Lengthening Shadow of Terrorism in the Region

Yohannan Chemarapally

PAKISTAN and Afghanistan have in recent weeks and months witnessed a wave of serious terrorist incidents that have cost the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians. Alarmingly, most of the attacks have been the handiwork of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh). It no longer can be denied that the lethal terrorist group has sprung roots in the sub continent. The suicide attack on one of the most famous Sufi shrines in the region, the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, situated in Sindh province, in the third week of February is an illustration. More than 80 worshipers, among them 20 women and eight children, were killed when a suicide bomber attacked the venerated 800 year old Sufi shrine. The Daesh was quick to claim credit for the attack. The last big attack on a Sufi place of worship was in November last year when a suicide bomber struck at the shrine of Shah Norani in the province of Balochistan. Sufism, has been declared as unIslamic by the hardline Sunni outfits that are spearheading terror activities in the region. Terror groups like the Daesh consider them as apostates on par with the frequently targeted Shia minority.

In the preceding week before the attack in the Sindh province, there were four other serious terror attacks on Pakistani soil. On February 13, a suicide bomber targeted a peaceful rally outside the state assembly in Lahore killing 13 people and injuring more than 85. Two days later, another suicide bomber targeted a government compound. The next day there was an IED attack on a military convoy. A breakaway group of the Pakistani Taliban calling itself the Jamaat ul Ahraar (JuA) was quick to claim credit for all the terror attacks that occurred, one after the other, in the month of February. The Pakistani government had previously claimed that the back of the militants had been broken after the army launched a military operation “Zarb-i-Azb” in 2014 in the tribal areas to flush out the militants. The current upsurge in violence has been the worst since terrorist attacks had last peaked three years ago.

The Afghan Taliban which is close to the Pakistani political and military establishment, is a sworn enemy of the Daesh and has fought pitched battles over territory in Afghanistan. According to American Intelligence estimates, the majority of the Daesh fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are former members of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Many of them hail from Pakistan's Orakazai Tribal Agency. The Daesh instigated terror attacks in Afghanistan in the last two years had led to hundreds of casualties. Since the Daesh announced that it was recognising a so-called “province of Khorosan”, comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of North India two years ago, it has managed to get a foothold in the region. Other radical groups in Pakistan like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al Alami (LIA), Jamaat ul-Ahraar  (JuA) and the Jundallah have pledged their allegiance to the Daesh. The JuA had claimed responsibility for the attack on a military run school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed more than 141 people, most of them school children. Another attack was carried out by the same group last year on a military academy resulting in the death of 62 cadets.  

The Pakistan government has been trying to put part of the blame on the Afghan government for the terror attacks that have badly shaken the nation's morale. Adherents of the Sufi order say that they had been requesting for better protection for their shrines as the Pakistani Taliban had repeatedly threatened to attack their shrines. Islamabad was however quick to issue a strong warning to the government in Kabul. Immediately after the heinous attack on the Sufi shrine, Afghan diplomats were summoned to the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi. They were handed a list of 75 “wanted terrorists” allegedly holed up in Afghan terrorism. Islamabad claims that Afghanistan is providing “safe sanctuaries” for the terrorist groups targeting its territory.

As things stand, the Afghan government only has a tenuous hold on large swathes of its territory. Pakistani officials have also been blaming India for allegedly playing a part in tandem with the Afghan government in stoking terrorism on its soil. There is suspicion in Islamabad that the recent terror attacks were aimed at unsettling the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a key part of Beijing's ambitious global Belt/Road initiative. The director general of Inter Services Public Relation, Maj. Gen. Asif Gafoor, said that the “recent terrorist acts are being executed on directions from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan”.

The Pakistan army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa ordered a nation-wide sweep of suspected terrorists. The army's publicity wing claimed that more than a hundred hard core terrorists were eliminated within days following the latest terror attack. The border with Afghanistan was ordered to be closed. There have been reports of heavy cross border shelling from the Pakistani side following the terror attack on the Sufi shrine. The Afghan government lodged a formal protest with Islamabad over the shelling and at the same time demanded that Pakistan take tougher action against terror groups operating on its territory. Islamabad had earlier given Kabul a list of 76 wanted Pakistani terrorists hiding in Afghanistan and had demanded their arrest. But the growing consensus even within Pakistan is that the growing terrorist threat is more a result of the Pakistani political military establishment's encouragement of certain terror groups that were amenable to its guidance and support. It is well known that the Afghan Taliban and separatist groups in Kashmir receive support from the Pakistani establishment.

The Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif along with many prominent civil society personalities, according to reports, have been trying to prevail on the powerful military establishment for some time on the need for even tougher action against all militant and fundamentalist groups in the country. At the same time, the Sharif government is now calling for the continuation of military courts that could dish out speedy justice for those involved in terrorist activities. The military courts for trying civilians charged with committing acts of terrorism had stopped functioning from the beginning of this year. The Pakistani parliament had only sanctioned a period of two years for the military courts.

The grave threat that is now being posed by terror groups to the fabric of the state is the rationale the Pakistani government is giving to validate a three year extension. Many Pakistanis feel that giving the military the power to try those accused of terrorism could lead to the further strengthening of the military's stranglehold on the country's politics. Allowing the military to try civilians is by itself a grave distortion of democratic principles. There was a great deal of opposition in parliament on the government's move till recently. But after the latest attack on the Sufi shrine, opposition to the government's viewpoint on the need for military courts has considerably lessened. In January, the JuA on behalf of the Daesh affiliated terrorist alliance, had announced the launch of “Operation Ghazi”. The terror grouping warned that they would soon be targeting government and military institutions, non Islamic political parties and religious minorities. A short time after the announcements, the spate of attacks started.  

The Punjab state government which is run by Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the prime minister, has now put the name Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) chief, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, in the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The act allows the government to “proscribe” the activities of individuals thus named. Saeed has already been placed under house arrest on January 31, this year. After the recent wave of terror attacks, Pakistan may be forced to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy towards all militant and terrorist groups, even those involved in the Kashmir struggle. The United States and India have both been demanding action against Saeed and his JuD. The UN Security Council had placed sanctions on JuD way back in 2008, declaring it a “terrorist organisation”.

The American state department had labeled the JuD “a foreign terrorist organisation” in 2014. India had been demanding Saeed's arrest for quite some time now. Sections of the Pakistani media have claimed that Beijing could have played a role in pressuring Islamabad to act on Saeed. The issue has caused unnecessary friction between India and China. Washington had also threatened sanctions on Islamabad on the issue. Pakistani politicians, including the parliamentarians from the ruling party had started questioning the government about its links with groups like the JuD. “Which eggs is Hafeez Saeed laying for us that we are nurturing him?”, asked Rana Muhammad Afzal, a parliamentarian belonging to the ruling PML(N).

The scourge of terrorism is likely to endure in the region till such time the complex issues relating to Afghanistan and Kashmir are resolved amicably. Balochistan is also another potential flash point. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is proving its resilience. In the recently held six nations talks in Moscow to which India was also belatedly invited, the majority view was that negotiations should be conducted with the Afghan Taliban to establish a durable and lasting peace. Only Afghanistan and India were opposed to the idea of holding talks with the Taliban. Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan were in favour. As far as Kashmir is concerned, the Indian government has been postponing talks with Pakistan on one pretext or another. The Indian army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat's statement that Kashmiri civilians would be in the line of fire if they try to disrupt army operations has not helped matters. Many commentators have already started drawing parallels of India's handling of the insurgency in Kashmir with Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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