Nawaz Sharif’s Endless War

Support for Pakistan's counterterrorism campaign is widespread. But it is waged largely against the poor and disenfranchised.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. US Department of State / Flickr

On January 30, a bomb ripped through a congregation hall in Shikarpur, Pakistan, killing more than sixty people attending weekly Friday prayers. It was the most brutal attack on the Shia community since a car bomb went off in Karachi in 2013, killing forty-five.

On February 13, another suicide attack killed at twenty-one and wounded fifty. According to one estimate, in the last two years, about one thousand members of the Shia faith have been killed in attacks.

While the radical Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) carried out much of the violence over this time, Jundullah, a splinter faction of the banned group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), said they carried out the two most recent attacks. Famous for its suicide attacks both in Pakistan and Iran, Jundullah is a rebel Sunni group that has been funded by the Pakistani state intelligence agency (ISI) and the army in order to keep dissident nationalist elements in check.

Following a Jundullah strike in Iran in October 2009, Iranian Interior Minister Heydar Moslehi accused Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of supporting the group to exert regional influence and stoke Sunni-Shia tensions in the Balochistan region. To those used to the violent sectarianism gripping the country, this claim doesn’t sound particularly extraordinary.

The attack in Shikarpur comes a month after the declaration of a National Action Plan (NAP) by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, a response to the attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 134 children. The NAP reiterates the government’s commitment to Zarb-e-Azb, a campaign launched by the Pakistani military last year to battle militants in the country’s tribal areas, primarily North Waziristan.

The Peshawar attack, orchestrated by the TTP, was a display of militant backlash against Zarb-e-Azb that hasn’t abated: a faction of the TTP took responsibility for an attack near the Lahore Police Lines last Tuesday, killing eight and wounding at least thirty-two.

The government’s action in response to steadily increasing violence has amounted to little more than grandstanding. A spokesman for the All-Pakistan Shia Action Committee, for instance, claims that no armed guards were present outside the imambargah before or during the attack. Clearly, the government’s calls for fierce military reprisals against terrorist outfits in Pakistan have not been accompanied by protection of embattled minorities.

Military engagement has been selective, public accountability of the campaign has been blurred by a lack of transparency, and the terrorists have struck back.

In view of these complications, civil society responses to Zarb-e-azb have been perplexing to say the least. Ranging from a “kill ’em all!” attitude prevalent on the Facebook pages of many middle-class Pakistanis to slightly more muted chants of solidarity from others, support for the military campaign has been widespread.

The Pakistani Left

Things take an even more interesting turn when one looks at the Pakistani left’s position. Some on the Left openly advocate military engagement, either because they seek to forcibly stamp out terrorist elements or because they reason that the operation has upset relations between the army and its former allies (like the TTP), which may dissuade the army from backing terrorist outfits in Pakistan.

The majority of socialists are less supportive. The current operation in North Waziristan, after all, is not a particularly new development. It is the most recent operation in a decades-long policy that has spawned six military operations across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in the Swat Valley, almost all of which have resulted in violent reprisals by terrorist groups and incalculable human costs.

There has been little development or extension of these policies into urban areas or the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where groups like Jundullah still run wild. The appraisal of Zarb-e-Azb as a just war — when it is widely known that the government gives leeway (and funding) to terrorist groups in the major provinces while waging unceasing war largely on the poor and disenfranchised — goes shockingly unquestioned in mainstream channels.

The dynamics of state patronage of terrorist outfits and the consequences of military campaigns waged primarily in the interests of the Pakistani ruling class and its American allies require special attention in the context of Zarb-e-Azb. Indeed, as pointed out by a report in the magazine Tanqeed, “any analysis that reduces politics to a clash of civilizational paradigms — to two abstract ideologies fighting each other — is misleading and doing more to obscure realities than to reveal them.”

The failures of Pakistan’s military engagement with extremism and the uncomfortable coupling of state actors with non-state belligerents are all too obvious to progressives in Pakistan. Criticism of Zarb-e-Azb has been rich and varied, but critique has never been difficult for the Left. That’s the easy stuff.

What is perhaps more interesting is what the Left has to say in the affirmative — what is to be done, so to say, about tackling an issue that has left Pakistan war-torn and destabilized?

Here is where divisions and debate overcome any semblance of certainty. Should the Pakistani progressive always reject a military solution to what may otherwise be a problem rooted in social deprivation like illiteracy and economic disparity? Can leftists ever, even in a limited sense, support an army that has repeatedly derailed the democratic process and amassed great wealth and economic clout in the process?

Could a leftist support surgical strikes against key terrorists as long as they are carried out by a democratically accountable institution? Where should one direct the bulk of one’s anger and criticism — at a complicit state, a scheming military, or an imperialist United States? Is it practical to confront all three at the same time?

There are no straightforward answers to any of these questions, and the Pakistani left is painfully aware of this. A deeper understanding of the history and politics of counterterrorism in Pakistan may explain why this is so.

Supporting the “Good” Taliban

The story of Pakistan’s experience with Islamic fundamentalism is intimately linked to the state’s close ties to the US. There is no dearth of information demonstrating that the spread of Islamic fundamentalism began in earnest following the US invasion of Afghanistan, military operations in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas after 2004, and relentless US drone strikes: a point perhaps even conceded by the naïve “safe haven” narrative, which tells us that the US failed in Afghanistan when the Taliban jumped ship and took refuge in Pakistan.

This is a familiar trend: despite the fact that banned militant groups (particularly those allied with the US during the Cold War) operated in the periphery of Pakistani politics for years, the “war on terror” categorically cemented their presence and brought them to the fore. In much the same way, the group known today as Al-Qaeda, is now known to not have been formed in Iraq until after the invasion in 2003.

Accordingly, Pakistan, as a staunch ally in the fight against terrorism, was pressured for years by US policy elites to obliterate North Waziristan. It duly obeyed, but of course, the Pakistani state has always made clear-cut distinctions between good and bad militants to project its power regionally — as illustrated by its close ties with certain factions of the TTP, as well as with the Haqqani group, an Islamist insurgent group allied with the Taliban with whom the government, until very recently, was in active negotiations.

The Haqqani group seems to be immune to the Army’s ire: recently, the group vanished entirely from their known strongholds in North Waziristan. Reports place them in the northern agency of Kurram, in Balochistan, or even across the border. Despite the fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry recently managed to get the Pakistani government to officially ban the Haqqani network, military officers privately intimate that the Haqqanis are beyond limits, perhaps even “beyond our paygrade.”

From the little that we know about Zarb-e-Azb, the military tactics employed seem to demonstrate that these distinctions are still being made. The pattern of air raids in recent months indicates that the Sharif government is still using military action and terrorism to maximize “strategic depth” within the country.

Aerial operations have taken place in areas like Datta Khel and other strongholds of the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led splinter of the TTP, possibly to appease the rival umbrella organization of the TTP (previously led by Baitullah Mehsud, now by Fazlullah). Importantly, the government previously signed a peace agreement with the Bahadur group in order to undercut the TTP, but since the Bahadur group went rogue, tactics have changed — an indication of how often the government’s complex web of alliances are recalibrated.

More troublingly, reports of these transitory alliances are scant, owing largely to the complete media blackout and lack of transparency in the details of Zarb-e-Azb. Occasionally, a kernel of honesty emerges. On February 13, former president and military leader Pervez Musharraf admitted that Pakistan supported insurgent proxies in Afghanistan. This is, perhaps, a little belated.

In truth, the Pakistan government will most likely never abandon its tactic of supporting the “good” Taliban and solely attacking “bad” Taliban; between terrorists that are instruments for India-oriented strategies and renegade factions that need to be reined it; between targets whose defeat will be good for the army’s PR and those who, despite savage attacks on minorities, can be ignored in favor of Pakistan’s pro-Saudi regional and global agenda.

In other words, the good/bad view of different Taliban factions operates solely in the interests of the ruling elite’s regional power stratagems, not, as one might assume, in any real distinction between the threats posed by the groups.

Collusion at Every Level

Meanwhile, in Sindh and southern Punjab, anti-Shia militant outfits like Jundullah and LeJ run amok with impunity. One banned group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) operates under the name of an entirely different group, the Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamat (ASWJ), which is closely allied to the aforementioned LeJ. ASWJ rallies, known for their virulently anti-Shia oratory, are often held publicly right under the government’s noses. One was recently held on the campus of the government-run Gomal University.

Another, on February 5, was held outside the chief minister’s house in Karachi. The police responded, of course, by arresting instead a number of anti-terror activists protesting the government’s inaction at Shikarpur, including noted lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir. Just before his arrest, Nasir tweeted: “The rally organised by the ASWJ has been done so under the protection of the police.”

It is broadly recognized that the SSP/ASWJ continue to receive funding from Gulf Arab countries and comprehensive immunity from successive governments. Accommodation to these groups is explained fairly well by a cursory examination of the financial dealings of political agents — recent reports about how a member of parliament belonging to the ruling party PML-N was a financier of the SSP, for instance, are just another example of how entrenched the links between local militants and government officials really are.

This connection extends all the way from politicians and civil society to the uppermost echelons of the Pakistan Army and the infamous ISI. To say the military intersects with the ruling political elites to uphold the agenda of the ruling class and monopolize violence would be to draw too much of a distinction between the two institutions. The two work in tandem, and together with the dictates of US ruling elites.

The urban Pakistani elite are rewarded with political power, contracts, public money in the form of lucrative business deals, and jobs, and the system manifests its writ in the form of military operations at the expense of the dispossessed of North Waziristan, the starved children of internally displaced persons, the poor of Balochistan, and battered minorities across the country.

A Convenient Rivalry

This collusion has allowed the peddling of the primary historical fiction of the modern Pakistani state: a rivalry with India; one that has allowed the state to fight multiple wars to bolster the idea that India will always be Pakistan’s eternal foe.

This narrative tends to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune moments. For much of the last decade, terror attacks from homegrown groups have been attributed to the “foreign hand.” Even as the nation reeled from the savage attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar, former President Pervez Musharraf accused New Delhi of being behind the attack.

The narrative goes something like this: India funds and foments separatist terrorist groups in Pakistan, in complete contrast to the Pakistani state, which has little to no dealings with Islamist militias (despite all historical evidence to the contrary). And in this narrative, the use of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamat-ud-Dawah is justified as bulwarks against Indian aggression.

This strategy explains why the state keeps its Punjabi and Sindhi militant friends: for current or future use as proxies against India. It helps that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, primarily Sunni revivalists, also call for jihad against India and challenge Indian control in Kashmir. Another group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, with known links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has overrun South Punjab with madrassas and literature on jihad against India and the murder of religious minorities and blasphemers.

Jamat-ud-Dawah, accused of the Mumbai attack in 2008 that killed 166, operates freely on Pakistani soil and although technically banned, orchestrates well-attended rallies in the major cities of Lahore and Islamabad, where its leader, Hafiz Saeed, extols the virtues of jihad in Kashmir.

Indeed, some have questioned whether Pakistan’s renewed commitment to counterterrorism is real at all, when there is no precedent for the Pakistan Army abandoning its friends for leverage against India. Political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc., makes it clear:

A change in military’s policy has a necessary corollary that it has to improve relations with India. Think about it. Why were we historically bothered about Afghanistan? It was because of India or fear of Indian intervention. Has that changed? . . . What has fundamentally changed in the region for Pakistan army to alter its policy? If the fear of India and its intervention in Baluchistan persists then don’t think the military will or has changed its options.

In a January 28 meeting with Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Nawaz Sharif asserted: “India is an important neighbor for us, and we would like to have normal relations with the country on the basis of mutual respect and sovereign equality.” Nonetheless, the Pakistan Army turns a blind eye to training camps in Balochistan, no doubt out of a fear that abandoning them will allow Indian efforts to bolster separatism in Balochistan to come to fruition.

The traditional realpolitik threats are still very much in play.

The Human Cost

Amid all this dramatic political strategizing, the human cost of the state’s military operations has gone largely unnoticed. Soon after the Zarb-e-Azb operation began in North Waziristan, reports of internally displaced persons (IDPs) uprooted from their homes began to surface. Just two months after the operation began, upwards of a million people had fled North Waziristan. Many migrated to Bannu, southwest of Peshawar. Some even fled to Afghanistan.

A million IDPs seems like an underestimate given that the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) has failed to register scores of individuals. Uzair Younus writes in Foreign Policy:

Many IDPs possess “dual addresses.” Identification documents are often compiled using their working address . . . this practice has left many unable to register themselves as an IDP or to access rations and cash transfers. Instead of implementing mechanisms to resolve this discrepancy, the FDMA has denied assistance to these people. . . .

The displaced individuals that I interviewed admitted that they had paid bribes to procure numerous services including completing the IDP registration process, obtaining monthly rations, and securing tents. . . . Markets in Bannu are stocked with relief goods and are being sold for above-market prices. These items . . . should have been distributed to the IDPs for free.

Tragically, for Pakistan, this is old news. An estimated five million people have been dispossessed from North Waziristan and FATA since 2008, a product of the army’s sporadic military adventures in the region.

Meanwhile, as cities like Bannu absorb hundreds of thousands of people, displaced people migrating to the rich provinces of Punjab and Sindh are turned away at the border, a sharp rejoinder to those who thought the warring state was on their side.

Budgetary relief for IDPs has been treated almost as an afterthought. The Pakistani state — the same state whose existence is predicated on being flush with petrodollars, and billions in “war on terror” buy-offs and IMF loans — initially refused international assistance for IDPs. They said it was an “internal” matter.

As millions of war refugees languished, joined annually by scores of those dispossessed due to floods, the government allocated $5 million to aid refugees. At the same time, it also allocated $50 million to the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Metro Bus, a major prestige project for the Sharif government.

But again, this is no surprise. Even in conditions of relative calm, as Brian Fishman reports in The Taliban in Pakistan: An Overview, government funding in FATA is a misnomer: money allocated for public projects is wont to be handed out to the relatives of political agents who run their constituencies like their
personal fiefdoms.”

The human cost of dispossession and war is not a pesky side effect of the Pakistan Army’s foray into North Waziristan, but the result of a longstanding policy to all but disown FATA.

The policy was betrayed when the Sindh and Punjab provincial governments, long the seats of the ruling elites, banned the entry of IDPs, abnegating all duty. As their good friends and radical Sunni terrorists murdered minorities without compunction, the state turned its gaze instead towards the poor and homeless outside its urban centers, preemptively classifying them as major threats to security.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR reports that more than twenty thousand families from North Waziristan have sought refuge in Afghanistan. In Khost and Nangarhar, along the border with Afghanistan, the locals of the region circulated sweets to their fellow Pashtuns from the Pakistani side of the border.

Thinking in the Affirmative

Counterterrorism’s difficult history and the troubled political landscape in Pakistan makes obvious the predicament of the Left. Past measures have failed, but what does this mean for the policy of the future? Any mention of the “Left,” of course, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; as in any historical or regional context, the Left comprises a vibrant mix of identities, advocates, priorities, and positions. Add to this mix the immeasurably tough issue of fighting religious extremism in an impoverished Islamic republic and you’ve got yourself a real dilemma.

A progressive could easily prioritize the cessation of US-led drone strikes before she bemoans an indigenous military campaign; she could attack local government actors and their patronage of provincial terrorist outfits before deriding the state’s pesky habit of labeling some terrorists “good” and others “bad.”

Pakistani society’s fetishism of the “other,” be that India, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, means that any effort by the Left to indict state institutions will always be vulnerable to patriotic dismissal and the externalization of blame.

Thanks to the complex interplay of relations between local state actors, military men, foreign diplomats, and eternal enemies, the number of IDPs and civilian casualties produced by Zarb-e-Azb will forever pale in comparison to the number of terror victims.

It is for this reason that “kill ’em all” Facebook statuses and an endless string of military campaigns may well become a permanent feature in Pakistan’s approach to counterterrorism. All the more reason why Pakistan’s left needs to start thinking in the affirmative.