Pakistan has, of late, witnessed a sudden spurt in terror attacks. These were, in many ways, unprecedented. Targets were mostly public places and the majority of those killed were civilians. The series of blasts and suicide bombings engulfed the whole of Pakistan, including Punjab: Mall Road, Lahore; Mohmand Agency in FATA; the Sufi shrine in Sehwan; and Awara, Balochistan. Of these, the suicide bomber who blew himself up at the dhamaal celebrations in the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh and killed over 90 people according to reports, was the most dreadful. In the month of November 2016, a similar kind of attack (either by a suicide bomber or through remote controlled IED) was carried out when the dhamaal was being performed at the shrine of Shah Norani in Khuzdar district of Balochistan; at least 52 were killed and over 100 injured.
The latest spate of terrorist incidents, in which over 150 people were killed, have forced the Pakistani civilian and military leaderships to re-visit what Husain Haqqani called “the complex strategic partnership between political Islamists and Pakistan’s military establishment” which, in his view expressed in 2016, was “far from over”.1 The attacks have impelled the state to take action (again) against home-grown terrorists. Apparently, after vacillating for a long time, the Pakistani civilian and military leaderships have come on one page to take on terrorists of all kinds. Many political commentators in Pakistan had argued that the National Action Plan (NAP) was not implemented in its entirety and many groups were left untouched during the earlier operation against terrorists. With Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad now in full swing, there are many in Pakistan who would doubt whether the state is really intent on clamping down on the so-called “friendly” terror outfits, who have been used as assets by the military for decades.
A majority of the Pakistani population follows a tolerant version of Islam, which remains vulnerable to attack by radical Islamists who regard moderate Islam as bidat¸ which is antagonistic to the spirit of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Unfortunately, the radical groups have been allowed by state institutions, the military in particular, to flourish as “strategic” assets over time “to influence domestic politics and support the military’s political dominance”.2
This trend was visible in the assassination of Salman Taseer, for his act of speaking in support of a Christian woman who was being prosecuted under the country’s infamous blasphemy law, by his security guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was lionized by the radical outfits. And after his execution by the military court, his funeral was attended by a record crowd who hailed him as a martyr who died for the sake of Islam. A shrine is now being raised above Qadri’s grave.3 Hundreds visit this spot to seek blessings. Interestingly, Qadri belonged to the Barelvi sect, which is conventionally regarded as propagating a moderate and eclectic version of Islam. Ironically, the Wahhabis (and to certain extent Deobandis), who are puritanical in their outlook and more hard-line in their approach to safeguarding Islam, consider Barelvi eclecticism as un-Islamic. The zeal to protect Islam, in the face of real or imagined danger, has induced hard-line sentiments into the minds of liberal Muslims in Pakistan. One of the prominent Urdu dailies carried a long report recently arguing that the troubles being faced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (read Panama leaks) were caused because he allowed the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the beloved of Prophet Muhammad.4
The use of “Islamic ideology” and the Islamists by the Pakistani political and military leaderships has had hideous impact on the country. It has led to the notion of good and bad terrorists, which remains at the centre of the country’s political discourse. For instance, Hafiz Saeed has been sometimes patronised by the state and at other times “home-arrested”, which the Defence Minister of the country has claimed was done “in the larger interests of the country”.5
However, this position of the government faces a serious contestation from the constituency that Hafiz Saeed has been allowed to carve out over the years. For example, one commentator recently criticized the Defence Minister openly in an Urdu daily thus: “Mr. Asif should not have said that Hafiz Saeed’s arrest was in national interest. … Hafiz Saeed’s arrest is a punishment for his support to the Kashmiris.”6 Going further, the spokesperson of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) reacted to Asif’s statement saying that some people in the government itself were a threat to the country, not Hafiz Saeed.
Even the civilian leadership in Pakistan is a victim of such a good-bad terrorist categorisation. When the inquiry committee report on the Quetta blasts of August 2016 questioned the role of the interior ministry, the Interior Minister was quick to demonise the writer of the report. Defending his meeting with Ahmad Ludhianvi, chief of the proscribed anti-Shi’ite Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat group, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in parliament that a distinction between terrorists and Islamist radicals should be maintained.
Against this backdrop, the question that remains imperative for defeating the emboldened terrorists in Pakistan, who have openly threatened further attacks in future in a video released by Jamaat-ul Ahrar, is how comprehensive and intensive Operation “Radd-ul-Fassad” is going to be? Is it a serious all-out operation to defeat not only the active terrorists but the potential breeding-ground of extremism in Pakistan? Or is it a half-hearted move taken in haste to avert public pressure for some time like Operation “Zarb-e-Azb”, which has turned out to be largely a failure at the end. Will the distinction between good and bad Islamists continue to characterise the socio-political discourse in Pakistan?
Operation “Radd-ul-Fasaad” was launched immediately after the latest series of terror attacks. It is meant to rout the radicals who managed to escape “Zarb-e-Azb” and continue to carry out attacks, killing their co-religionists inside Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has emphasised that the battle with terrorists is the battle between right and wrong, which Pakistan cannot afford to lose. He has promised that the operation would be carried out impartially. The Sharif government has called upon the Ulema to find out if it is possible to re-think, at least, the use of Islam for political violence.7 However, Sharif is unlikely to succeed in this regard as he has to confront the religious leadership, which is mostly orthodox.
Further, the earlier operation (Zarb-e-Azb) does not offer much hope for analysts to come to a favourable conclusion. It was initially meant for six months but has dragged on for years. Even after two years, it has not been able to “break the backbone” of terrorism in Pakistan, as was intended by the Army. It has displaced thousands of people and failed to contain the terror elements targeting the Pakistani state. It appears now that the civilian and military leaderships have come to the conclusion that to defeat terror they will have to stop what the political commentator Saleem Safi recently called “use of religion for political and strategic purposes”8 through non-state actors.
There are some inherent constraints that may impede the pace of the operation. Having launched the operation, will the civilian leadership cease to placate the Islamist forces for their own electoral and political gain? Will the Army rein in the jihadis it has been using to retain its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan? Saleem Safi has argued that governments in Pakistan have been overlooking the real causes of terrorism in the country. Unless and until, Safi emphasised, these causes are identified and eliminated, terrorism would keep haunting the country. In a similar vein, Najam Sethi has questioned the wisdom of supporting “some groups” engaged in militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. Sethi would doubt whether the state would act against such elements at all.
For fighting terrorism in Pakistan, the civil and military leaderships will have to bring about a radical change in their foreign policy and security outlook. The Army holds the key to Pakistan’s transformation. It has huge stakes invested in the use of Islam for “strategic” purposes. It remains to be seen, whether it will change its course under Qamar Ahmad Bajwa. If it does not, its future appears doomed.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.