Playing all sides of the fence

By Saad Hafiz:

There is nothing new in the
pattern of condemnations and wake up calls after the recent assassination of Bashir Bilour by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Similar views were expressed after the murders of Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer and other notable terrorism victims. A consensus on a concerted strategy to combat the existential threat posed by terrorism continues to elude the country despite the thousands of military and civilian casualties in the war on terror.

The military and the politicians prevaricate comfortably in passing the buck on to the other. The other key social influencers — the clergy, the intelligentsia and the media — seem pleased in obfuscating the terrorism issue. The TTP’s brazen confidence grows as they casually accept responsibility for their various acts of murder and mayhem. Their immediate objective is to consolidate a permanent footprint in FATA, which will bring them a step closer to their main objective of an Islamic emirate in a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Few so-called national leaders have the gumption to make a categorical statement about terrorism as the one made by the grieving Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. Bilour said, “There stands no distinction between good or bad Taliban. There is nothing like good or bad about Taliban. They are terrorists who challenge the writ of the government. They are not ready to accept our constitution and even our country. They have to mend their ways. And those who mend their ways and pledge allegiance to the state can be reconciled but the rest have to be taken out. That is the only solution to terrorism.” Bilour makes a good case for eliminating terrorism rather than containing it, as Pakistan has been attempting to do so far.

The answer to the ‘soft’ corner for militancy in Pakistan may lie in the complex contemporary relationship between these terrorist groups and the state, as well as between religious and political organisations. It cannot be denied that there are varying levels of support for militancy within both the Pakistani public and the military and intelligence agencies. The TTP can easily mobilise the religious constituency in the country around their homespun Islamic jihadi message. Many Pakistanis glorify the TTP as gallant ‘resistance fighters’ and not as the murdering terrorists they have proved to be.

The other factor is that the government battles former proxies who have turned their guns — and suicide vests — on the Pakistani state and their former patrons. Pakistan may have publicly abandoned militancy as a tool of foreign policy but its strategic residue remains firmly in place. A security establishment enamoured with the use of irregular troops since 1948 may not want to alienate or rule out the use of these troops if conditions require it in the future. No lessons seem to have been learnt from the backing of militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s, as past policies have boomeranged with devastating effect. The country faces spreading radicalisation, accelerated by easy availability of weapons and a plethora of militant organisations, which have seeped into the country’s urban core.

The other sensitive ideological and ethnic factors at play that contribute to Pakistan’s ambivalent posture toward the fight against terrorism are often the least discussed. Firstly, Pakistan’s descent into an ideological Islamic state makes it a natural and thriving sanctuary for ideological non-state actors like the TTP and others of their ilk. Secondly, Pakistan, which is controlled by an ethnic Punjabi-Pathan oligarchy, is reluctant to wholeheartedly turn its guns on fellow Punjabis and Pathans. No such compulsion held back the ease with which overwhelming state firepower was turned on other ethnicities like the Bengalis and Baloch for far lesser ‘offences’.

As a worst-case scenario, the international community could abandon the optimism that Pakistan can or will change course and should prepare for increasing Islamist violence in the region and beyond. Violent Islamists with a variety of domestic, Afghan, Kashmiri, and millenarian agendas will continue to undermine the Pakistani state, endanger its citizens, and threaten its neighbours. The best outcome, which is looking increasingly unlikely, is that Pakistan will find the collective will to defeat the forces of extremism and to direct its resources toward pressing domestic issues such as education, rule of law, poverty, and population growth. The US is profoundly affected by Pakistan’s turmoil. First, and most obviously, it is now even more completely reliant on the cooperation of a few key security elites in Islamabad in containing al Qaeda and the Taliban. Second, the limited influence that the US enjoys in Pakistan could encourage voices in the United States calling for the introduction of special forces and airpower into Pakistan’s northwest to destroy terrorist safe havens. The unimaginable consequences of a US-Pakistan military confrontation will likely be a huge setback in the global war on terror.

Comments are closed.