Pakistan: Unwilling and unable to change its jihad policy

As the dust settles on Peshawar, the country’s fault lines remain
Photo: Saeed Jahed

The murder of 141 school children in Peshawar’s Army Public School is an unspeakable catastrophe. What happened on on Dec. 16 crystallizes the breaking point Pakistan reached long ago, and it must finally mark a departure from the disastrous state policies that have brought Pakistan to where it stands today.

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In the wake of the attack, is there hope for a change in Pakistan’s security and ideological paradigm?

Unfortunately, the Pakistani state and its army have given a resoundingly negative answer. All evidence suggests that Pakistan seeks to maintain the status quo, out of desire and necessity. The Pakistani state sees “good” and “bad” Taliban, and wants to eliminate only the rogue jihadi elements, while maintaining the overall jihadi material and ideological infrastructure that forms the cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy.

There but not quite

A serious battle against the rogue Taliban started in June this year with the launch of a military operation called the Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. Although the fight against at least some Taliban elements is welcome news, the latest operation, like all the previous operations, has resulted in massive casualties due to the army’s heavy-handed methods, including collective punishment of tribes and scorched-earth bombings.

While the army plans to stay in North Waziristan for the long haul so the area does not again become a sanctuary for a cocktail of jihadi groups, the military has yet to wash its hands of insurgent groups completely. The idea behind Zarb-e-Azb was to push useful militant groups, especially the notorious Haqqani group — known as “strategic assets” in Pakistani military jargon — into Afghanistan as international troops begin to leave the country and the Afghan endgame begins.

Afghanistan and India: two sides of the same coin

The Pakistani army, which calls itself the the guardian of the “ideological frontiers” of the country, still sees India as its main enemy and views Afghanistan as part of its backyard, or as a fifth province in the words of the more hawkish generals. It justifies its meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs based on the imagined threat of India gaining influence in Afghanistan and surrounding Pakistan from its eastern border. In military terms, Pakistan’s Afghan policy is called “strategic depth,” with the idea that Afghanistan provides an area of retreat if India ever invades Pakistan.

If Pakistan is unwilling to let go of jihadis in Afghanistan, it is also unwilling to let go of its anti-India militant groups as well, because the two are interrelated in the minds of the Pakistani army. And the maintenance of anti-India groups requires the maintenance of an anti-India ideology. In the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, the Pakistani army has entrenched the anti-India narrative further with the help of friendly jihadi groups.

Fighting the “bad” Taliban, using the “good” Taliban

In the streets of the federal capital Islamabad, the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, operating under its new name of Jammat-ud-Dawa, has been openly holding rallies and chanting pro-army and anti-India slogans since the Peshawar attack. This is how criticism the state and the army have come under is being done: by blaming the murder of 141 school children on India and various other (non-Muslims) outside forces.

Such placement of blame accepts that the attack was criminal but refuses to indict the Taliban directly. The army does intend to take action against rogue Taliban elements, but on an ideological level refuses to let the country see the Taliban as an independent phenomenon. In blaming the attack on India, it motivates its soldiers with the same old xenophobic rhetoric and keeps the jingoistic militant groups on its side as well. It keeps intact a controlled jihadi infrastructure. And of course, the army gets off scot-free for its own role in jihadism.

A more striking example of the “good vs. bad” Taliban policy involves the recent hangings and release of known terrorists. Right after the Peshawar attack, the government announced an end to the moratorium on the death penalty. Two militants — one convicted for the attempted murder of former military chief Pervez Musharraf and the other for an attack on the army’s headquarters — were hanged. However, the mastermind behind the 2008 attack in Mumbai, which killed more than 150 people, was released from jail. He belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba. The message from the Pakistani state is clear: jihad against the army is wrong, but jihad against India is still right.

For reasons of the Punjab

The friendly jihadi groups are not simply India-focused. They operate inside Pakistan as the vanguard of violence against Shia and other non-Sunni Muslim religious groups. In this regard, the release of Malik Ishaq on Dec 23 is ominous, because he is a self-confessed and proud Shia killer, and the group he heads, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is a Sunni version of the Ku Klux Klan. These “good” jihadi groups primarily serve the interest of Pakistan’s dominant Punjab province, which has used these groups to counter nationalist and separatist forces in the other provinces.

Along with the Frontier Corps, an auxiliary force of the army, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is involved in the mass kidnappings and killings of nationalists in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. In the Gilgilt-Baltistan region in Pakistan’s north, there is hardly a single wall without the chalking of another Punjab-based terrorist group called the Sipah-e-Sahaba. Checkpoints belonging to the Frontier Corps in that area have the slogans of the group written on them. In Karachi, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is involved in widespread sectarian violence. Forty-one years ago, the same army that mourns its children today was summarily executing Bengali students with the help of jihadi bridges provided by Pakistan’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, in Pakistan’s fight against Bengali nationalists.

In recent years, as the Pakistani state has weakened due to the Taliban insurgency, and centrifugal forces have gained voice in the regions outside of Punjab, it has become more important for the Punjab to use jihadi groups to keep its hold on Pakistan.

For reasons of the army

Outside Pakistan’s borders, these jihadi group will be used eventually. The army’s practice of “keep India bleeding” requires that every once in a while Pakistan has to carry out attacks against India or at least maintain a certain level of threat. In the last 15 years, Pakistan has attacked India three times, all with the help of the jihadi groups named above.

As mentioned, the army is unable to take action against many of these groups out of necessity. The biggest problem is that the Taliban — both “good” and “bad” — and the army soldiers are motivated by the same language and symbols of militant Islam. The Pakistani army supported the Afghan jihad from the Soviet invasion to the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Of course, the army’s raison d’etre is its hostility against India. Combatting these groups, which have been working hand-in-hand with the army, would be a momentous task on an ideological level.

Since Pakistan joined the so-called War on Terror in 2001, it has had to back the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and at least symbolically turn its guns against jihadi groups at home. This volte-face has not gone down well with many in the army. In fact, the attempts on Musharraf’s life and the attacks on army and naval bases were carried out by internal dissidents. On a bigger scale, there is a danger of revolt inside the army, especially in the lower ranks, if the army goes all out against the jihadi groups. The kinship between army officers and jihadis is serious. The previous army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, once admitted in private that taking on the Punjab-based jihadi groups would be akin to destroying the army.

Given this scenario, the army can fight the Taliban, but only the “bad” Taliban, which accomplishes little to nothing for progress in Pakistan.

In the aftermath of the Peshawar atrocity, the rogue Taliban may be weakened. But the deeper fault lines of Pakistan will remain.

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