By Muhammad Amir Rana –
The need to understand the militant landscape of the country is greater than ever
Albert Einstein once said that problems could not be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. This statement fits like a glove to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism approach.
Many believe that Islamabad lacks a coherent and comprehensive strategy to stem the rising tide of religious militancy and fight the menace of terrorism. But the government cites as proof of its commitment the establishment of a National Counter-terrorism Authority (NACTA) to examine the problem and devise a viable policy.
It is not clear how much time NACTA would take to accomplish this job and, more importantly, if it would be able to rescue the country’s security doctrine from the shadows of the Soviet-Afghan war. Pakistan’s present security narrative was developed in the context of that conflict, making it convenient for the defense establishment and the political administration to blame all domestic problems on external forces and factors. This approach has failed to evolve in sync with emerging threats. The country’s militant landscape has changed significantly in recent years, with militant strands such as the Punjabi Taliban posing new and increasingly worrying challenges for the state.
The militancy in Pakistan has become a complex phenomenon with ever-changing dynamics. An improved and coherent approach to address the issue of militancy requires a composite knowledge base. Here, I want to explore the complexities of the phenomenon with a view to develop a better understanding, which is critical to the ability to respond to the challenge on the policy, implementation and societal levels. In this perspective, let us explores three dimensions of the militant landscape in Pakistan:
Figuring them out
A comprehension of the ideological and tactical evolution of militant groups in Pakistan must be the first step towards evolving a comprehensive policy. Although considerable literature is available on the historical perspective of militant groups, most of it is based on secondary sources and is loaded with factual inaccuracies. An analysis based on faulty data obviously cannot lead to accurate threat assessment. Furthermore, Pakistani militant groups have kept changing their strategies and tactics according to the circumstances and countermeasures they have faced. The available data is old and few attempts have been made to update it with a view to understand the patterns of evolution of militant outfits.
How they are organised
The nature and agendas of militant groups in Pakistan in the recent years have been anything but stagnant. Militant groups faced internal fissures, external pressures and kept changing their strategies and nexus. The groups involved in terrorist activities across Pakistan are largely splinters of banned militant organizations, in addition to a few groups that have emerged recently. The banned organizations, which were once acknowledged as strategic assets of the state, have nurtured narratives of extremism and destruction. Although their focus was initially on ridding the Muslims of Kashmir, Afghanistan and other regions of the world of tyrannical rule, review of their literature and stated objectives lays bare sectarian motives and ambitions for achieving an ultra-orthodox theocracy in Pakistan.
However, realization of theocracy in the country was the ‘secondary agenda’ of the militant organizations, to be embarked upon once they had achieved their objectives in Kashmir, Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, splinter groups of the militant outfits have prioritized the initial secondary agenda and started pursuing it through violent means, which has been their sole tactic to pursue their objectives.
The splinters, which are often referred to as ‘t he Punjabi Taliban’, have snapped links with their banned parent organizations, often declaring them puppets of official agencies, and developed a rapport with Taliban and Al Qaeda militants based largely in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. “Punjabi Taliban” is a brand name for terrorist groups detached from the mainland militant organizations, as well as for the newly emerged terrorist cells with similar causes. They have developed affiliations with Taliban and Al- Qaeda.
Most banned organizations use many covers for their operations. The first response of banned organizations to official clampdown in recent years has been to start operating under new names. Changed names of charities also mask their links with militant organizations. The proscribed Jaish-e-Muhammad militant group is now active as Tehrik-e-Khuddamul Islam, while raising funds and launching campaigns as Al-Rehmat Trust, the charity wing of the organization. Similarly, Jamaatud Daawa (JuD) is carrying out its activities as Tehrik-e-Tahaffuz-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, while Idara Khidmat-e-Khalaq oversees the group’s charitable projects and fund raising through donations, etc. In this context, understanding the structural complexities of the militant groups can help evolve better counter-strategies.
No one-size-fits-all fix
Accurate threat perception is crucial to effective response to the threats Pakistan faces. A clear approach based on a distinction between the challenges of a tribal insurgency and pervasive terrorism besetting the country is required at the policy level. Al Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups in Pakistan may have a nexus but their operational strategies and partners are different. Countermeasures at the security, political and ideological levels need to factor in those differences and respond accordingly. Understanding the nature of the challenge in each context is also important. The security challenges in the tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are inherently different from those in Punjab and urban Sindh.
The tribal areas are in the throes of an extremist militancy, which has a local and regional context and the militants have resorted to violent acts of terrorism as a tactic against the security forces. In mainland Pakistan, however, terrorism has its roots in the ideological, political and sectarian narratives developed by the religious parties, militant groups and, at times, by the state itself. The disparate nature of threats calls for an equally diverse approach to counter them. Concentrating on banned organizations alone rather than their splinters, over which the parent outfits have no control, misses a trick and could trigger emergence of further splinters among these organizations, complicating the counter-terrorism effort even more. In this perspective, a comprehensive study of the militant landscape of Pakistan is urgently needed. Before going into further detail a brief outlook of religious organizations in Pakistan would help understand the phenomenon.
Sizing up the scale
As many as 239 religious organizations operated in Pakistan at the national and provincial level in 2002; at present their number is 232. These organizations pursue multiple agendas, such as transformation of society according to their ideologies, enforcement of Shariah law, establishment of Khilafah (caliphate) system, fulfilment of their sectarian objectives and achievement of Pakistan’s strategic and ideological objectives through militancy.
How they came about and how they think
Although general trends are easy to identify, categorization of religious parties is not quite as straightforward, mainly because most of the religious organizations are working for multiple agendas, either themselves or through affiliated groups and entities. A closer look suggests that even today, most of the religious organizations in Pakistan move around, or at least at some time had link with, the main religious organizations which were active in the country in the 1950s, including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) and Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith. These included All Pakistan Shia Political Parties, which became Tehrik Nifaz-e-Fiqa-e-Jaffria in the late 1970s.
Almost all other religious outfits, whether working for missionary, sectarian or educational/charitable pursuits or engaged in militancy, are affiliated with, or are break-away factions of, these five major organizations. Most importantly, even the affiliates or splinters believe in the agendas of their parent organizations. The major difference is that the parent organizations’ focus is on Islamization and that of the splinters on religio-socialization. The parent parties, which have a religious agenda and focus, are part of Pakistan’s mainstream politics, believe in the Constitution of Pakistan, participate in electoral politics, and are classified as religious political parties.
In the last two decades, another form of religious organizations has also emerged. These are the agents of Islamization and religio-socialization but believe that change is impossible within the Constitution of Pakistan and the current political dispensation. They deem democracy and the democratic process inadequate for the change they pursue and advocate. Some of them – such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Khilafah movement, Hizbut Tehrir and Al-Muhajiroon – deem that democracy is an idea contrary to Islamic principles of governance and want to replace it with their own version of Shariah.
Other groups, such as Tanzeemul Akhwan and Tanzeem-e-Islami, believe that Shariah cannot be introduced in its entirety through the democratic electoral process and consider use of force or toppling of the government as alternatives. These organizations have sectarian and militant tendencies but the dominant approach is renewalist, characterized by their quest for a complete change of system. This is contrary to the religious political parties’ approach, which focuses on gradual change within the system.
In this perspective, we have our work cut out for us. The sooner we map the militant landscape of the country, the better.
The writer is Director, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies