It shook Pakistan and stunned the world. But the carnage on Dec. 16 at the Army Public School, Peshawar, marked only an escalation in the brutality of Pakistani militants, not its beginning.
Over the years, Pakistan’s homegrown terrorists have bombed the places of worship of the Shia, the Sunni, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. Since 2009, the Taliban have attacked over a thousand schools, mainly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. They have targeted ISI offices in several cities, Navy and Air Force bases, garrison mosques, the Karachi Airport, and even the Army’s General Headquarters. If this breadth of attrition has not cured Pakistan of its jihadist addiction, can the deaths of 134 innocent children and the burning alive of their teachers in Peshawar result in a fundamental change of heart?
The jihadist worldview is as stubborn as it is toxic. Soon after Peshawar, Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s infamous Lal Masjid refused to condemn the Taliban’s heinous attack, and Hafiz Saeed of Jamat-ud-Dawah (née Lashkar-e-Taiba) went on television to blame New Delhi for the school attack and vowed revenge inside India.
The security establishment’s obsession with India, in which jihadism is rooted, goes back to Partition, the Two Nation theory, and the abiding fear that external powers want the dismemberment of Pakistan. The breakup of Pakistan in 1971 only reinforced the national paranoia instead of convincing the country’s Punjabi elite of the need to come to terms with Pakistan’s size and power and to seek security within the parameters of reality.
Pakistan’s constructed identity emphasizes religion and ideology at the expense of ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian diversity of a complex society. As a result, the country’s approach to national security has been driven by ideological rather than pragmatic considerations. Although Pakistan’s military and civil bureaucracy both originated from institutions created under the British, their approach and attitudes have progressively been driven more by the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ than the professionalism that they often project to outsiders.
The relationship between Pakistan and jihadism cannot be understood without understanding the country’s ideological dimension, the fact that it was created as the result of an idea. Pakistan has a national narrative, a national milieu, and a national identity—all built around Islam. For the first 30 years of Pakistan’s existence, the clamor was for religiosity within and Pan-Islamism in foreign policy. For the next 30 years, global jihadism was the overarching security and foreign policy idea that advanced the ‘ideology of Pakistan.’
Even though three successive commanders of the Pakistan Army—Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and now Gen. Raheel Sharif—have sought to curtail the jihadists’ influence within Pakistan, including through military operations, their efforts have always fallen short because of the nation’s ideological compulsions. The ‘ideology of Pakistan,’ and the falsified historic narrative taught in schools to justify it, produces sympathy in society for Shariah rule, for an Islamic caliphate and an Islamic state. This works in favor of more than 33 militant groups that operate out of Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic planners may see no difficulty in eliminating global terrorists and fighting local jihadists while supporting regional ones. But the public is conflicted in its attitude toward jihadist groups. Unfortunately for those who want to stop the Pakistani Taliban, their rhetoric about Shariah and against Western values resonates with supporters of other, ostensibly ‘more palatable’ jihadist groups even if their methods are abhorred by Pakistanis.
For most countries, nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee against invasion or territorial extinction. But to the disciples of the ‘ideology of Pakistan,’ security is not enough. Built in into the Two Nation theory is the notion of parity between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. The events of the last 67 years may have rendered the Two Nation theory redundant. The number of Muslims living in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is now roughly equal and there are more Muslims in the subcontinent that live outside Pakistan than in it. But the ideological conception of Pakistan requires that it claim the mantle of Muslim nationhood and pursue equivalence to India in status, power and international standing.
Pakistan’s size and economy do not allow it to be on a par with much larger and increasingly wealthier India. The machinations of the Cold War that enabled Pakistani leaders to punch beyond their weight through alliance with the West, especially the United States, are also over. That leaves asymmetric warfare through jihadists as the only strategic option for Pakistan’s ideologues. The other course, that of pursuing security and prosperity of geographic Pakistan and its people without insisting on the ‘ideology of Pakistan,’ has simply not found sufficient resonance among Islamabad’s powerful quarters.
The case made by Pakistan’s ideologues is appealing to Pakistanis even as it drags the country down the road of tragedies similar to the recent one in Peshawar. In 1947, the country inherited few resources and feared strangulation at birth. The Partition riots and the exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir scarred Pakistan’s founding generation. The country survived because of its people’s resilience and its leaders’ adept Cold War alliances.
As early as 1948, Pakistan’s first military foray into Kashmir involved lashkars from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The irregular fighter added to the Pakistani military’s muscle. Engaging the tribesmen in jihad across the Indus, in Kashmir, preempted the possibility of their becoming involved in schemes for “Pashtunistan,” the land of the Pashtuns—advocated at the time by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the government of Afghanistan. Thus began Pakistan’s tolerance and support for nonstate actors tied by ideological nationalism to the strategic vision of Pakistan’s military establishment.
In the 1980s, Pakistan’s policy received a shot in the arm with the U.S. decision to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to combat the Soviet Union. As substantial amounts of money, weapons and fighters flowed in, Pakistan’s security establishment began setting up camps to not only train fighters to battle in Afghanistan, but also in Jammu and Kashmir. Today, a wide array of militant organizations operates in Pakistan with safe havens in urban and rural areas. Some of these include sectarian organizations that target religious minorities and Muslim sects (Sipah-e-Sahaba), anti-India outfits (Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed), anti-Afghanistan groups (Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the Haqqani network), and militants waging war against the Pakistani military (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).
The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan was the first turning point in the nature of militancy in Pakistan. General Musharraf was quick to sever ties with the Taliban government in Kabul and supported American operations in Afghanistan. To give the peace process with India some traction, he put a temporary halt on militant flow into Jammu and Kashmir. In April 1999, Musharraf had told a group of retired military officers that the “Taliban are my strategic reserve and I can unleash them in tens of thousands against India when I want.” By 2002, he had changed his tune, nominally banning groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. But the banned organizations and their leadership were allowed to operate under new names.
Under Musharraf, Pakistan began differentiating between jihadist groups. While foreign terrorists with links to Al Qaeda were handed over to the U.S., local and regional militants (sectarian, anti-India and anti-Afghan groups) were left alone. Some militants built capacity to challenge the writ of the state right under the nose of Pakistani security forces. They have inflicted huge casualties on security forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the years. Other groups such as the Haqqani network were allegedly ‘managed’ by intelligence agencies in a bid to exert influence on events in Afghanistan.
The current Pakistani problem of increasing terrorism at home is the result of that policy. While the state might differentiate among terrorists, the jihadists often tend to be sympathetic and supportive toward one another. The jihadists supported by the establishment end up supporting terrorists attacking Pakistan’s Army and civilians. As is often the case with ideologically motivated militants, ideology takes precedence over strategy. Even jihadists accepting or extracting state support see the value of some fighters using force to Islamize Pakistan further, even at the cost of undermining the country’s stability.
Pakistan’s adherence to an ideological nationalism based on Islam has allowed radical groups to propagate their message and raise large sums of money without much hindrance. Further, while the coercive military and intelligence apparatus has been strong, the local police have never been provided the political support, resources and skills required to be able to combat these radical outfits. Faced with a poorly trained and demoralized police force, some groups run extortion and kidnapping rackets in urban centers. They also raise money through narcotics trafficking and trade of smuggled goods. So the militant organizations have a sophisticated system of fundraising to support their activities. This would enable them to operate even after the Pakistani state has made a final decision to cut them off.
For years, Pakistan has been living in denial. For years, Pakistan denied support for the Afghan Taliban or the existence of Kashmiri jihadist training camps. The presence of Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, was attributed to the inadvertent consequences of Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. But denial does not offer a way forward. Pakistan’s Islamo-nationalism has bred radicalism, diminished economic growth and weakened its international standing. Also unknown is the extent of ideological radicalization within Pakistan’s military, which remains the country’s dominant institution.
There have been numerous instances of military officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted men cooperating with jihadists or deserting their service to join jihadist ranks. But the Pakistani military tends to hold back information on the matter, making an assessment of the extent of this problem difficult. The PNS Mehran attack in 2011, the attack on the Air Force’s Kamra base in 2012, and the foiled attempt last September by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent to take over a Navy frigate in Karachi harbor all point to the persistence of jihadist influence within the ranks of the Armed Forces.
It is unlikely that the Pakistani establishment would want to give up its decades-long pursuit of paramountcy over Afghanistan. Faced with international pressure as well as growing threats from the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan has cleared out known jihadist sanctuaries in North Waziristan. This has deprived Afghan groups such as the Haqqani network of their former headquarters. But Pakistan has neither acted against nor militarily confronted the Afghan Taliban; and the Haqqani network is believed to have relocated to other parts of the federally administered tribal areas.
Pakistan’s policy in the immediate future would likely be to engage with Afghanistan and the U.S. to find a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. At the same time Pakistan could continue to try and militarily change the ground situation in Afghanistan to force the world to deal with de facto Taliban control of parts of Afghanistan as fait accompli. In Islamabad’s view, this would enable it to determine the final terms of an Afghan settlement, resulting in India’s exclusion from Afghanistan and the northwestern neighbor being acknowledged as Pakistan’s sphere of influence.
But are fantasies of parity with India and paramountcy over Afghanistan realistic policies? For 67 years, Pakistan has developed one element of national power—the military one—at the cost of all others. The country’s institutions, ranging from schools and universities to the judiciary, are in a state of general decline. The economy’s stuttering growth is dependent largely on the flow of concessional flows of external resources. Pakistan’s GDP stands at $245 billion in absolute terms and $845 billion in purchasing price parity—the smallest economy of any country that has so far tested nuclear weapons.
Almost half of Pakistan is very poor. Pakistan’s literacy rate is 57 percent, and a staggering 38 percent of Pakistanis between the school-going ages of 5 and 15 are out of school. The low literacy rate and inadequate investment in education have led to a decline in Pakistan’s technological base, hampering economic modernization. With one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world, at around 9 percent, a GDP growth rate of 1.7 to 2.4 percent and population growth rate of 1.5 percent, Pakistan needs foreign as well as domestic investments in addition to drastic changes in local laws, all of which need broad political consensus and stability, both of which are lacking. With almost 40 percent of its population urbanized, the Pakistani government spends around 2.6 percent on public healthcare. As a result, social services are also in a state of decline. On the other hand, Pakistan spends almost 6 percent of its GDP on defense and is still unable to match the conventional forces of India, which outspends Pakistan 3 to 1 while allocating less than 3 percent of GDP to military spending.
Over the decades, Pakistan has managed to evade crises and failure status primarily because the international community has bailed it out. But now the rest of the world sees Pakistan as Jihad Central. Camps nestled in the tribal areas have trained and equipped militants who have gone on to fight in the name of Allah in different regions of the world. Foreign fighters trained in Pakistan have reportedly been in action in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and China’s Xinjiang region. It is no longer possible to keep Pakistani jihadists as a strategic reserve “only to cause damage to India.”
Instead of securing parity with India and paramountcy over Afghanistan, jihadists have only caused crisis and disruption within Pakistan, which must recognize the heavy cost being exacted by its pursuit of regional influence through asymmetric warfare. Fighting some jihadists while embracing others is self-defeating. Thirty years of escalated jihadism have caused erosion of the writ of the Pakistani state and decline in the capacity of state institutions, especially its coercive apparatus.
Even with sporadic military operations, Pakistan’s tribal areas will remain host for some time to a wide range of militant organizations with local, regional and global agendas. Punjab is now the main recruitment ground not only for the Pakistani Army but also for assorted jihadist groups. The growing presence of jihadists in south Punjab and northern Sindh and even in Pakistan’s financial hub, Karachi, does not augur well for the economy.
Pakistan’s jihadists are already exercising virtual veto over Pakistan’s relations with India. The Mumbai attack proved Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ability to undermine the initiatives of a civilian government for normalization of India-Pakistan relations. They could, in future, force the Pakistani military’s hand in a similar manner. Pakistan needs to get out of denial that there are any jihadist groups that can be trusted or considered allies of the state. However useful they might have been for external purposes, nonstate actors will always be a danger for the state internally. Instead of increasing Pakistan’s strategic options, as they were designed to do, the jihadists are now limiting Pakistan’s foreign policy choices.
Instead of doubling down on its jihadist misadventures, Pakistan can plot its course out of the disaster. To do so, it would have to change the defensive national narrative about Pakistan’s creation, raison d’être and prospects of survival. So far, any discussion of the nation’s origins that does not conform to the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ has been treated not as history but as an attack on the country’s foundation.
After mobilizing support for the demand for Pakistan, and establishing it as an independent country, successive Pakistani leaders have chosen to keep alive the divisive frenzy that led to Partition. If Pakistan was attained with the slogan ‘Islam in danger,’ it has been built on the slogan ‘Pakistan in danger,’ creating a constant sense of insecurity among its people, especially in relation to India and internal demands for ethnic identity or pluralism.
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy had opposed the conjuring of this ‘ideology of Pakistan.’ He had told Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in March 1948 against building Pakistani nationalism around the notion of Islam being under threat. According to him, the rhetoric used to mobilize Muslims for the creation of Pakistan was no longer needed after Independence. “You are raising the cry,” he said, “of ‘Pakistan in danger’ for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power.” Suhrawardy warned against transforming Pakistan into a state “founded on sentiments, namely that of ‘Islam in danger’ or of ‘Pakistan in danger.’” He declared that, “a state which will be held together by raising the bogey of attacks” and “friction” with enemies “will be full of alarms and excursions.”
Suhrawardy’s words seem almost prophetic today. He said, “You think that you will get away with it but in that state there will be no commerce, no business and no trade. There will be lawlessness and those lawless elements that may be turned today against non-Muslims will be turned later on, once those fratricidal tendencies have been aroused, against the Muslim gentry and I want you to be warned in time.” He also defined the two key issues for the new country. The “fundamental aspect of the foundations of Pakistan,” he asserted, should be “the goodwill of the people and of the citizens of Pakistan within the state” and “the mutual relationship between the Dominion of Pakistan and the sister dominion, Indian Union.”
If Peshawar has indeed changed Pakistan, it will heed Suhrawardy’s advice.