Dilemmas of counter-terrorism — by Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

The perspective of Islamic parties and the political right that expresses varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban has seeped into other sections of society that either do not blame the Taliban for the violence or attempt to rationalise their behaviour

There is good and bad news from Pakistan. The threat of the Pakistani Taliban entrenched in the tribal areas has been significantly neutralised in Swat and South Waziristan by the security operation launched by the army, the air force and the paramilitary forces. If Pakistan’s security forces continue to challenge them in the tribal areas, this threat will further decline. Other positive signs are the recent arrests of some key leaders of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan because the army/intelligence was perturbed by the support of the Afghan Taliban to their Pakistani counterparts. There is greater coordination between the army top brass and the federal government on countering terrorism.

The weakening of the Pakistani Taliban does not necessarily mean that Pakistan will get rid of religious extremism, sectarianism and militancy. These problems have strong roots in mainland Pakistan.

It will be an uphill task to effectively control religious extremism, sectarianism and militancy in mainland Pakistan. The consensus in the military top command, the federal government and the political class on countering terrorism is significant, but it is fragile. There is a broad-based consensus that terrorism and civic violence threaten internal stability. However, if one asks the question as to the source of terrorism and how far the Taliban and their affiliates are responsible for this, the consensus becomes thin and we find a lot of confusion and contradictions in the responses. Another problem is that consensus at the highest level in the civilian and military establishment is not fully shared by the personnel at all levels in these institutions.

The perspective of Islamic parties and the political right that expresses varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban has seeped into other sections of society that either do not blame the Taliban for the violence or attempt to rationalise their behaviour. Some of them describe the Taliban as friends of Islam and Pakistan and that the present spate of violence is not carried out by the ‘genuine’ Taliban, but by criminals and paid agents of foreign adversaries of Pakistan. Others explain suicide bombings as a reaction to the killings in the tribal areas by Pakistan’s security forces or by US drone attacks. Still others think that the US, India and Israel are sponsoring terrorism to destabilise Pakistan in order to create an excuse to attack Pakistan and capture its nuclear weapons. There are those who hold Pakistan’s pro-US policies responsible for alienating the Taliban. Pakistan should stop cooperation with the US and work with the Taliban, which are fighting against foreign military presence in the region, they believe.

The Islamic denominational groups like the Barelvis and the Shias condemn the Taliban for violent activities and want the government to take tough action against them. However, a good number of followers of these denominational groups share the perspectives of the Deobandis and Wahabis that terrorism is a part of an international conspiracy by the enemies of Islam and Pakistan.

These dilemmas can be traced back to the military government of General Pervez Musharraf that pursued a dual-track policy of joining the US-sponsored war on terrorism and giving ample political space to the pro-Taliban Islamic parties and groups to continue supporting the Taliban and opposing the US policies in and around Pakistan.

Pakistan’s security establishment continued with the dual-track policy after the exit of General Musharraf. The army-dominated intelligence agency used its linkages in the media to play up the anti-US sentiments as a reaction to the US demand to Pakistan to ‘do more’ and the military/intelligence-related provisions of the Kerry-Lugar Law. The military changed its disposition in April 2009 when the military establishment and the federal government opted for a major military operation in Swat. By the time, this policy had seeped to the lower echelons of civilian and military establishment.

A good number of former military and intelligence officers who retired in the last four-five years — not to speak of those military/intelligence personnel who were involved in building up resistance to Soviet troops in Afghanistan — publicly question Pakistan’s pro-US counter-terrorism policies. Invariably they blame the government of Pakistan and a number of foreign powers, rather than the Taliban, for Pakistan’s current predicament. As they have retired not so long ago, one would assume that they reflect some thinking within the military. There were reports of a small number of army, air force and paramilitary personnel expressing reluctance to participate in security operations in the tribal areas during the last couple of years.

The sympathy for Islamic militancy (Taliban and others) appears to be more pronounced in Punjab than other provinces. As anti-India sentiments are strong in Punjab, the militants play on these sentiments to win over popular sympathy. Many civilian groups engage in sharp criticism of the US role in the region and India’s tough approach towards Pakistan in order to shift the focus away from the Taliban and Punjab-based militant groups.

The PML-N, the leading political party in Punjab, has an ambiguous policy on terrorism. Some of their key leaders have described the war on terrorism as an American war that does not serve Pakistan’s interests. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif pleaded earlier this month with the Taliban to spare Punjab from suicide attacks because his government, like the Taliban, was opposed to General Musharraf’s policy on terrorism and that his party (PML-N) was not subservient to foreign (i.e. the US) dictates. The party also cultivated a Punjab-based banned sectarian group to secure votes in a by-election in Jhang. The PPP also attempted to win the support of the same banned sectarian group in Bahawalnagar for a by-election there earlier this month.

The PML-N leadership refuses to acknowledge that Punjab-based militant and sectarian groups are a direct threat to peace and stability in the province. There is little realisation that several militant organisations like the Sipaha-e-Sahaba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-i-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Harkatul Jihad-ul-Islami and other splinter groups have become quite active in Punjab. They also serve as facilitators for Taliban bombers in Punjab.

The Taliban are just one dimension of the increasingly complex terrorism problem. Even if the Taliban were weakened in the tribal areas, the settled areas-based militancy, especially the Punjab-based militant groups, would continue to challenge the state. They will find new recruits for their causes and pursue their narrow, bigoted and uni-focal religious and political agendas.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times