. However, Pakistan finds itself in a quandary: having an array of jihadist networks on its soil, on one hand Pakistan feels bound to provide state-protection to the so-called ‘good-Taliban’ owing to regional and geopolitical compulsions; while on the other side the religious militancy’s immense destabilizing power has rendered the state powerless.

In his book, A to Z of Jehadi Organizations in Pakistan, Muhammad Amir Rana documents that by 2011 Pakistan had no less than 24 religious political parties, 82 sectarian organizations, 104 jihadist outfits and 26 tableeghi (Islamic missionary) groups making a total of some 237 religious militant organizations. This is over and above some 63 jihadist factions in Azad Kashmir struggle for (disputed) Kashmir’s liberation from India. Finally, at least six major welfare institutions operate in the country, not only promoting Islamic cause, but also providing financial assistance to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Arkan, Burma and Philippines.

Pakistan’s terror landscape can be divided into four broad categories: 1) Transnational terrorist organizations (like al-Qaeda and Daesh); 2) Regional and domestic terror-groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan borderlands (such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Ansar-ul-Sharia, Jamaat-ul-Ahraar and Lashkar-e-Khorasan); 3) Kashmiri mujahedeen (freedom fighters, also known as Punjabi Taliban, like Hizbul Mujahedeen, Lashkar-e-Tayaba and Jaish-e-Muhammad), and; 4) Sectarian militant bands (such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Sipah-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangavi-al-Almi, Jundullah and Jaish-ul-Adl).

Historically, the jihadists – or mujahedeen – have operated as a second line of defence and force multiplier during: 1) the Kashmir War of 1948; 2) the India-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971; 3) the Afghan jihad of 1980s against former Soviet Union; 4) the Kashmir Intifada during 1990s, and; 5) in Kargil conflict in 1999 between India and Pakistan. According to some accounts, the brutal killings of Bengali nationalists and intelligentsia by Jamaat-e-Islami’s ‘Al-Badr’ and ‘Al-Shams’ militant wings during riots and civil-war in East Pakistan – before the break-up of the country and emergence of Bangladesh in December 1971 – was sanctioned by the army. Pakistan’s former president, General Zia-ul-Haq, who believed himself as a champion of Islamic cause, further created violent sectarian armed groups at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries to counter the Shiite rising after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, sanctioning sectarian-killings in Pakistan. In his book Punjabi Taliban: Driving Extremism in Pakistan, Mujahid Hussain narrates about the “decade of 80s,” when “the religious outfits of the country wielded immense power and an elevated status in the society due to army’s inclination toward the process of religious purification.”

However, an about-turn on jihadists, under international pressure, between January 2002 and November 2005 and Pakistan’s internal vulnerabilities on war-on-terror in tribal areas led to the creation in December of 2007 of Pakistan’s bête noire: the TTP. Joined by the (abandoned) Kashmiri militants (Punjabi Taliban), the vicious TTP and its affiliate terror-groups have since spread carnage and mayhem on the streets of Pakistan through bombings and suicide attacks. In the 15-year period between 2002 and 2017 some 62,096 innocent Pakistanis have been killed due to terrorism. An additional 5,303 people lost their lives on account of sectarian killings from 1989 to 2017.

Pakistan, however, stays of two minds about getting rid of jihadists. First, despite having suffered a heavy toll, the army granted amnesty to the Punjabi Taliban through a peace-deal in January 2015. Meanwhile, the TTP consolidated its ranks by joining the leftover elements of al-Qaeda and Daesh in the region. In my 2015’s analysis, Snake Charming the Taliban, I had concluded that the Pakistani society is divided when it comes to extremism. Since the state itself treats the “good and bad Taliban” differently, a substantial majority – suffering from Stockholm Syndrome – calls them ‘estranged sons’ due to Pakistan’s participation in an ‘American war-on-terror.’

Secondly, the military and the civilian government don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of terrorism. Despite the Pakistani army launching a number of military operations in the tribal areas, not a single word of encouragement comes from the civilian leadership, what to talk of visiting the troops getting martyred at frontlines. Reason: The politicians do not want to antagonize the right-wing ultra-nationalist elements out of fear as well as disturbing their vote-bank. Seeing threat to their political capital – and financial corruption – the politicians have further put restrictions on the Rangers Operations in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, which drag-on aimlessly bringing a bad name to the army.

Third, the economic hardships, income disparities and social injustice have produced highly literate but unemployed youth, carrying no faith in an elitist and corrupt democracy or the outdated Colonial judicial system, as came out in a 2013’s British Council survey. Society’s marginalization and radicalization have not only increased the crime-rate – some 3.17 million criminal cases reported between 2008 and 2013 – but also made the youth find salvation in either martial law or Sharia based governance – with 84 percent Pakistanis favouring the latter. Extremism among youth is so alarmingly high that the army chief had to recently huddle all the universities’ vice-chancellors to lecture them on the gravity of situation. As I had found in another 2015’s paper: Jihadistan: Pakistan’s Path towards Extremism and Extermination, hyper-extremism has become society’s new-normal and accepted behaviour.

Fourth, Pakistan’s ‘power of pulpit’ remains a major hindrance towards harnessing jihadist culture. Pakistan’s first president, Ayub Khan, had notably observed: “Pakistan was not achieved to create a priest-ridden culture but it was created to evolve an enlightened society.” However, the religious militancy’s synthesis with religious economy granted the Mullah-mafia a predominant role in the society. Small wonder, uncountable and unregistered Madrassas (religious seminaries) keep mushrooming – churning out highly radicalized youth indoctrinated in the fervour of jihad.

Finally, the state is reluctant to take any action against the Afghan Taliban having sanctuaries in Pakistan – a fact admitted by Pakistan’s former foreign adviser, Sartaj Aziz – considering them ‘asset’ in any future political dispensation in Kabul. Same approach applies to the Kashmiri mujahedeen, who remain useful until the final resolution of Kashmir conflict with India. Simply placing (UN proscribed) Lashkar-e-Tayaba/Jamat-ud-Da’wa’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, under house-arrest and protesting against US blacklisting Hizbul Mujahedeen as terrorist group, explains Pakistan’s logic. As for the sectarian groups, the state is too fearful of their retribution – considering to mainstream them into politics. Thus despite proscribing some 212 militant organizations, the grant of amnesty to the Punjabi Taliban and allowing the Kashmiri and sectarian groups to operate freely in the country – under changed names – comes from state weakness and mislaid policies.

Since 2016, at least 14 scholarships have been published on Pakistani jihadists and their alleged links with Pakistan’s premier Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, demonstrating global unease about non-state actors. Under US policy review of Afghanistan, President Trump also expects Pakistan to change its “paradoxical” policy of supporting the militants.

However, Pakistan finds its jihadist policy justified under India’s continued belligerence. India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval keeps advocating a “defensive-offense” strategy toward Pakistan and former Indian defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, has vowed to use proxies against the country. Furthermore, the authors in their book Not War, Not Peace: Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism, posit five choices to India to counter Pakistani jihadists: 1) Conduct army-centric incursions such as Cold Start or proactive operations; 2) Carry-out limited airstrikes against designated targets; 3) Foment insurgency and disorder in Pakistan; 4) Innovate nuclear doctrine to complement precision-strike capability, and; 5) Adopt a non-violent compellence strategy.

The question is: can coercion bring a change in Pakistan’s outlook? Not likely, until Pakistan’s external threats are addressed and its territorial disputes are amicably resolved. However, Pakistan’s internal inconsistencies need to be corrected and its religious radicalization must be stemmed.

Caught between the devil and deep blue sea, the worst choice Pakistan can make is not to make any choice

Adnan Qaiser may be reached at:

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