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Pakistan's militancy issue

Shamil Shams | Hans Spross
December 1, 2017

Who's fighting whom in Pakistan? Why does the country's powerful army continue to support some militant groups? DW examines the protracted conflict in the nuclear-armed nation and its possible effects on the region.

Thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in terror attacks in the past decade
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Majeed

Time and again, western experts and Pakistan's progressive analysts have pointed to a "failing state" – a nuclear-armed country grappling with an acute economic crisis, where home-grown Islamic extremists target civilians and security forces on a regular basis. But for a common European citizen, whose main reference points on the conflict happen to be Taliban militants, Afghanistan and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, it is difficult to understand the complexity of the Pakistan problem.

Who is fighting whom in the country? What is the objective of a myriad of extremist groups? Do they want to overthrow the government and impose Shariah in the country? Is the army supporting some militant outfits? What is India's role in the conflict? And does the civilian government have any say in security affairs?

Repeated militant attacks raise some serious questions about the future of the Pakistani state, its stability (or a lack of it), and its ability to cope with the security threats that can have repercussions and consequences that go beyond Pakistan's national boundaries.

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What Islamists want

During the 1980s Afghan war, Islamabad, with the help of Washington and other Western governments, supported the mujahideen (Islamic warriors) against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Pakistani army not only trained the warriors militarily, then Pakistani military dictator General Ziaul Haq also embarked on a nationwide Islamist revival with aid from Saudi Arabia.

Read more: The godfather of the Taliban: Hamid Gul and his legacy

But September 11 attacks in the US turned the entire Islamists-Islamabad camaraderie upside down. In 2001, then Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf decided to side with the US to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. That entailed that Pakistan had to relinquish support for a number of Islamist groups and had to launch a military operation against them. Detailed studies on Musharraf's crackdown on Islamists suggest that he targeted the militants selectively – not acting against Islamists whom Pakistan considered "strategic assets" to be used as proxies to wage a war in India-administered Kashmir. Also, some groups were needed to keep the pressure on the Afghan government for a future political bargain.

Nevertheless, the somewhat absolute control of the Pakistani state over the Taliban and other Islamists weakened after Pakistan's support for the US. A number of groups turned against Islamabad and started attacking the army facilities and civilians. The problem continues to pose a serious challenge for Pakistani authorities.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for example, is allied with the Afghan Taliban but also act independently. The TTP's aim is to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in Pakistan, but it is unclear how the group wants to achieve it. There is tangible support for the Shariah ideology in Pakistan, with Islamic clerics belonging to the Saudi-Wahhabi brand of Islam - from mosques in small and big towns to mainstream Islamic political parties - demanding the same.

The TTP is seen by many in the country as an organization resisting the "Western influence" on the Pakistani state. Many people believe that the West, particularly the US, determines Pakistan's economic and security policies and that Islamabad needs to align itself with the "Muslim ummah" (the Muslim world) instead.

Read more: Saudi-led Islamic military alliance: counterterrorism or counter Iran?

The TTP has carried out hundreds of attacks in Pakistan over the past few years. It has targeted religious and sectarian minorities, the general public and security forces. But due to the fact that Pakistan has a strong national army, and as some experts say that the military generals continue to enjoy a certain degree of influence on the TTP commanders, the organization hasn't been able to overrun the security forces.

"The TTP wants to build a Taliban state in Pakistan. They are against the state and the army, because the army has been working closely with the US for a very long time. In this sense, the group already has similar goals as the Afghan Taliban," Christian Wagner, a South Asia expert at the Germany-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), told DW.

"The TTP is different from groups like Lashkar-e Janghvi, which has repeatedly carried out attacks against the Shiite minority in Pakistan. Here, the fight against the state and the army is less important than the fight against other religious communities," Wagner added.

The Wahhabi/Deobandi militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been involved in targeting the Shiites and Pakistan's religious minorities.

"Islamic State" (IS) has limited presence in Pakistan, but with al Qaeda not as potent as it once was in the South Asian country, and the Taliban splitting into various factions due to a leadership conflict, it is rapidly making inroads into the country. Scores of Taliban defectors have joined the group in the past few years.

The Haqqani Network, another militant organization allied with the Taliban, is considered closer to Islamabad than any other insurgent group. The US has declared it a terrorist outfit and has demanded Pakistani authorities to act against the Haqqanis a number of times. But the officials have so far been reluctant to target the outfit. The Haqqani Network, which is based in Pakistan's tribal northwest along the Afghan border, is usually involved in attacks inside Afghanistan, hence it does not pose a challenge to Pakistani authorities.

The Kashmir narrative

The Islamic militancy issue in Pakistan is as old as the Kashmir conflict. Historians say that the first batch of Islamist rebels was sent into Kashmir after the partition of India in 1947 to overthrow the Kashmir monarch. As a result, Indian troops entered the valley and occupied a large part of it, whereas Pakistan took over a smaller portion, which it now administers. But Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir persists, as the state has endorsed an "India enemy" narrative ever since. Most Islamist groups thrive on the "occupied Kashmir" discourse, just like the Middle Eastern Islamic groups want to liberate "occupied Palestine."

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

"The secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir is fueled by Pakistan," said Varad Sharma, an Indian expert on Kashmir. "Pakistan uses terror as a strategic policy despite facing several terror attacks itself and losing thousands of its people. The jihadist infrastructure continues to operate from Pakistani soil. History tells us that the militants who operate in Kashmir are, mostly, either local Kashmiri Muslims or Pakistanis," Sharma added.

Pakistan claims that its support to Kashmiri separatist groups is only political, but New Delhi claims Islamabad is training the militants and providing arms to them. India and the international community are particularly perturbed by the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has a civilian front called Jamatud Dawa, and Hizbul Mujiahideen, whom India accuses of orchestrating terrorist attacks inside Kashmir.

"Along with armed struggle, we will also start a civil disobedience movement in 'occupied' Kashmir,'" said Hizbul Mujahideen chief Sayed Salahuddin in July, referring to India-administered Kashmir.

"People on both sides will have to march and trample that bloody line that divides them," Salahuddin said after the killing of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, by Indian troops.

Baloch separatism

While New Delhi accuses Islamabad of aiding militants in Kashmir, Islamabad says New Delhi is backing a separatist movement in its western Balochistan province.

Read more: Indian PM Modi's Balochistan comments upset Pakistan

Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005.

Read more: Gwadar – Pakistan's impoverished colony or an economic hub?

The Baloch rebels are largely secular and their supporters are against the Islamization of the country. They are not interested in overthrowing the government; they demand separation from Islamabad.

"Balochistan was never a part of Pakistan," Naobat Mari, a young Baloch activist, told DW. "First, our land was invaded by the British, who divided it into three parts. After the partition of India in 1947, the eastern part of Balochistan remained an independent state, which was later forcibly annexed by Pakistan," he added.

Read more:

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The nuclear dilemma

Despite Pakistan's alleged support for some Islamist groups, the US and Europe have avoided placing sanctions on the country – thus far. Washington and Brussels have regularly engaged with the civilian and military leadership to keep a balance. The international community is interested in a stable Pakistan because of its nukes and the risk of the nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

Though Pakistan's civilian and military establishments claim their nuclear weapons are under strict state control, many defense experts fear that they could fall into the hands of terrorists in the event of an Islamist takeover of Islamabad or if things get out of control for the government and the military.

"Nuclear programs are never safe. On the one hand there is perhaps a hype about Pakistani bombs in the Western media, on the other there is genuine concern," London-based Pakistani journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW. "The Talibanization of the Pakistani military is something we can't overlook. What if there is an internal Taliban takeover of the nuclear assets?" Sulehria speculated.

While South Asia expert Christian Wagner downplays the risk of an Islamist infiltration of the Pakistani army, other analysts such as Jonas Schneider from Zurich-based Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) see potential dangers stemming from the combination of extremism und nuclear weapons.

Read more: Why Pakistan's nuclear obsession is reason for concern

Is Pakistan a 'failed state'?

Despite all the challenges and problems, SWP analyst Wagner does not consider Pakistan a "failed state."

He, however, sees the country's inadequate fight against terrorism the biggest impediment to its progress. "The state's distinction between 'good and bad terrorists' has proven to be counterproductive. It is not possible to permanently control the militant networks that were built and supported by the Pakistani army and its intelligence services," argued Wagner.

"This policy has failed, as is shown by the fact that Pakistan has the largest number of victims in terrorist attacks."

While Pakistan's liberals demand an overhaul of the security policies, many believe it is unlikely the Pakistani military establishment will change course in the near future.

Read more: Pakistan's army 'favors dialogue' with Islamists over blasphemy row