Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge
Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Report 164 / Asia

Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge

The recent upsurge of jihadi violence in Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, demonstrates the threat extremist Sunni-Deobandi groups pose to the Pakistani citizen and state.

Executive Summary

The recent upsurge of jihadi violence in Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, demonstrates the threat extremist Sunni-Deobandi groups pose to the Paki­stani citizen and state. These radical Sunni groups are simul­taneously fighting internal sectarian jihads, regional jihads in Afghanistan and India and a global jihad against the West. While significant domestic and inter­national attention and resources are under­standably devoted to containing Islamist militancy in the tribal belt, that the Pakistani Taliban is an outgrowth of radical Sunni networks in the country’s political heart­land is too often neglected. A far more concerted effort against Punjab-based Sunni extremist groups is essen­tial to curb the spread of extremism that threatens regional peace and stability. As the international com­munity works with Pakistan to rein in extremist groups, it should also support the democratic transition, in par­ticular by reallocating aid to strengthening civilian law enforcement.

The Pakistani Taliban, which increasingly controls large swathes of FATA and parts of NWFP, comprises a number of mil­itant groups loosely united under the Deobandi Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that have attacked not just state and Western targets, but Shias as well. Their expanding influence is due to support from long-established Sunni extremist networks, based primarily in Punjab, which have served as the army’s jihadi proxies in Afghanistan and India since the 1980s. Punjab-based radical Deobandi groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) provide weapons, recruits, finances and other resources to Pakistani Taliban groups, and have been responsible for planning many of the attacks attributed to FATA-based militants. The SSP and LJ are also al-Qaeda’s principal allies in the region.

Other extremist groups ostensibly focused on the jihad in Kashmir, such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, are also signatories to al-Qaeda’s global jihad against the West, and have been active in local, regional and inter­national jihads. Their continued patron­age by the mil­itary, and their ability to hijack major policy areas, including Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the international community, impede the civilian government’s ongoing efforts to consolidate control over governance and pursue peace with its neighbours.

The actions of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led federal government, and the Punjab government, led until recently by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), against Punjab-based jihadi groups for their role in November’s attack in India’s com­mer­cial capital, Mumbai, are a step in the right direc­tion. They must now be followed up by consolidating the evidence and presenting it in court. The two main parties, however, risk reversing the progress they have made by resorting to the confrontational politics of the past. On 25 February 2009, the Supreme Court decided to uphold a ban, based on politically motivated cases dating back to Musharraf’s military rule, on Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, Punjab’s chief minister, from elec­toral politics. President Asif Ali Zardari’s sub­sequent imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab has aggravated a political stalemate between the two main parties that, the longer it lasts, will allow non-democratic forces, including the military, the religious right and extre­mists, to once again fill the political vacuum.

The aftermath of the Mumbai attack presents an opening to reshape Pakistan’s response to terrorism, which should rely not on the application of indiscriminate force, includ­­ing military action and arbitrary detentions, but on police investigations, arrests, fair trials and con­vic­tions. This must be civilian-led to be effective. Despite earlier suc­ces­ses against extremist groups, civilian law enforce­ment and intelligence agencies, including the Federal Investigation Agency, the provincial Criminal Inves­ti­gation Departments, and the Intelligence Bureau, lack the resources and the authority to meet their potential. The military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelli­gence Directorate (ISI) still dominate – and hamper – counter-terrorism efforts.

The PPP government cannot afford to enforce the law only in response to a terrorist attack or external pressure. Proactive enforcement will be vital to containing religious militancy, which has reached critical levels; this includes checks on the proliferation of weapons and the growth of private militias, which con­tra­vene the constitution; prosecution of hate speech, the spread of extremist literature and exhortations to jihad; greater accountability of and actions against jihadi madrasas and mosques; and ultimately converting information into evidence that holds up in court. It is not too late to reverse the tide of extremism, provided the govern­ment immediately adopts and implements a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of religious militancy.

Unfortunately, on 16 February 2009, NWFP’s Awami National Party (ANP)-led government made a peace deal, devised by the military, with the Swat-based Sunni extremist Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Moham­madi (TNSM), a militant group allied to the Taliban. The government agreed to impose Sharia (Islamic law) in NWFP’s Malakand region, with religious courts deciding all cases after 16 February 2009; dismantle all security checkpoints and require any military move­ments to be pre-approved by the TNSM; and release cap­tured militants, including those responsible for such acts of violence as public executions and rape. In return, the militants pledged to end their armed campaign.

This accord, an even greater capitulation to the mil­itants than earlier deals by the military regime in FATA, will if implemented entrench Taliban rule and al-Qaeda influence in the area; make peace more elusive; and essentially reverse the gains made by the transition to democracy and the defeat of the military-supported religious right-wing parties in NWFP in the February 2008 elections. With the Swat ceasefire already unravelling, the federal government should refuse pres­idential assent required for its implementation, and renew its commitment to tackling extremism and realising long-term political reform in the borderlands.

The international response to the Swat deal has so far been mixed, with several key leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, viewing it as an acceptable compromise. Acknowledging the failure of unconditionally supporting the Pakistani military, the international community, particularly the U.S., must reverse course and help strengthen civilian control over all areas of governance, including counter-terrorism, and the capacity of the federal government to override the military’s appeasement policies in FATA and NWFP, replacing them with policies that pursue long-term political, economic and social development.

Islamabad/Brussels, 13 March 2009

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