Pakistan in the Crosshairs


Beyond its shores, Pakistan’s fair name has unfortunately become synonymous with terrorism of the Islamic variety. Its reputation has, over the years, taken so much of a hit that even President Obama once referred to it as a ‘disastrously dysfunctional country’. Though most of us remain in defiant denial, the unpalatable fact is that the rising tide of radicalism and religious exclusivity that continues to envelop us in its embrace since the early nineteen eighties has forced its way unhindered into the national consciousness.

This wasn’t always so; the few hiccups encountered earlier, some, like the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 and the violent separation of the country’s eastern wing admittedly severe, were born more out of expediency and political inadequacies rather than an inherent sense of intolerance. Pakistan’s drift into extremism can best be understood through the prism of four back-to-back events that occurred in the period 1979-80: the Islamic Revolution in Iran(culminating in the ouster of the Shah), the brief occupation of the Holy Mosque in Makkah by a group of fanatical ideologues, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iraqi incursion into Iran.

The ripples that these events generated resounded much beyond the region to engulf the entire world. The Soviets had primarily jumped into Afghanistan in order to put their physical weight behind their favoured faction of the communist party in a confrontation that was turning increasingly violent. The US looked at it as a God-given opportunity to destabilise the Soviet Union and possibly hasten the end of the Cold War. The Saudis didn’t take too kindly to what they felt to be the spread of Soviet ‘godlessness’ and the ‘deviant’ Shia narrative of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Pakistan was under military rule at the time and its self-styled President was looking for legitimacy. US and Saudi interest in treating the country as a forward bastion against Soviet imperialism and Iranian influence clearly played into his hands. This convergence of interests led to the jihadi indoctrination of those selected for spearheading the Afghan resistance, as well as the spread of the intolerant Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam through the countless Saudi-funded Deobandi madrassas(and even an Islamic university in Islamabad) which cropped up along the length and breadth of Pakistan. While the funding for the Afghan resistance came from the US and Saudi Arabia, coordination, training and employment aspects were left to Pakistan. As a sideshow, Saddam Hussein of Iraq hardly needed any prodding to take the war to Iran, which proved to be an expensive gambit for the Arab world in general.

Though this joint strategy ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, it also had the unintended consequence of strengthening the hand of the hardliners in Iran. Its impact on Pakistan was no less significant: the country became flush with arms, drugs and jihadis of all shades, and the governments which followed, seemingly ill-equipped to deal with these challenges, decided to flow with the tide, and in the process made some ill-advised adjustments to make the best of this ungainly situation. Besides, unlike the US, which simply ditched its equally close involvement with the violent ideology that had established deep roots in the region and even beyond, our close association with the Saudis did not permit any such luxury, even if we were so inclined.

To top it all, the situation in Afghanistan became even more chaotic as the disparate jihadi groups started jockeying for power. The ensuing instability gave rise to the Taliban movement, which mostly included in its ranks the Afghan war orphans groomed in the Saudi-funded madrassas that had mushroomed along Pakistan’s western borders. The movement was initially directed at the systemic violence and injustice of the regional warlords, who had amassed huge power and pelf during the course of the resistance. As the Taliban kept notching up one easy victory after another and their ranks swelled with fresh recruits, their ambitions became loftier. So after consolidating themselves in the south, including the capital Kabul, they set their sights northward with a vengeance, towards the Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen and Hazara majority regions, thereby lending the civil conflict an ethnic flavour(the Taliban being predominantly Pashtun).

Two latter-day leaders of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, had arrived in Afghanistan during the waning years of the anti-Soviet resistance. On returning to their countries of origin, however, the increasing curbs and hostility that they faced, forced them to come back to a more conducive environment in the shape of the Taliban’s Afghanistan. The Arab-Afghans, as the foreign jihadis were then known, gravitated towards them, along with a representation of other regional and extra-regional Islamic revolutionary movements, all products of the Afghan jihad. The seeds of Al-Qaeda had begun to take root and in return for being left alone to pursue his own designs, Osama bin Laden not only contributed liberally to the Taliban cause but also dispensed ideological and strategic advice, which resulted in some of the worst atrocities of the civil war.

By the time the horrifying events of 9/11 unfolded, the Taliban had overrun most of Afghanistan and were knocking on the doors of the Panjsher valley, the last bastion of resistance. It hardly seems to be much of a coincidence that the man leading the effort, a renowned Tajik military commander named Ahmad Shah Masood, was targeted by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber barely a day before the US attacks. Though the 9/11 bombers were mostly Saudis, the US homed in on what it deemed to be the source of the planning, namely Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. When predictably, the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden for an international trial, the ground appeared set for a US-led invasion. The coalition was lucky to find a willing partner in the form of the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of all non-Pashtun communities which had been at the receiving end of the Taliban’s brutality. Remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban which survived the air and land blitz retreated into the mountainous hide-outs along the Pak-Afghan border and ultimately found their way to Pakistan’s tribal areas through a porous divide called the Durand Line, which though internationally recognised, had never proved to be much of a hindrance for the Pashtun tribes living on either side.

Shielded from public glare and free from any governmental interference, the next few years enabled Al-Qaeda to become fully entrenched in the Waziristan tribal belt and ingratiate itself with the locals through lavish display of money, which enabled it to cast its net of violent ideology both near and far. Capture of a large number of high-ranking Al-Qaeda leaders(who had gone underground in the major cities of Pakistan) and selected operations against the foreign fighters in South Waziristan led to two back-to-back attacks against President Musharraf in late 2003. The large scale clampdown which followed on the heels of the attempted assassinations forced the jihadi groups, which had coalesced under the guidance of Al Qaeda, to lash out in all directions.

Pakistan Army’s abortive attempts to assert control over the Wana sub-division of South Waziristan, where many foreign militants notably Uzbeks had been dug in, led to the signing of the infamous Shakai peace agreement of April 2004, which helped shore up the image of a brash young militant named Nek Muhammad, who emerged out of the distasteful episode as something of a hero. Al Qaeda’s policy of propping up independent-minded ambitious youngsters in leadership roles was apparently paying off; generous doses of SUVs, arms and money to selected individuals loyal to Al Qaeda ultimately led to the elimination of the traditional roles exercised by the tribal elders for preserving the peace.

From 2004 onwards, mayhem ruled supreme. It was as if Pakistan had given in to the forces of darkness, for whom no target was off limits, with indoctrinated suicide bombers being the weapon of choice. Apart from targeting senior military officers, including a Corps Commander, the militants also assassinated a former Prime Minister, Ms Benazir Bhutto. Shias, for whom the militants of the Wahhabi-Salafi-Deobandi orientation shared a major dislike, were the worst hit, with the Hazara community of Quetta, being so brutalised that they were either forced to flee or remained virtually ghettoized. The type of targets chosen were unimaginably diverse: Sunni Sufis, moderate Islamic scholars, liberal intellectuals, mosques, churches, minorities(Shias, Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus, Ismailis, Bohris etc), graveyards, shrines, schools, market places, courts of law, buses, military, LEAs and intelligence installations, along with a number of successful jailbreaks.

And just when the world was fooled into thinking that Al Qaeda and the Taliban had become irrelevant, it received a rude shock in the form of the summer offensive of 2006, which completely took NATO by surprise. Stung by allegations of complicity, the Pakistan Army’s first serious effort to restore the writ of the state in its tribal areas the next year(Operation Rah-e-Haq) was blunted by the clerics of the Red Mosque(Lal Masjid) in the centre of Islamabad, who continued to embarrass the state by issuing fatwas(religious opinions) against the Armed Forces and carrying out vigilante style antics. After having exhausted all means to talk sense into the clerics, who enjoyed a sizeable following in jihadi circles and substantial support within the levers of power, the Government was forced to storm the large mosque-cum-madrassas-cum hostel complex in July 2007, killing all those who had refused to vacate the premises.

Al Qaeda, whose presence in Waziristan had radicalised the tribesmen, used the Lal Masjid episode to galvanise the militants into forming a broad-based coalition under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to coordinate their attacks against the state. Apart from undertaking terrorist attacks within Pakistan, the Group, seized with the practical necessity to generate funds, started indulging in all sorts of illegal activities like drug trafficking, gun running, extortion, ransoms and even bank robberies to sustain itself.

The TTP upped the ante by taking violence to a whole new level. Following Ms Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, the first two months of 2008 were characterised by a series of particularly bloody suicide attacks. Al Qaeda’s new-found confidence was reflected in its strategy which it executed through its loyal confederates. It succeeded in extending its presence to the tribal areas of Mohmand and Bajaur which overlook the regions of Kunar and Nuristan on the Afghanistan side.

The threat that it now began to pose to Kabul from the north east compelled the NATO and Pakistani forces to launch a joint operation code-named Lionheart and its namesake Sherdil, from opposite sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Al Qaeda even managed to infiltrate the Khyber Agency which was traditionally a stronghold of the followers of the more tolerant Sufi Barelvi school. Realising that 80% of NATO supplies were passing through the Khyber Pass, Al Qaeda started mounting regular attacks on the convoys in a bid to disrupt it. Within Afghanistan though, the Taliban kept on extorting huge sums of money to provide safe passage to the convoys getting through.

Amidst all this excitement, Pakistan failed to notice, or perhaps chose to ignore, a young firebrand cleric whose continuous sermons on a mobile FM radio transmitter that he had commandeered, about the virtues of Islamic governance and the pressing need for speedy justice touched a raw nerve amongst the citizens of Swat, a former princely state and presently part of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas. Alarm bells however rang when the TTP, facilitated by the popular Mulla Fazlullah, took over the scenic valley, replacing the civil functionaries there with those from amongst its own cadre, and let loose a reign of terror. The nation went into shock when it was reported that the militants were knocking on the doors of Islamabad through the Margalla Hills to the north. As the Army got into action and reversed these gains, Mulla Fazlullah escaped to Afghanistan, where he set up camp for his anti-Pakistan activities. Further horrors were in store for Pakistan when the same Fazlullah was chosen, against all odds, to head the TTP after the killing of its previous head, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike and it became increasingly apparent that he was being sponsored by Afghan intelligence.

The new government that was sworn in in Pakistan in mid-2013 tried to initiate a dialogue with the local Taliban rather than taking them head-on, even when it was becoming obvious that the group was just stalling for time. A major terrorist attack on Karachi Airport an year later was, to all intents and purposes, like any other. As far as the Army’s reaction was concerned, however, it wasn’t. It immediately launched a full scale attack on North Waziristan, a subject of great vacillation earlier, where militants of all shades under the umbrella of Al Qaeda, were holding complete sway. The senseless retaliatory attack on an Army-run Public school on the outskirts of Peshawar, resulting in the wanton slaughter of 140 students, proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; the Government was forced to prepare a National Action Plan to combat terrorism on all fronts. The religious right was finally somewhat on the defensive after a very long time, enabling the LEAs to go in for the financiers and facilitators of terrorism also for a change. Though the level of success achieved cannot still be accurately gauged, statistics do reveal a sharp drop of upto 60% in the number of terrorist incidents in 2015 as compared to the previous year and a further drop of 21% in 2017 in comparison to the year before.

Ever since the Soviet incursion in 1979, Pakistan’s Afghan policy hinged on two major considerations, the need to have a subservient government on its north western border and to dampen Indian influence. This has proved to be a massive failure on both counts: Pakistan is deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, while India has made deep inroads at every level, due to its shrewd investments in projects and men. Pakistan’s position improved a few notches early in 2016 when its role in pressing the Afghan Taliban to engage in dialogue under the aegis of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group(QCG) was formally recognised. The process itself got bogged down by delays resulting from the belated revelation of the death of the reclusive Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and the power struggle that ensued. A massive truck bombing in the heart of Kabul at the start of the Taliban spring offensive that year, for which Pakistan was blamed for facilitation, lent a lethal blow to Islamabad’s already fragile relationship with Kabul. The assassination of the erstwhile Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who Pakistan felt was inclining towards peace, in a drone strike near the Pak-Afghan border, finally put paid to all such efforts.

Though there are ample grounds for despondency, a significant number of Pakistanis are now increasingly looking to the future with hope. The military has managed to achieve the unthinkable by establishing the writ of the government in almost the entire tribal belt, including the treacherous Shawal valley, located strategically at the confluence of Afghanistan and North and South Waziristan. It then briefly turned its attention to South Punjab, long a hotbed of extremism and sectarianism, which had escaped scrutiny thus far because of the patronage being extended by local influentials. The riverine areas at the confluence of the provinces of Baluchistan, Sindh and Punjab, which served as the hideout of various criminal and sectarian gangs, were consequently cleansed. The military went on to signal its intent to target the hideouts and sleeper cells of the militants throughout the country. Karachi, the most industrialised city of Pakistan, which had been brought to the brink of anarchy through systematic extortion, kidnapping for ransom, bank robberies and target killings conducted by criminal and sectarian gangs, working under the patronage of various political and religious parties, has now somewhat regained a semblance of normality, thanks to the Army’s initiative taken under the National Action Plan. The province of Baluchistan likewise which was increasingly becoming ungovernable has been stabilised to a large extent. It is no wonder then that the Army is being increasingly viewed with favour in the country, in stark contrast to the perceived nepotism and corruption-laden ways of the politicians and bureaucrats.

Though many countries still look towards Pakistan with unease, yet within the country a feeling of hope has begun to emerge, for possibly the first time in decades, that change is in the air. An enabling environment has finally been created where civil voices striving for openness and tolerance can be more easily heard, despite some of them like Ms Sabeen Mahmud and Mr Khurram Zaki still being silenced. After a very long time, issues relating to the rights of minorities are being openly discussed. Surprising as it may seem, women are in the forefront of the movement for change, pushing boundaries as never before: Ms Malala Yousafzai became the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Ms Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won two back-to-back Oscars for documentaries highlighting socially disturbing issues; Ms Muniba Mazari has been made UNs Goodwill Ambassador for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women; Ms Fiza Farhan has been appointed member of UNs first ever panel on women empowerment and enjoys the distinction of being included in the Forbes Top 100 list of women entrepreneurs under 30; Ms Seema Aziz, founder of the charitable CARE foundation, which has grown from one school launched 26 years ago to 700 at present; and the list goes on. The Women’s Action Forum has, since the dark days of the Zia regime, been engaged in civil activism to mitigate the plight of the socially disadvantaged. And above all, the sight of many amongst the high and mighty appearing in court appears to finally signal that accountability is no longer reserved for the disadvantaged.

Having said that, no country should ever forget that its primary duty is to look after the welfare needs of its citizens. Pakistan’s budgetary allocations towards health and education are abysmally low and a lot of that amount too is prone to corruption. These vital sectors should have collapsed by now, were it not for the desperately-needed involvement of Social Workers, philanthropists and NGOs. Regardless of how well a country is able to protect its borders, its future is doomed unless it is able to significantly invest in its human resources and reap the benefits therefrom. With a burgeoning population and youth bulge, the focus should be on revitalising our economy to create at least enough jobs every year to keep the current rampant unemployment in check. Nepotism, which is the lifeblood of the elitist system in place, needs to be replaced by an open merit-based system. The menace of corruption, long taken for granted, has to be agitated against.

The value of regional trade as a key to economic prosperity can hardly be overestimated. Most countries have thus created local associations and negotiated trade pacts in order to regulate and facilitate such trade. Pakistan stands out from the pack by having virtually negligible trade volumes with its neighbours, apart from China(with which again it is a one-way arrangement at most. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) making steady progress, the hype that is being generated tends to suggest that this project alone is sufficient to guarantee our economic prosperity. The unpalatable fact is that in the absence of any real competition or alternate sources of financing, Chinese companies will continue to take us for a ride. The various projects announced as part of the CPEC(road, rail, energy, industrial zones) may prove to be unsustainable in the medium to long term if it exceeds our capacity to repay the exorbitant loans that continue to pile up. But above all, the much talked about benefits would never trickle down to Pakistan nor to the common man unless the country is itself prepared to venture into the dreaded domain of institutionalised reforms, the only way in which we can improve our ranking in the Ease of Doing Business index. We shouldn’t moreover ignore the obvious, that without the willing participation of Afghanistan in the trade and energy routes to Central Asian States and beyond, as envisioned by China under its One Belt One Road initiative, CPEC risks being relegated to a bilateral(Pakistan-China) arrangement only. Afghanistan’s involvement can only come about if we manage to allay its suspicions about allowing our soil to be used for conducting attacks. Pakistan too has misgivings about TTP elements within Afghanistan being under the sway of Afghan and Indian intelligence. The setting up of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, under whose aegis Pakistan had promised to do whatever it can to bring the Afghan Taliban leadership to the dialogue table, had been an auspicious beginning; its a pity though that it’s efforts couldn’t bear fruit. The past year(2017) has witnessed repeated attacks against high-value targets in Kabul, for all of which blame was laid at the door of the Haqqani Group and its well-publicised links with Pakistan remained constantly under the scanner. Since the US too whole-heartedly shares this perception, with NATOs Resolute Support Mission in Kabul dubbing the Haqqanis as the most lethal terrorist group in the area, the onus to allay such suspicions falls on Pakistan.

President Trump’s infamous New Year’s Day tweet about Pakistan giving the US nothing but ‘lies and deceit’ in return for the $33 billion in aid it has ‘foolishly’ lavished on the country over the last 15 years has completely transformed the narrative. A balance of sorts had hitherto been maintained in Pak-US relations by virtue of what was perceived as mutual interdependence. The fragility of this unequal relationship stood brutally exposed when the Coalition Support Fund reimbursements were withheld by the US. Pakistan’s reaction was interesting, with both its Foreign and Defence Ministers questioning the aid figure via counter tweets and offering to submit to an audit by a US-based firm. At another level, the country showed defiance by reiterating that it has already done more than its share and that withholding of CSF reimbursements would not make much of a difference. The matter took a new turn when the 37-member Financial Action Task Force decided in its Paris meeting to place Pakistan in the grey list of terror financing countries in June 2018. The general impression is that Pakistan didn’t take the issue seriously enough, and it was only in the last few days before the scheduled meeting that the state announced the seizure of assets of the charitable wings of the banned organisations, a cosmetic move widely seen as a face-saving measure. The world after all had seen the banned groups outlawed under UNSC resolutions hold widely attended public meetings, address press conferences, carry out fund collection drives in the open and be proudly referred to by the highest state functionaries as its ‘strategic assets’. Since no tangible action had been taken against the country thus far, Pakistan can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that it’ll also escape censure this time around. The only difference which went unnoticed was that the American mood had changed. Now that the damage has been done, it’s imperative for the country to set its house in order instead of continuing to rely on conspiracy theories which has ill-served its interests in the past. It’s not Pakistan’s impending placement in the grey list that matters(after all, it had figured in it earlier too, in the time frames 2008-2010 and 2012-2015), what matters more is whether the country is now prepared to undertake the harsh measures that would be required from her to escape an even harsher fate.

It goes without saying that stability, not only in Afghanistan, but within Pakistan also, is a prerequisite for progress of any kind. Since the past decade or so, no other country beyond a declared war-wracked zone has been subjected to as many incidents of terrorism as Pakistan was. The country had reached a pass where nothing was safe, not even educational institutions or places of worship either. The slight relief afforded by the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in mid-2014 needs to be augmented by truly combatting terrorism ‘in all its forms and manifestations’ as the official phrase goes. Non-military aspects of the National Action Plan, like judicial reforms, curbs on hate literature, protection of minorities, development work and administrative reforms in the tribal areas deserves dedicated focus.

The general impression being nurtured is that Pakistan is a country ‘more sinn’d against than sinning’. Resort to conspiracy theories to justify this narrative hides the ugly truth that governance aspects, a particularly weak area, needs a drastic overhaul. The country has traditionally been ruled by a tiny feudal-industrial elite, which ruthlessly clings to its privileges to the detriment of the vast majority it lords over. The near total supremacy that it enjoys is slowly coming under threat in this age of bold reporting, prying cameras and numerous competing TV news channels. More and more people are becoming aware of their rights and putting the Administration under the sort of pressure it had never experienced before. Despite it being a part of the constitution, devolution of power to the local level is still something the provincial administrations detest most and they are trying their utmost to get around the Supreme Court’s ruling to that effect in one way or another.

‘No man is an island’, said Donne and neither is a country for that matter. Pakistan needs friends and can ill-afford to keep shrugging off oft-voiced allegations about its flirtation with selected terrorists, despite the travails the country is itself going through. Perceptions matter, and the country needs to allay the nagging international worries about its links with terror outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its charitable wings, Jaish-e-Muhammad, the Haqqani group and the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura, before it ends up getting completely isolated. It will become difficult for prestigious projects being carried out under the Chinese One Belt One Road inland stretch to bear fruit unless non-Chinese investors are also enticed to participate. The economic corridor risks being relegated to a China-Pakistan bilateral arrangement if our sanctimonious and self-centred policies make our westerly neighbors nervous. Pakistan’s future well-being rests on one crunch decision: do we keep on defending policies which are well beyond their sell-by date or do we opt to become a responsible member of a broader community that yearns to take us in.

Note: This article was published in the April 2018 issue of the ‘Global Age’ monthly magazine.

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