The current spate of violence by the Deobandis against the Barelvis began after the 1990 formation of Sunni Tehreek (ST) by Mohammad Salim Qadri. The organisation was believed to be an offshoot of Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam. The first battles were about the control of the mosques in Sindh and Punjab.
But the internecine conflict amongst the Sunnis climaxed on 11 April 2006, when a congregation of the ST was attacked at Nishtar Park in Karachi by a suicide bomber. It killed the entire leadership of the ST, with 57 dead and 200 injured. The Data Darbar attack of 1 July 2010 stood out too as a phenomenon.
Naeemis killing had instilled fear in the minds of the moderate preachers of Pakistan.
But of equal importance, if not more, was the killing of the Barelvi cleric, Sarfraz Naeemi, in Lahore on 11 June 2010. Naeemi was one of the few courageous Muslim preachers of Pakistan who had taken a position against terrorism and issued a fatwa against suicide bombing and called it to be against Islamic law. As Dawn had reported, a week after his assassination, on 19 June, his son Raghib Naeemi quoted his father, saying “My father believed that this is [sic] the last war for the survival of Pakistan.”
Naeemi’s killing had instilled fear in the minds of the moderate preachers of Pakistan. The same 19 June report of Dawn had quoted a Reuters report saying, “Naeemi’s murder has also spread fear among his moderate colleagues. ‘I myself have received threats,’ said Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a scholar who heads a Barelvi alliance of religious schools. ‘I have no security at home or at my madrasah,’ he told Reuters by telephone from Karachi . . .”
“¦with increased pressure from Pakistans law enforcement agencies following incidents like the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, they have now shifted base to the countrys lawless northwest, where the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda are active.
The government’s sense of powerlessness was evident in the report itself, as the newspaper quoted an official advising these clerics to put their heads down. “They should keep a low profile . . . restrict their movements and keep their travel plans confidential,” a security official had advised through the publication.
All this reflected the changing dynamics of militant jihadi politics of Pakistan, which was hitherto being fostered by state agencies as an asymmetric tool to deal with India militarily. The increased American presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan had turned the attention of these organisations more inward. And with increased pressure from Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies following incidents like the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, they have now shifted base to the country’s lawless northwest, where the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda are active. This has helped the organisations to unify their actions, blurring lines of demarcation.
The International Crisis Group, in its study of 13 March 2009 titled “Pakistan: The militant Jihadi challenge,” stated, “The interdependence between Punjab-based militant jihadi organisations and al-Qaeda deepened in 2001-2002, when many militants fleeing international forces in Afghanistan relied on radical Sunni extremist networks to relocate to parts of Punjab. Today, the LJ is the lynchpin of the alignment between al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups.”
The politicians do not have a solution to the problem as they are complicit in the misjudgment of giving primacy to the Deobandi ideologues in the past.
This nexus is now endangering Pakistan itself. The Barelvi–Deobandi battles threaten to tear the society asunder. The general population in the rural areas is now seeing the hitherto distant militancy and terrorism getting to grip their lives. Even the religious leaders are worried that this could trigger a sectarian bloodbath of larger proportions, threatening the very national integrity of the country.
The politicians do not have a solution to the problem as they are complicit in the misjudgment of giving primacy to the Deobandi ideologues in the past. Even if they try to reverse the trend now, the frenetic pace of developments is often leaving them behind. The Daily Times of Pakistan wrote an editorial on 18 August 2010, in which it quoted thus: “The most significant statement . . . has come from our Foreign Minister Mr Shah Mehmood Qureshi who is also the spiritual custodian of one of the country’s most important ‘mazar’ (Sufi) shrines, that of Shah Rukn-e-Alam in Multan, where he recently addressed the devotees of the mystic saint on his 695th anniversary.
“Breaking with the custom of not emphasising the Deobandi-Barelvi schism, Mr Qureshi said on Sunday: ‘The Sunni Tehreek has decided to activate itself against Talibanisation in the country. A national consensus against terrorism is emerging across the country.’”
The largely Punjabi army seems ranged against all those terrorists and militants who are of different ethnicities excepting those from the Punjab itself.
Differing from Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a secular, multiethnic nation of Muslims that would shine as a beacon of modernity, his descendants had sought to Islamise the country to strengthen their political grasp and to give it a distinctive identity in the Hindu dominated subcontinent. Now, that Talibanesque agenda has created what the Americans call a “blowback,” which threatens the very social fabric of the country. The supposedly all-powerful Pakistan army appears incapable of stemming this tide as it itself is enmeshed in a policy crisis of a great magnitude. The largely Punjabi army seems ranged against all those terrorists and militants who are of different ethnicities excepting those from the Punjab itself. This is raising questions within the country, and outside. Its vaunted professionalism is in doubt.
Pakistan army operations against Islamist terrorists and militants, till date, have been in most cases against the Pushtun tribes, the Gujjars and other smaller mountain-based ethnic communities. The major operations it launched in 2009 and that continue till date have been primarily in two centres, the Malakand division of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)—formerly the North West Frontier Province—and six of the seven agencies of the FATA.
A former brigadier of the Pakistan army, Javed Hussain, writing an opinion piece in the Dawn newspaper of 22 November 2010, stated: “The harsh reality of a counterinsurgency (COIN) war is that unless it is won within one year, it tends to drag for years.” In the same article, he also wrote, “The strategy and tactics adopted by COIN forces must lead to: 1) gaining and retaining the initiative; 2) continuous depletion of insurgents’ numbers; 3) their transformation from hunters into the hunted; and 4) creation of a sense of insecurity in them.”
“¦as has been shown by the Swat operation, the Pakistan army could not achieve its objective in the one-year time frame”¦
In light of those two sentences, two facts stand out: (1) Pakistan’s anti-insurgency operations have been stop-start exercises, never fully committing the troops needed to complete the jobs; and (2) instead of a possible envelopment of the terrorists, the security forces always allowed chinks to remain in their rear so that the former could flee the area of operation and resettle elsewhere. This is evidenced in the small number of terrorist leaders killed in the attacks.
Both these observations require clarifications. Consider this: The operations in the Malakand division, centred around Swat, had begun in 2007, as Daud Khan Khattak, a Pashtun journalist of the area wrote in April 2010.4 Then came a peace accord, but soon after, military operations resumed in 2008, to be stopped again for yet another peace initiative, with the process finally climaxing in the decisive attack of April 2009.
The Pak Army was trained for plains warfare against surging Indian “¦ It was not used to the mountainous terrains with their myriad caves and crevices, which were ideal hideouts for the terrorists practicing guerrilla tactics.
Peace accords are political efforts at resolving conflicts with the least amount of bloodshed. By their very nature, they are an act of reaching a middle ground where demands of the disaffected are addressed while ensuring that the right to commit violence no longer rests with the nonstate actors. This presupposes an action of disarming the insurgents by the state while the latter begins the process of governance.
In effect, as has been shown by the Swat operation, the Pakistan army could not achieve its objective in the one-year time frame, as Brigadier Hussain advocated. Instead, the army deployed massive firepower in the form of heavy artillery and aerial assets like helicopter gunships and even fixed-wing aircraft to saturate wide swathes of territory with ordnance, resulting in massive collateral damage and the eventual displacement of civilian population.
This resulted in the alienation of the local population, exacerbated by local customs like Pushtunwali, which could be called a code of vendetta undertaken by tribal compatriots against those who killed a fellow tribesman. This created operation problems for curbing the influence of the terrorist rebels and containing them.
Clearly, the Pakistan army was ill-fit to take on these kinds of tasks. The army was trained for plains warfare against surging Indian forces on the agricultural tracts of the Punjab and the sand dunes of Sindh. It was not used to the mountainous terrains with their myriad caves and crevices, which were ideal hideouts for the terrorists practicing guerrilla tactics. While the Pakistan army was negotiating an unknown milieu, the terrorists were on familiar grounds. Indeed, as Khattak has detailed, only a small number of Arabian al-Qaeda operatives were inducted into the battles in Swat and the FATA. So were the numbers of Uzbek fighters small.
While the total number of terrorist fighters has been variously estimated as 4,000–5,000, Pakistani troops have been calculated to be no more than 15,000–20,000. An average force-on-force ratio of 3–4:1 was considered grossly inadequate by counter-insurgency experts as they said the defenders always enjoyed an advantage because of their fortifications and knowledge of the terrain, especially when they engaged in unconventional warfare.
Counterinsurgency operations, in the opinion of many specialists, are effective when the conventional forces imitate the unconventional methods of the guerrillas.
Though the Pakistan army was successful in decapitating the militant organisation of Swat led by a local rebel, Maulana Fazlullah, most of his fighters melted away into the adjoining mountains to fight another day. Fazlullah himself fled too; only a few of his close lieutenants were either killed or captured.
In the FATA, the army and the Frontier Corps together deployed about 150,000 troops. The resistance was fiercer in the agencies of Bajaur in the north and South Waziristan. Operation Sher Dil was launched in September 2008 against an opposing force of about 2,000 terrorist fighters. Though hostilities were declared closed in January 2009, the Pakistan security forces, till February 2010, could not gain control of the strategic town of Damadola. A U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) study titled “Pakistan: Key Current Issues and Developments,” by a South Asia specialist K. Alan Kronstadt, noted that sporadic fighting still continued in the area.
Here, too, the army used helicopter gunships and fighter jets and caused severe displacement of civilian population. Sameer Lalwani, a researcher of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote a net assessment of Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations, titled “Pakistani Capabilities for a Counterinsurgency Campaign: A Net Assessment,” for the New America Foundation in September 2009. In that, he held: “. . . in 2009, Pakistan employed conventional military methods, although instead of attempting a cordon and search, it tried to clear out the Taliban by calling on residents to flee, leaving behind vast fire zones where it could freely target militants. Of course, this angered the newly minted refugees, many of whom subsequently were recruited by the Taliban instead of supplying intelligence to the Pakistani military.”
“¦push for the terrorists into North Waziristan aided by the Pakistan army could well be a strategy by the countrys decision-makers to postpone the day of reckoning.
Counterinsurgency operations, in the opinion of many specialists, are effective when the conventional forces imitate the unconventional methods of the guerrillas. This includes small unit patrols for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, in place of large troop movements. It is best for the networked smaller units to be placed within population centres than for larger troop concentrations to be billeted in fortified cantonments. The idea usually is to gain the confidence of the people to the extent that the latter become force multipliers in planning and preparation of operations.
In South Waziristan, a story made familiar by the previous operations of the Pakistan army was replayed. First, there were attacks by the artillery, gunships and F-16 fighter aircraft sans any ground troop movement. Meanwhile, the militants and terrorists of Baitullah Mehsud fortified themselves in forts like Ladha and prepared for stiff resistance when real combat began.
In October 2009, Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Salvation) was launched on three fronts of South Waziristan. Kronstadt noted in his study that, “The early days of fighting saw Pakistani forces facing heavy resistance and even some reversals. After one week (from D-day), less than 100 militants were reported to have been killed.”
With its current emphasis on a negotiated solution to the Taliban problem, Pakistans political and military leadership would have even lesser motivation to undertake operations against those founts of Islamist insurgency who it considers to be its strategic allies.
At the time, when Pakistan army commanders began claiming that they have broken the back of terrorism in the province, the real toll on the terrorists was “548 killed” and “17 captured.” The huge majority had moved away through the mountains to the neighbouring North Waziristan, which was considered the new safe haven for the Islamists in Pakistan under the watchful eye of the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, against whom the Pakistan establishment was wary of acting.
This push for the terrorists into North Waziristan aided by the Pakistan army could well be a strategy by the country’s decision-makers to postpone the day of reckoning. This is as controversial as their decision to enclose the Islamist militants and terrorists, operating against their sovereign interests, in the tribal areas without allowing them to percolate into the hinterland. In the process, a large number of lives and resources were lost that could have been better safeguarded if the Pakistan military had acted with greater vigil and lesser collusion.
The army’s retired brigadier, Javed Hussain, who this study has quoted earlier, is a critic of the newly discovered American dicta of working on a “population centric” instead of a “enemy centric” milieu. The Indian army has perfected the art after initially experimenting with British lessons of working in the Malayan jungles and American experience of working in the Vietnamese paddy fields. It realised quickly that moving in with 3-tonne army trucks in the valley of Kashmir at 3 a.m. in the morning for a cordon-and-search operation might be good demonstrable power, but for being effective, the Border Security Force was better for being mobile on nippy Maruti Gypsies. Pacification exercises of the population can seldom be carried out by bombing from F-16 fighters or by spreading Agent Orange on standing crops.
Pakistan army is yet to learn these lessons. Moreover, in its tactics in the past three years, it has shown a marked propensity for choosing as its targets from among the array of Taliban groups, those who are the least formidable. It has not shown any attempt at curbing either the Quetta shura or the Haqqani network or even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. This shows that it is being picky in its strategy of countering the insurgency that emanates from its territory and threatens the security of the region.
Pakistans elite would still continue to argue that their core interests lie in safeguarding the security of the country from an imminent Indian attack.
With its current emphasis on a negotiated solution to the Taliban problem, Pakistan’s political and military leadership would have even lesser motivation to undertake operations against those founts of Islamist insurgency who it considers to be its strategic allies.
These positions would only harden with reports that Mullah Omar periodically transmitted messages to the Taliban fighters that their objective should be to defeat the U.S. and its western allies and not to take on the Pakistan security forces. The U.S. has shown marked awareness of this situation—unlike its naiveté of the 1980s—and Washington seeks to calibrate its material assistance to Pakistan on the basis of the latter’s motivation to fight the Taliban.
But as Pakistan’s government is able to contain its own insurgency problem from spreading into the crucial hinterland of the Punjab and Sindh—a possibility that can emerge after protracted military operations in KP and FATA—even this U.S. ploy will founder. Besides, Pakistan’s military has an inherent tale to spin about India’s supposed threat to its existence. With six of its nine corps stationed in the Punjab, the Pakistan army would always like to portray to the world that its main threat is India.
With six of its nine corps stationed in the Punjab, the Pakistan army would always like to portray to the world that its main threat is India.
Even this had shown signs of change during the latter years of General Pervez Musharraf’s rule, when he had convened his corps commanders and told them that the threat perception of Pakistan’s army needs to undergo a change—it was no longer India that was the threat; but the challenge to its internal cohesion was from the Islamist militants and terrorists.
But General Ashfaque Parvez Kayani had possibly realised that this raised even more troubling questions about the role of the Army GHQ for all these decades to raise and support Islamist terrorists as parallel forces to take on India. So, he had quickly reverted to the refrain of India being the primary threat.
In this revised scheme of things, it would be immaterial to Pakistan’s military leadership if the Indian army chief deprioritises an enigmatic military strategy like Cold Start designed as an offensive-defensive military manoeuvre. For, Pakistan’s elite would still continue to argue that their core interests lie in safeguarding the security of the country from an imminent Indian attack. They would, in the process, seek to deflect the attention of their Western benefactors from their main agenda of neutralising the Taliban and the al-Qaeda.
How these elite strategies of Pakistan are affecting the real interests of the country is signified in the debates on issues like how to get the next tranches of Kerry-Lugar largesse or even the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) Pakistan stabilisation loan.