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Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge
Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
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

Students chant slogans under the shade of national flag, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, according to Pakistani officials, during a march in Lahore, Pakistan 28 February 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Q&A / Asia

Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation

Reciprocal airstrikes by India and Pakistan have been accompanied by shelling, troop reinforcements and small arms fire. In this Q&A calling for restraint between the nuclear-armed neighbours, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller notes that the airspace violations alone were the worst for 50 years.

What happened exactly?

On Tuesday, 26 February, India claimed that its air force had targeted “the biggest training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed … in Balakot”. The strikes – the most significant airspace violations in nearly 50 years – followed a deadly 14 February suicide car bombing in Pulwama in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which had been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group. India said it launched a “preventive strike” based on intelligence that Jaish intended to attack again. At a press conference, Foreign Secretary VK Gokhale said Pakistan “failed to take any concrete action against terrorists” and that the strike on the training facility had “killed a large number”. In its official statement on the airstrike in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Indian government said, “The existence of such massive training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadists could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities”.

Pakistan refutes Indian officials’ claims that more than 300 Jaish militants were killed in the attack. It acknowledges however that eight Indian Air Force jets had violated the Line of Control, which divides Pakistan’s Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Indian-controlled J&K. The Pakistan military’s spokesperson said that its Air Force’s “timely and effective response” had forced the Indian planes to retreat, dropping their bombs in an uninhabited area near Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, causing no casualty or damage.

On 27 February, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said its Air Force had conducted six strikes on “non-military targets” in India to demonstrate the country’s “right, will and capability for self-defence”. Pakistan downed an Indian jet that entered its airspace in pursuit of the Pakistani aircraft, leading to the pilot’s capture. India claimed to have downed one of the intruding Pakistani jets.

Resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

Although it is clear that cross-Line of Control attacks and aerial skirmishes between the two sides occurred, it is difficult to verify both countries’ claims and counter-claims of targets and impact. Pakistani officials have provided evidence, also circulated on social media, of the downed Indian jet and the captured pilot, but claims of six successful strikes conducted in Indian-controlled Kashmir are more difficult to verify. Despite ample evidence of its cross-Line of Control attacks, Indian claims of killing hundreds in the airstrike on a Jaish training base and downing a Pakistani jet lack credence since New Delhi did not provide any evidence.

Why did it happen?

India’s and Pakistan’s latest skirmishes are as much aimed at assuaging domestic constituency concerns as they are at convincing each other of their capacity to strike and seriousness of intent. Still, resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

In the Indian context, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government felt compelled to react in light of the countrywide outrage in the wake of the 14 February Jaish suicide car bombing. With elections months away, Modi, responding to domestic opinion – particularly that of his hardline BJP constituency – vowed to avenge the dead in Pulwama, including at least 40 Indian paramilitary police officers. “We will give a befitting reply; our neighbour will not be allowed to destabilise us,” he said, giving his security forces “permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response”. That response came in the shape of the 26 February airstrikes across the Line of Control.

Within Pakistan, given a long history of distrust toward, and war with India, the powerful military establishment had to demonstrate to constituencies at home that India’s hostile designs would be forcefully thwarted. On 22 February, days before the Indian Air Force strikes, the military’s spokesperson warned that, if India were to attack, Pakistan would never “fall short of capacity” and would “dominate the escalation ladder”. The day of the 26 February Indian attack, reiterating these warnings, the spokesperson referred to a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, saying to India, “I hope you know what the NCA means and what it constitutes”. 

What could happen next and why does it matter?

Both sides have left themselves room to climb down. Pakistani and Indian officials insist that their governments have no intention to escalate hostilities further. On 27 February, Pakistan’s military spokesperson said the Pakistan Air Force could have targeted a major Indian military installation in the strike area but chose to attack “in open space”, causing no casualties, so as to avoid escalation. The same day, speaking at a Russia-India-China foreign ministers meeting in Beijing, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said the 26 February strike, meant to pre-empt another terror attack, “wasn’t a military operation, no military installation was targeted”. India, she said, “doesn’t wish to see further escalation of the situation”.

For his part, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for restraint and diplomatic engagement and at the same time vividly highlighted the risks inherent in the current situation. The same day as his country’s planes launched strikes across the Line of Control, Khan elliptically referenced the nuclear capabilities in a television interview and said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?” He also offered to release the captured Indian pilot and to cooperate with India in investigating the Pulwama attack.

New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

Despite Khan’s acknowledgement of escalation risks, and Indian and Pakistani claims of responsibility and restraint, their armies are continuing to clash with artillery shelling and small arms fire along the Line of Control. Meanwhile, tensions are also high within J&K due to an Indian crackdown on Kashmiri dissidents, which could provoke more alienated youth to join militants. This apparently was the case of the 14 February suicide bomber, who came from a village close to the site of the Pulwama attack.

What should be done?

The international community, including China, the EU and European governments, have called on India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and prevent further escalation. In Washington, expressing U.S. concern about the tit-for-tat attacks, a White House official said, “The potential risks associated with further military action by either side are unacceptably high for both countries, their neighbours, and the international community”.

If the two sides are to step down from the brink, their leaders, civil and military, should resist the temptation to pander to domestic constituencies and tone down hostile rhetoric.

There is little foreseeable prospect, no matter how desirable, of the top Indian and Pakistani leaderships re-establishing direct communication channels and bilateral dialogue. These have been frozen since the 2016 terror attacks in Indian Punjab and Indian-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi attributed to Pakistan-based militants. Nevertheless, New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

In the short and medium terms, New Delhi should rethink its approach toward and within J&K, ending the heavy-handed militarised response that has contributed to growing local alienation and disaffection. Pakistan should rethink its longstanding policy of supporting anti-India jihadist proxies, such as Jaish, that – as this latest round of escalation shows – are far more of a threat to national security than an asset.

This article was corrected on 2 March 2019 to place Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as first reported by Pakistan.