News Briefs | Notebook
The Unending Cycle of Terror
Terrorist groups daily remind Pakistan of the terrible price its security personnel and civilians are paying
03 Feb, 2023
Aftermath of the terror attack at a Peshawar mosque, January 30, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
THERE IS NO DEARTH of evidence that terrorist groups in Pakistan, including those supported by and allied with the military, or even the ones which have concluded a truce with the state, harbour no compunction in reneging on pledges and carrying out acts of stunning brutality. What remains an abiding mystery is that Pakistan’s leaders and the deep state are unable to truly end their dalliance with terrorist groups that have made the country “Jihad Central”. Almost every major act of international terrorism, from 9/11 to 26/11, leads back to Pakistan and its safe havens for terrorism.
In 2014, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group responsible for the bombing of a mosque in Peshawar’s police lines on January 30, struck an Army Public School in the same city. Seeking vengeance for action against terror outfits in Waziristan, gunmen killed 132 schoolchildren in cold blood, among others. TTP’s message was clear enough: If the Pakistan army came after them, then soldiers and their families would be fair targets. The Police Lines suicide bomber set off an explosion that has so far killed 100 and injured many more, mostly police personnel. The reported trigger was the killing of Omar Khalid Khorasani in Afghanistan, a terrorist who kept the company of several terror outfits.
The outrage was condemned by political parties and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rushed to the site of the tragedy. While acts of solidarity are welcome, the fact is that Pakistan is in a delicate and vulnerable situation. A shaky coalition is in office and former Prime Minister Imran Khan is out to seek his pound of flesh not only from the government but also his one-time sponsor, the army. Unlike most other creatures of the deep state who fall out of favour, Khan has refused to fade away and is doing his best to force an early election he feels will favour him, given soaring inflation and weak governance. Some regional governments, including the one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Peshawar is located, are in limbo.
The situation is in sharp contrast to the triumphalism that accompanied the Taliban’s return to Kabul in August 2021. The Taliban’s victory was celebrated as having restored Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan which was to be used against foes like India. Yet, in a surprisingly short period of time, it has become apparent that the anticipated benefits are not materialising. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) does have leverage in Afghanistan but the Taliban are far from subservient partners. Just as terrorist groups allied with ISI are operating, so are those who have no qualms about targeting the Pakistani state. Amid the chaos, with no form of formal government available, it is impossible to separate friends from foes or keep track of shifting loyalties, which are as transient as desert shadows.
Back in 2003, a Harkat-ul-Mujahideen faction staged an assassination attempt against General Pervez Musharraf. A group focused on carrying out attacks in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It was one of many upset with Musharraf for abandoning the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and collaborating with the US after 9/11. As events showed, Musharraf was adept at playing all sides and his assistance was prompted by a lack of choices. Even as Pakistan facilitated the capture of al-Qaeda leaders, it kept other irons in the fire.
The common link in past terror attacks on the Pakistani state, including the military, is the anger of jihadist groups over the alleged betrayal of the Islamist cause. TTP is unforgiving of what it considers acts of heresy, not unlike the manner in which Osama bin Laden labelled the ruling Saudi family as faux Muslims. With betrayal all but equated with apostasy, the Pakistani state is as vulnerable and legitimate a target as any non-believer as far as TTP and its ilk are concerned. This is an uncomfortable and dangerous truth that Pakistan and its leaders consistently refuse to acknowledge, even as they lurch between using terror against adversaries and deploring the malignant effects of homegrown fundamentalism.
The choices for Pakistan appear to be narrowing. Almost since it came into existence, Pakistan has displayed a remarkable instinct for survival, adeptly playing geography to its advantage. First, as an ally of the US and a member of the CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization) pacts, Pakistan exploited the Cold War to acquire arms. Later, as a conduit between the Nixon administration and Chinese leader Mao Zedong, it found itself in a sweet spot though this did not prevent the formation of Bangladesh. Though the balance of power games did not always succeed, Pakistan never lost relevance. Its educated and articulate expat population has been an effective ambassador, even as madrasas back home became factories of fundamentalism that eventually churned out a steady supply of suicide bombers.
Pakistan’s elite has often found solace in pointing to India’s poverty and underdevelopment and the alleged ‘second-class’ status of Muslims there to vindicate their nation. Many in Pakistan see the current government in India epitomising Hindu majoritarianism, but the growing gap between the two nations is hard to ignore. Some in Pakistan seem to realise the futility of a so-called 1,000-year war. Shehbaz Sharif’s comments about Pakistan having “learnt its lessons” from wars with India may not have been just a slip of tongue he was forced to correct. Along with his elder brother Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister has been inclined to pursue cooperation that will yield economic benefits to both sides, not the least his home province of Punjab. The promise never fructifies despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi presenting the best bet for genuine peace given his political stature and parliamentary strength.
The stumbling block is always terrorism, which many Pakistani elites continue to be ambivalent about, particularly in the context of India. It is hard to tell if the Pakistan army realises that exporting terror, while hurting India, is not going to provide desired results. The undoing of Article 370 in J&K will not be reversed. Any doubts would be settled by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s scrupulous avoidance of the subject during his Bharat Jodo Yatra’s Kashmir leg. Meanwhile, terrorist groups daily remind Pakistan of the terrible price its security personnel and civilians are paying. It is not just a horrific bombing like the one in Peshawar. The corrosive effect of extremism erodes the potential of every Pakistani, more particularly its poorest.
Battling terrorism and its feeder channels will require great courage and unflinching political will. No actor in Pakistan seems ready to pick up the baton. Not even the army, which is seen as the real ruler. It could well be that any genuine effort runs the risk of blowback from a politicised military wedded to the idea of nuclear weapons-jihad-armed forces forming a strategic triad. Or, maybe, the army, too, like the Sharifs and Khan, is so caught up in a desperate game of survival that it has little time to consider confronting its delinquent wards.
Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
‘This Is Not Fusion’ Akhil Sood
Song That Lost at the Oscars Kaveree Bamzai