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For a nationalism beyond religion

Nearly a fortnight has passed since >the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar which shocked Pakistan with its naked brutality and left over 130 children dead. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack even as the gunfight continued. The coffins of the children have been lowered into the earth, the dust has settled; wailing has given way to silent grief. But hard questions remain.

Pakistan is no stranger to terrorist inflicted violence. Earlier in June, Uzbek militants locked down Karachi airport in a 10-hour gun battle in which nearly 40 people died. The naval dockyard in Karachi was targeted in September when militants sought to hijack a Pakistani naval vessel. And in 2011, militants had penetrated the security perimeter of the Mehran naval base destroying several warplanes before a Pakistani commando force secured it a good 16 hours later. The Pakistan Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi was targeted in a brazen attack in 2009 where, after killing a number of personnel including a brigadier and a colonel, militants held more than 40 people hostage for over 18 hours before the siege was broken. In recent years, hotels, market places, government offices, school buses for girls, hospitals, churches and mosques, have all been scenes of terrorist violence and suicide bombings which have claimed hundreds of innocent lives.

Also read: >Who are the Pakistani Taliban

Turning point?

Even so, many feel that the Peshawar school massacre may be a turning point for Pakistan. The initial statement from Islamabad was unequivocal that “there will be no differentiation between good and bad Taliban” and underlined the Pakistan government’s resolve “to fight until the last terrorist is eliminated.” The Pakistan Army and the Air Force intensified strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region claiming that more than 150 militants have since been killed. But can the Pakistan Army or specifically the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) be weaned away from its dependence on the “good Taliban” or the “reliable” jihadi groups which were its policy instruments in India and Afghanistan?

The linkages between the ISI and the numerous jihadi groups spawned in the madrassas in Pakistan have been an open secret. Intrepid authors have written about it and films have documented its sinister growth. In 2011, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, described the Haqqani group “as a veritable arm of the ISI.” This was after evidence emerged, linking it to attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, a NATO outpost and the U.S. Embassy, in quick succession. The ISI and the Haqqani group were also behind the attack on the Indian Embassy in 2008. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had famously chided Pakistan publicly when she cautioned it saying “you cannot keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbours.” Yet, neither the cautionary warnings nor the growing incidents of violence at home seem to have dampened the ISI’s ardour in its long-standing romance with jihadi groups. With the U.S. officially ending its combat operations in Afghanistan in a few days, is the Peshawar massacre shock enough to end this nexus, or will the temptation to continue a little longer prevail?

Playing with fire

The TTP is a home-grown grouping which emerged in 2007 from various militant factions that had erupted in FATA, often with conflicting loyalties, particularly after 9/11, as General Musharraf tried to appease both the U.S. and the jihadi groups simultaneously, while deflecting the occasional calls for democracy at home. At a rough estimate, there were 15,000 militants in 2003, from more than 15 Arab and Islamic countries, with al-Qaeda as the unifying factor and the Haqqani group emerging as the largest force. Neither the Afghan Taliban nor the al-Qaeda were initially keen on targeting the Pakistani state but gradually, group rivalries and the ISI’s role in fomenting it, together with Gen. Musharraf’s readiness to sacrifice an al-Qaeda figure to keep the Americans content, created a blowback, resulting in attempts on Gen. Musharraf’s life in December 2003.

Consequently, Op Kalusha launched by the Army in South Waziristan in March 2004, targeted Nek Mohammed who was leading both Waziris and Mehsud tribesmen at that time. It was short-lived as the Army soon realised that it had underestimated the enemy’s numbers and firepower. In less than a month, the Shakai Peace Accord was signed and Nek Mohammed’s prestige grew. He refused to hand over the foreign militants, part of the deal, instead setting about to get rid of his rivals. By June, the accord was dead and when the Army resumed operations, the U.S. cooperated to take out Nek Mohammad in a drone strike on June 17, 2004. The baton passed on to Abdullah Mehsud and then Baitullah Mehsud in quick succession; the latter formally launched the TTP in 2007.

Read: >Pakistan ups the ante in fight against militants

Gradually, drone strikes increased, necessitating ground level intelligence cooperation but Pakistani authorities maintained deniability. The killing of Abu Hamza and three others in December 2005 was described as an accident while assembling improvised explosive devices. The lid was lifted off by Hayatullah Khan, a Pakistani journalist who published photographs of fragments of a Hellfire missile, from that location, embarrassing the Army. Hayatullah was kidnapped the following week and his body found six months later.

Meanwhile, the ISI reached out to Mullah Nazir (ex-Hezb-e-Islami) to neutralise the Uzbeks who had emerged as the strongest opposition to the Army but relations soured as the Army did another accord with Hafiz Gul Bahadur (an Uthmanzai Waziri) to break the Waziri-Mehsud cooperation. To counter growing al-Qaeda influence in Swat, the ISI brought back Maulana Sufi Muhammed and signed an agreement in February 2009 but his son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, was not amenable. Eventually, in July, the Army launched the Swat operation driving out Mullah Fazlullah into Kunar valley in eastern Afghanistan.

Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike in August; it was rumoured, as a favour to the ISI who sought to punish him for having set up the TTP. Hakimullah Mehsud took charge and tried to consolidate the TTP by reaching out to the Haqqanis, Mullah Nazir and other groups but after his killing, in yet another drone strike in 2013, there was a power struggle. For the first time, TTP leadership went to the same Mullah Fazlullah from Swat, a non-Mehsud. This ended up fragmenting the TTP, with the Mehsuds rallying around Khalid Mehsud aka Commander Sajna and another group, Jamaat-e-Ahrar, under Omar Khorasani claiming allegiance to the newly established IS.

Hard questions facing Pakistan

Even though the Pakistan Army had launched Op Zarb-e-Azb in June this year, and claim that it had eliminated over a thousand militants before the Peshawar school attack, it was evident that certain groups were not being targeted. The Haqqani group and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are the most prominent in this category. After the Peshawar attack, Hafiz Saeed first described it as “not in keeping with Islam” and later blamed the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies for having orchestrated it, a claim echoed by Gen. Musharraf too. This shows how easily Pakistan can slip into the denial mode which it has successfully employed to sell the virtues of the “good Taliban” for the last decade.

Also Read: >Soft targets, hard questions

The temptations to do so are great. It has been the tried and tested path and has helped Pakistan keep its favoured jihadi groups alive for covert operations in India and Afghanistan. True, some like the TTP and Mullah Fazlullah have morphed into anti-Pakistan elements but there is a belief that this can be managed. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif concluded a successful visit to the U.S. in November, a far cry from May 2011 when the U.S. struck Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad without taking the Pakistanis on board. In deference to Pakistani concerns, drone strikes have come down from 73 in 2011 to 22 in 2014. U.S. dependence on Pakistan has gone up as it ends its combat role in Afghanistan and realises Pakistan’s importance in bringing about the “reconciliation”. It owes gratitude to Pakistan for Zarb-e-Azb and believes that with President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, there are brighter prospects for a Pakistan-Afghan entente cordiale.

On the other hand, if Pakistan genuinely means that there is no distinction between “good and bad Taliban” and consequently, that all Taliban are bad, the Pakistan Army will need to address some difficult questions. For decades, having projected India as the only threat, the Pakistan Army has presented itself as the “army of Islam” and the ultimate guardian of Pakistan’s ideological identity. The political parties and political leaders were shown as weak, corrupt and too short-sighted to be trusted. Today, when it faces an enemy which professes the same faith, and considers itself the purist while painting the Army as the infidel for colluding with the Americans, the Army has to ask itself whether it is an army for Islam or for Pakistan. Will Pakistan be able to discover its nationalism beyond religion? And finally, can the Pakistani elected leadership break the stranglehold of the ISI over its policies towards India and Afghanistan?

As the dust settles, these questions stand over the fresh graves and seek answers which only Pakistani society and its institutions will provide.

(Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served in Pakistan and Afghanistan. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com )

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 1:26:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/editorial-on-peshawar-attack-and-pakistan-army/article6732974.ece

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