January 25, 2015

Pakistan: Roots of Terror

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Peshawar massacre of the innocents could be a turning point in Pakistan. At least for the moment all the important stakeholders seem united in their determination to confront the scourge of terrorism which has been mercilessly stalking the country for more than a decade now. At this juncture there is a consensus in the country that the time has come to crush the militant groups which have been running amok since the overthrow of the Taliban government and American occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. The political and military establishment will have to bite the bullet and cut off their ties with militant groups which it tacitly supports or supported like the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). The Pakistan government on its part, at least till recently, tried to differentiate between the so-called “good” and “bad” Taliban. In a recent interview, the adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, told the BBC, that Pakistan would not unnecessarily target militant groups that do not pose a threat to the country’s security. “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become our enemies”, he had said. Aziz had gone on to add that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which is one of the Pakistani Taliban factions, were fighting against the government in Afghanistan. The Pakistani foreign office was quick to state that Aziz, who is the de facto foreign minister, was quoted out of context. The foreign ministry spokesperson clarified that Islamabad was committed to taking action against all groups “without any distinction or discrimination”. The Pakistan Taliban was never a unified group. Founded in 2007 by Behtullah Mehsud, those within its ranks were mainly fighters who were with the Taliban and earlier with the American supported jihadi groups fighting against the Afghanistan government in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They had fled to Pakistan after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Joining them in their exodus were fighters belonging to al Qaeda, Chechen, Uzbek, Uyghur and other extremist separatist groups. With Washington authorising increasing drone attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Pakistani military bases being used for these launches, many in the Tehereek-e-Taliban-e- Pakistan (TTP) turned violently against their erstwhile sponsors and patrons. ANTI-AMERICAN FEELINGS IN PAKISTAN The TTP comprises of several factions. Some have turned violently against the Pakistani state. In 2010, the US state department declared the Pakistan Taliban a terrorist organisation. The US has been targeting the Taliban leadership with drone attacks for several years now. Baitullah Mehsud, the first leader of the Haqqani group was killed in a drone strike in August, 2009. The flamboyant Hakimullah Mehsud, who succeeded him, was eliminated in another drone strike in November, 2013. During his first term in office, President Barack Obama more than tripled the number of drone attacks on Pakistani territory. According to Pakistani estimates, 50 to 60 per cent of those killed in American drone attacks are civilians and this in turn has resulted in higher recruitment for militant groups. Widespread American drone attacks had contributed to the anti-American feelings in Pakistan and had weakened cooperation between the two countries in counter-terrorism operations. American and Indian officials have been accusing Islamabad of playing a “double game” by taking their aid money and weaponry while at the same time supporting and encouraging various Taliban and other extremist groups like the LeT to destabilise neighbouring Afghanistan and India. They accuse the Pakistani security establishment of glossing over the danger posed by these groups to the government in Islamabad. The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, openly accused Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban and facilitating terror attacks. It is not a secret that many of the top Afghan Taliban leadership, including its leader Mullah Omar are being protected by Pakistani Intelligence Services. The al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, must have had the help of sections of the Pakistani Intelligence apparatus, to go on living for years in a house in Abbotabad, located next to a military base. In early December, the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif visited the United States. According to reports in the media, during his talks in Washington, the army chief gave an assurance to the Obama administration that Pakistan would give up its policy of protecting militant groups that it considered important for achieving its strategic goals in the region. The Haqqani group has been responsible for staging attacks in Afghanistan in coordination with the Taliban there. In a testimony to the US Congress in 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff referred to the Haqqani network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence Agency”. After 2001, many al Qaeda fighters found refuge in the tribal areas. They played a big role in radicalising the people in the tribal areas. The Pakistan Taliban consists mainly of Pashtu speaking recruits from the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan also represents the same ethnic group – the Pashtuns. The LeT and some other groups have been held responsible for terror attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, the worst in Indian history. Both the Haqqani group and the LeT are said to be close to the Pakistani security establishment. The LeT is already on the banned list of organisations in Pakistan though it has resurfaced as the Jamaat-ud-Daawah (JuD). The LeT leader, Hafiz Sayyed, was quick to make the outlandish claim that India was involved in the Peshawar bloodbath. A few days after the Peshawar incident, an anti terrorism Court in Pakistan granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who is alleged to have played a key role in planning the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The decision has come in for scathing criticism in India. The Pakistan government was quick to announce that it would challenge the bail order of the Lahore High Court. It was arm twisting by the Obama administration that made the Pakistani army launch its all out assault on the militant groups in the tribal areas in June, 2014. For the first time, the Pakistani Air Force was deployed extensively to target the militant hideouts. A lot of collateral damage, in the shape of civilian casualties had resulted in the wake of military assault in North Waziristan which started in June, 2014. Many analysts in fact are of the view that the formation of the Pakistan Taliban was in response to the first military assault ordered by the then military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the Federally Administered Territories (FATA) in 2004. FATA is an area of 27, 270 sq. kilometers but this small territory hosts around 45,000 fighters from many militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT and the Pakistani Taliban. Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that the majority in Pakistan are of the view that it was the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that led to the rise of terrorism in their country. The cycle of violence and terrorism can be traced back to the tight security embrace between the United States and Pakistan dating back to the days of the Cold War. In the 1980’s Washington played a key role along with its proxies like Saudi Arabia in arming and training the “Mujahedeen” forces in Pakistan to fight against the progressive government, backed by the Soviet Union that was in power in Afghanistan at the time. Out of the “mujahedeen” emerged the rapacious militias controlled by warlords and the Taliban in Afghanistan. COVERT BACKING OF THE CIA & THE ISI The Taliban itself was formed with the covert backing of the CIA and the ISI. Washington was also unwavering in its support of the military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. He was the man responsible for encouraging a Wahhabi style version of Islam in the country. He injected religious bigotry and sectarianism into many aspects of daily life in the country. It was his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto though who first formalised the role of religion in the country’s constitution and banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Americans and the Saudis liberally funded Zia as he built new madrassas (religious schools) across the length and breadth of Pakistan, Pakistan had come a long way since independence. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of state”, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam had said in his inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947. Today, sectarianism has become a factor fuelling terrorism in Pakistan. Militant groups have been busy targeting Shia mosques and businesses and bombing Christian Churches. The notorious blasphemy law which came into being during the days of Zia ul Haq has been widely misused. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot by his bodyguard, an extremist in police uniform, for speaking out against the law in 2011. “Pakistan’s self inflicted suffering comes from an education system that, like Saudi Arabia’s system, provides an ideological foundation for violence and future jihadists”, the scholar and commentator, Pervez Hoodhbhoy noted in an article. According to Hoodhbhoy, “militant jihad” became part of the culture on college and university campuses. Armed groups had started openly recruiting students for jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It was only after the events of 9/11 that the Kashmir issue faded into the background with the focus almost completely shifting to Afghanistan. If the Afghan Taliban is successful in once again wresting power in Kabul or completely destabilising the country, Kashmir could once figure prominently on the radar of the “jihadi” groups. As long as the emotive Kashmir issue remains unresolved it will continue to remain a cause célèbre in the country. After all, India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir. There is also a Punjabi Taliban, whose focus is more on the Kashmir and sectarian issues than on Afghanistan. They have carried out attacks in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Despite the recent events, it will be difficult for the Pakistani political establishment to distance itself from the mainstream Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan still adheres to its “doctrine of depth” and views the Afghan Taliban as a “strategic asset”. Islamabad does not want countries like India and Iran to have too much influence in Afghanistan. There is also a lurking fear in the corridors of power in Islamabad that a resurgent Afghan Taliban could in the long run side with their compatriots across the border. All the Pakistani Taliban factions have on the record pledged their loyalty to Mullah Omar. Both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban espouse the Deobandi sectarian theology. The Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar looks destined to play an important role in Afghan politics after the departure of the American forces from that country. Already, they have made steady advances on the ground. Islamabad wants the “good” Afghan Taliban to share power with other stake holders in the post-occupation scenario in Kabul. This view also till recently had the support of the Obama administration. The Afghan Taliban had issued a statement condemning the perpetrators of the incident in Peshawar. “The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria is to be considered by every Islamic party and government”, the spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid said. The Afghan Taliban has repeatedly criticised the attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces on previous occasions too. The Afghan Taliban, as of now, is inimical to the goal of the overthrowing the Pakistan State. The TTP and other Pakistani Taliban groups reject the Constitution of Pakistan and want the introduction of Sharia law.