Real Shift in Pakistan’s Strategic Calculus


The outrage expressed internationally in the wake of the barbaric slaughter in Peshawar of 149 people, mostly young students, evoked predictions that the tragedy would be ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’ and spur the government to launch broader and stronger counter-terrorism measures than ever before. The carnage offered the Pakistani leadership an exceptional opportunity to leverage popular revulsion to mobilise national resources and extirpate extremist organisations across the country. Dr Robert Boggs finds out what could be the harbingers of a real shift in the strategic calculations of Pakistan’s leadership regarding extremist organisations

History shows that human tragedies can sometimes galvanise societies into implementing life-saving reforms. In 1911, for example, a catastrophic fire ravaged a garment factory in New York City, killing 146 workers – mostly young women. The public outcry from this disaster, the deadliest in the city’s history, led to the establishment of the American Society of Safety Engineers and the passage, within two years, of 60 new laws that provided for better safety and working conditions across New York State.

The outrage expressed internationally in the wake of the barbaric slaughter in Peshawar of 149 people, mostly young students, evoked predictions that the tragedy would be ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’ and spur the government to launch broader and stronger counter-terrorism measures than ever before. The carnage offered the Pakistani leadership an exceptional opportunity to leverage popular revulsion to mobilise national resources and extirpate extremist organisations across the country. By blunting the arc of violence inside Pakistan, the government would diminish one of the most serious obstacles to the nation’s long-term political stability and economic growth. If this opportunity were exploited, the blood of Pakistan’s innocent schoolchildren could be in part redeemed.

The Counter-Terrorist Response

Within three days of the massacre, Pakistani forces reported that they had killed about 150 suspected militants in stepped-up raids and airstrikes in the tribal areas. The prime minister convened a meeting of high-level military officers, security officials and legal experts to review a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP), which was described as a ‘comprehensive strategy . . . to deal with all aspects and manifestations of terrorism.’ Following the meeting, the prime minister announced that both civil and military leaders were ‘on the same page’ against terrorism and expressed confidence that the plan would rid the country of militancy. He promised that the country will no longer distinguish between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban.’ Sharif also suspended a six-year moratorium on criminal executions, and within three weeks, 17 prisoners convicted of terrorism were hanged. By January 6, both houses of parliament had passed legislation by substantial majorities, amending the constitution to permit the formation of anti-terror courts run by the army. According to the government, the military courts, which were authorised for two years, would make it possible to overcome the backlog of cases against accused terrorists that the civilian courts have been unable to adjudicate.

Cure or Nostrum?

Given the degree of public revulsion to the bloodshed in Peshawar, the government’s swift and dramatic actions to bolster its counter-terror capacity might be expected to win broad public approbation. Many voices from civil society, however, have reacted to the NAP in general and the military courts in particular with dismay rather than praise. Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, for example, accused political leaders of being unable to resist the ‘generals’ demands’ and defend the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions.

It is understandable that the army would seek broader judicial authority. More than 6000 alleged militants arrested by military and intelligence personnel in Swat, Waziristan and other tribal areas have been reportedly languishing for years in army detention centres for lack of a clear policy on what to do with them. Analysts explain that the reason so many terror suspects have not been tried is the government’s long-term lack of investment in the civilian law enforcement and judicial systems. What is needed is stronger civilian institutions, they argue, not more military power.

Pakistani police generally are not well trained in investigative and evidentiary techniques, so they resort to intimidation, fake evidence and forced confessions. No legislation has been passed to enhance police powers to investigate terrorism-related offences or to protect judges and witnesses in terrorism trials. In scores of cases, the police are forced either to release known militants they have arrested or to ignore their activities because they are thought to be protégés of the security establishment. Many citizens view law enforcement agencies as a mercenary force for the ruling elites. Justice is frequently denied because the police and courts are misused as instruments of sectarian and ethnic persecution, or for harassing and humiliating partisan opponents.

For many critics, the proposed military courts are tantamount to putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop. Reputable writers point out that it has been the support provided to the Afghan and Kashmiri mujahideen and certain elements of the Taliban by the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services that lie at the heart of Pakistan’s current ordeal with extremist violence. Military courts, they point out, will provide even less transparency and respect for due process than civilian courts, and, in the interests of speedier prosecutions, are likely to lower evidentiary standards and abridge the right of appeal. And what incentive will there be in a military-dominated judicial system to prosecute militants that the Deep State has cultivated as surrogates to fight India and re-establish influence in Afghanistan?

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has explained that the new courts will not target political parties, media or madrassas. Despite this, human rights organisations, religious parties and many journalists oppose the courts, questioning whether they would limit their purview to battlefield detainees, or would relinquish power after two years.

A group of media professionals, civil society and concerned citizens, meeting a week after the massacre, went on record raising even more fundamental questions about the new counter-terrorism measures. Terrorism, they asserted, ‘is rooted in our history, religious misrepresentations, state policies, erroneous security paradigms, use of religion for political objectives, and misguiding . . . literature in both madrassas (and) public and private schools.” Among the recommendations for sweeping reforms made by the group were the following: “All violent religious and sectarian ideologies, terrorist militias and hate materials that promote violence must be proscribed and a paradigm of democratic, humane, pluralist, tolerant nationhood . . . should be constitutionally, legally, culturally and academically promoted.”

Litmus Tests for Change

It is easy to be cynical, but often difficult to recognise the beginning of long-term change. What might be the harbingers of a real shift in the strategic calculations of Pakistan’s leadership regarding extremist organisations? Past history has shown that declared policies like the prime minister’s NAP and public displays like the hanging of convicted prisoners tend to be short-lived and cosmetic unless backed by sustained political will. A new, military-run judicial system is probably superfluous if known militant leaders are not even arrested, much less tried. Many Pakistanis are aware of the ruling party’s close links to and support for a number of militant organisations in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and the political base of the prime minister. Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and current emir of the hardline Jamaat-ud-Dawa, lives and operates openly in Punjab, with police protection and provincial government funding, despite the $10 million bounty offered by the US for his arrest. One consequence of this law enforcement laxity has been that Punjab has become a new epicentre for extremism in Pakistan. The army’s much-publicised counterterrorist offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, has destroyed bases and supplies of terrorist organisations in the western tribal belt, but it has done nothing to weaken the extremist infrastructure in Punjab. Ironically, Zarb-e-Azb may have driven even more terrorists into Punjab.

An obvious test of a new civil-military consensus on counter-terrorism will be the government’s reaction to the report that the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) sent recently to the Interior Ministry. A leaked copy of the report warns the government that Abdul Aziz, the imam of the notorious (ostensibly government-controlled) Red Mosque, poses a serious security threat in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It explains that a ‘Red Mosque mafia,’ in collusion with criminal businessmen, politicians and known militant groups, is building radical seminaries and mosques illegally and reorganising the Ghazi Force, the militant group that carried out major bombings in the capital after the government’s assault on the Red Fort in 2007.

Another test would be whether civilian law enforcement agencies demonstrate any effectiveness in clamping down on hundreds of Afghan imams in mosques in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, many of whom support militancy with jihadist sermons, indoctrination and young recruits. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority was created by constitutional amendment in 2002, but unlicensed Islamist television channels continue to operate, hate speech is rampant on many channels, and limitations on foreign content are violated with impunity. Successive governments, for reasons of political expediency, have failed to register, let alone regulate or close, jihadist madrassas.

Afghan-Pakistani Cooperation

The school massacre in Peshawar could prove to be a game-changer in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations insofar as it demonstrated tragically the risks to Pakistan of cross-border terror attacks – the kind that Afghanistan has suffered for years from Pakistan. Pakistani Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, accompanied by the head of ISI, rushed to Kabul the day after the massacre to talk to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the security situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border. More specifically, Raheel sought Kabul’s cooperation in tracking down Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, the confessed mastermind behind the school massacre, who is believed to be based in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan media quoted Dr Ghani as assuring Gen Sharif that ‘Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorist activities against Pakistan’ and that Kabul is willing ‘to act independently and jointly against terrorist groups.’ In early January, President Ghani furthered this spirit of goodwill by inviting a number of leaders from Pakistani political parties to meet with him in Kabul to discuss strengthening relations between the two neighbours and their mutual struggle against terrorism.

This ‘paradigm shift’ in bilateral relations, lauded in some quarters in Pakistan, is certainly welcome, if it is real, but many practical questions remain unanswered. Anger in Afghanistan against the role that Pakistan government agencies have long played in sheltering and supporting the Afghan Taliban is deeply rooted and not substantially allayed by recent diplomatic exchanges. Pakistani authorities say that Kabul is pleased by their Zarb-e-Azb campaign in Waziristan, but the new Afghan leaders appear to be watching those operations closely for evidence that the Pakistani military is actually targeting Afghan as well as Pakistani Taliban. Kabul is unlikely to accept ‘hot pursuit’ incursions onto Afghan soil by Pakistani forces, but its own capacity to seal the border, sweep frontier areas of militant groups, or work with the Pakistanis in joint operations is demonstrably limited. Patience and forbearance on both sides will be required to prevent the cooperative new atmosphere from being poisoned.

Pakistan-India Tensions

It is unlikely that Pakistan’s security elites will abandon their strategy of fostering militant groups as instruments of cross-border force projection unless they can be assured that India’s objectives are benign on both Pakistan’s eastern and western borders. Unfortunately, the atmosphere for dialogue, much less confidence-building, is now unusually toxic. In December 2013, the two neighbours renewed pledges to uphold the 2003 ceasefire accord. Despite that, cross-border firing has been on the rise since the summer of 2014, which, Pakistani spokesmen like to point out, coincides with the installation of the ‘ultra-nationalist’ BJP government in India. India claims that Pakistani troops violated the ceasefire 550 times in 2014, the highest incidence since the accord was signed. Deadly skirmishing has risen along the disputed border of Jammu and Kashmir since late December. An escalation of artillery barrages drove 10,000 civilians out of their homes in Kashmir in early January. The controversy surrounding a boat that exploded off the Indian coast in early January may never be settled, but the incident has renewed Indian concerns about seaborne terrorists from Pakistan.

Without trying to assess the validity of the charges and counter-charges concerning cross-border violence, it is instructive to examine the baseline against which efforts by Pakistani authorities to cultivate dialogue and anti-terror cooperation with India can be judged. A deadly suicide bombing near Pakistan’s only legal border-crossing point with India in early November suggests that jihadi elements within Pakistan seek to aggravate Indo-Pakistan tensions. Three domestic extremist organisations claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Punjab government officials insisted that the attack might be an attempt by a ‘foreign hand’ to create pretence for attacking Pakistan. Two weeks later, Pakistan’s army chief complained to US officials in Washington that firing by Indian forces along the border was weakening Pakistan’s anti-terror campaign in Waziristan. In early December, Hafiz Saeed unleashed another tirade against India in Lahore at a rally that reportedly was facilitated and protected by the government.

Since the Peshawar tragedy, a retired senior general and respected analyst wrote in the media that Pakistan is unlikely to yield to Indian pressure ‘to rein in Jihadi elements (Laskar-e-Taiba and others)’ unless New Delhi ‘is prepared to engage with it on the Kashmir issue.’ If this is an accurate reflection of policy, Islamabad and Rawalpindi have a long way to go to change their strategic calculus and enlist Indian cooperation on counter-terrorism.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.