Pakistan

Tentacles of terror

Print edition : March 17, 2017

A security official collects evidence a day after a bomb attack at the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh province on February 17. Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP

At the funeral of a relative who was killed in the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. Photo: AKHTAR SOOMRO/REUTERS

The growing terrorist threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan is blamed on the Pakistani political-military establishment’s encouragement of terror groups that are amenable to its guidance and support.

PAKISTAN and Afghanistan have in recent weeks and months witnessed a wave of terrorist incidents in which hundreds of people died. Most of the attacks have been the handiwork of the Islamic State (Daesh) and point to the fact that the lethal terrorist group has sprung roots in the subcontinent. The Daesh was quick to claim responsibility for the suicide attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, an 800-year-old Sufi shrine situated in Sindh province in Pakistan, in the third week of February, in which more than 80 worshippers, among them 20 women and eight children, were killed.

The last big attack on a Sufi shrine was in November last year when a suicide bomber struck at the shrine of Shah Norani in Balochistan province. Sufism is considered un-Islamic by the hard-line Sunni outfits that spearhead terror in the region. Terror groups such as the Daesh consider Sufis apostates on a par with the frequently targeted Shia minority.

In the week before the attack in Sindh province, four terror attacks took place on Pakistani soil. On February 13, a suicide bomber targeted a peaceful rally outside the State Assembly in Lahore, killing 13 people and injuring at least 85. Two days later, a suicide bomber targeted a government compound. The next day there was an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a military convoy. A breakaway group of the Pakistani Taliban calling itself the Jamaat-ul-Ahraar (JuA) claimed credit for all the attacks. The Pakistani government had previously claimed that the back of the militants had been broken after the military operation “Zarb-i-Azb” in 2014 to flush out the militants in the tribal areas. The current upsurge in violence has been the worst since terrorist attacks peaked three years ago.

The Afghan Taliban, which is close to the Pakistani political-military establishment, is a sworn enemy of the Daesh and has fought pitched battles with it over territory in Afghanistan. According to American intelligence estimates, the majority of the Daesh fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are former members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Many of them hail from Pakistan’s Orakzai Tribal Agency. Since the Daesh’s announcement two years ago recognising the so-called “province of Khorosan”, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of north India, it has managed to get a foothold in the region. Other radical groups in Pakistan, such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al Alami (LIA), the JuA and the Jundallah, have pledged their allegiance to the Daesh. The JuA claimed responsibility for the attack on a military-run school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed more than 141 people, most of them schoolchildren. The group carried out another attack last year on a military academy, resulting in the death of 62 cadets.

The Pakistan government has tried to blame the Afghan government for the terror attacks that have badly shaken the nation’s morale. Adherents of the Sufi order said they had sought better protection for their shrines following repeated threats from the Pakistani Taliban. Islamabad issued a strong warning to the government in Kabul. Immediately after the heinous attack on the Sufi shrine in Sindh, Afghan diplomats were summoned to the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi and handed a list of 75 “wanted terrorists” allegedly holed up in Afghan territory. Islamabad claims that Afghanistan provides “safe sanctuaries” for terrorist groups targeting its territory.

As things stand, the Afghan government has only a tenuous hold on large swathes of its territory. Pakistani officials have also accused India of playing a part, in tandem with the Afghan government, in stoking terrorism on its soil. There is suspicion in Islamabad that the recent terror attacks were aimed at unsettling the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a key part of Beijing’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Maj. Gen. Asif Gafoor, Director General of Inter Services Public Relations, said the “recent terrorist acts are being executed on directions from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan”.

Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa ordered a nationwide sweep of suspected terrorists. The army’s publicity wing claimed that more than a hundred hard-core terrorists were eliminated within days following the latest terror attack. The border with Afghanistan was ordered closed, and reports spoke of heavy cross-border shelling from the Pakistani side.

The Afghan government lodged a formal protest with Islamabad over the shelling and also demanded that Pakistan take tough action against terror groups operating on its territory. But the growing consensus within Pakistan is that the growing terrorist threat is more a result of the Pakistani political-military establishment’s encouragement of certain terror groups that were amenable to its guidance and support. It is well known that the Afghan Taliban and separatist groups in Kashmir receive support from the Pakistani establishment.

Military courts

According to reports, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with many prominent civil society personalities, wants the powerful military establishment to take tough action against militant and fundamentalist groups in the country. At the same time, the Sharif government has called for the continuation of military courts that can dish out speedy justice for those involved in terrorist activities. The military courts for trying civilians charged with committing acts of terror stopped functioning at the beginning of this year. The Pakistani parliament had sanctioned only a period of two years for the military courts.

The government has sought a three-year extension for the military courts on the grounds of the grave threat posed by terror groups to the fabric of the state. Many Pakistanis felt that this could lead to the military tightening its stranglehold on the country’s politics. Allowing the military to try civilians is in itself a grave distortion of democratic principles. There was a great deal of opposition in the parliament to the government’s move until recently. But after the latest attack on the Sufi shrine in Sindh, opposition to the need for military courts has lessened considerably. In January, the JuA, on behalf of the Daesh-affiliated terrorist alliance, announced the launch of “Operation Ghazi”. The terror group warned that it would target government and military institutions, non-Islamic political parties and religious minorities. A short time after the announcement, the spate of attacks started.

The Punjab State government which is run by Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the Prime Minister, has included the name of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed in the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The Act allows the government to “proscribe” the activities of individuals thus named. This followed the government's decision to place Saeed under house arrest on January 31.

After the recent wave of terror attacks, Pakistan may be forced to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy towards all militant and terrorist groups, even those involved in the Kashmir struggle. The United States and India have both demanded action against Saeed and the JuD. The United Nations Security Council declared it a “terrorist organisation” in 2008 and imposed sanctions on it. In 2014, the U.S. State Department labelled the JuD “a foreign terrorist organisation”.

India has been demanding Saeed’s arrest for quite some time now. Sections of the Pakistani media claimed that Beijing could have played a role in pressuring Islamabad to act on Saeed. The issue caused unnecessary friction between India and China. The U.S. had also threatened sanctions on Pakistan on the issue. Pakistani politicians, including ruling party parliamentarians, also questioned the government about its links with groups such as the JuD. “Which egg is Hafeez Saeed laying for us that we are nurturing him?” asked Rana Muhammad Afzal, a parliamentarian belonging to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

The scourge of terrorism is likely to endure in the region until complex issues relating to Afghanistan and Kashmir are resolved amicably. Balochistan is another potential flashpoint. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is proving its resilience. In the recently held six-nation talks in Moscow, to which India was also belatedly invited, the majority view was that negotiations should be conducted with the Afghan Taliban to establish a durable and lasting peace. Only Afghanistan and India were opposed to the idea of holding talks with the Taliban. Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan were in favour of talks.

As far as Kashmir is concerned, the Indian government has postponed talks with Pakistan on one pretext or another. The Indian Army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat’s statement that Kashmiri civilians would be in the line of fire if they tried to disrupt army operations did not help matters. Many commentators started drawing parallels between India’s handling of the insurgency in Kashmir and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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