Does Islamabad grasp what impact Zarb-e-Azb, the military operation in North Waziristan agency, will have on the internal- and external-security doctrines of Pakistan?
Chances are that it will not have much of a clue because civilian governments have neither ever formulated Pakistan’s security doctrines nor changed them in the past. The “strategic depth” doctrine, credited to former Army chief Aslam Beg and which envisages Afghanistan as an extension of Pakistan in case of war with India, had endured until now. This is what the last Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said four years ago: “If Afghanistan is peaceful, stable, and friendly, we have our strategic depth, because our western border is secure and [the Army does not have to look] both ways.” To his later credit, the India-centric Kayani also acknowledged, close to his retirement, that Pakistan’s gravest security threat came from within.
The universally abominated, interventionist “strategic depth” doctrine is a thing of the past after Gen. Raheel Sharif, Kayani’s successor, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to launch the anti-Taliban offensive in North Waziristan last month. Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar, around whom the “strategic depth” doctrine was predicated, is allegedly ensconced somewhere in Pakistan, but it goes without saying that he must be devastated by what Pakistan has done to his flock, the militants. Much the same would also be true of Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The end of the flawed and intellectually dishonest “strategic depth” doctrine will have consequences for Pakistan, just as its application had consequences for the world. “Political analysts often point out that two considerations preoccupied the Pakistan Army’s strategic thinking regarding its support of various Afghan mujahideen groups,” writes Riaz Muhammad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity. “First: its view of Afghanistan as providing strategic depth to Pakistan; and second: its interest in having a friendly government in Afghanistan.”
Khan writes: “While the concept of a friendly government was flawed, the aspiration of strategic depth in Afghanistan defied reason from the point of view of the traditional interpretation of the concept. ‘Friendly government’ is a highly subjective concept that encourages patronage and interference and spawns suspicion and provocation … Later, a more benign interpretation was constructed to suggest that the concept only meant that Pakistan should feel secure along its western border in times of tension with India … the seduction of these fanciful ideas and the dynamics of the Pakhtun population of the two countries’ bordering regions sucked Pakistan deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire, especially when its intelligence establishment saw an opportunity in the gathering of a new unexpected force, the Taliban, in Afghanistan.”
As a result of Zarb-e-Azb, the internal-security doctrine also stands changed. The proliferation of news channels and the mass adoption of social media, which helps keep mainstream media somewhat honest, make it harder to rubbish opposing views as traitorous. The change also means that the Army will not object to tackling the “internal enemy,” the Taliban, instead of saying that terrorism has to be dealt with by the police or a special civilian force. This is a positive. Had Pakistan remained steadfast in refusing to take on the internal enemy, it would have faced a situation similar to that engulfing both Iraq and Nigeria today.
Two Muslim-majority states have turned tail and run in the face of terrorism in recent times. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attacked across the Syrian border and occupied Mosul. The Iraqi Army, unable to withstand the ISIL onslaught, fled the battlefield on June 10. After ISIL took Tikrit, and the Iraqi Army failed in its attempts to reclaim territory, the Sunni militant organization declared, on June 30, the establishment of a “caliphate” led by Abu Bakr Baghdadi. The new “state” of conquered areas extends from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq, and has favorable resonance in Iraq’s Sunni province of Anbar.
Iraq has been misruled under democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein and its identity has shifted toward being moored in religion. Shia-majority Iraq is communally divided and ghettoized. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has actually used its majority to persecute the Sunni, who are now finding a voice in ISIL. (Sunni-majority Pakistan, on the other hand, is fighting Sunni militants, the Pakistani Taliban, who threaten the state with their “superior” Shariah practices.)
Maliki has sought to remove the Sunni from important representative positions and has also purged the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army of them. Sectarian tensions have since hindered state-building processes and destabilized the country. But the Iraqi government has not made a clear attempt to overcome these divides and build a common national identity. In fact, many actions taken to date have only served to further fragment the struggling state.
ISIL has developed differences with Al Qaeda, but this goes back to the progenitor of the sectarian Sunni terror, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of ISIL, who ironically went to Iraq from the early bastion of Al Qaeda in Peshawar to fight the Americans, thus connecting Pakistan with what is happening in Iraq today.
A Jordanian street bully, Zarqawi went to Peshawar in 1989 inspired by the lectures of Al Qaeda’s Arab “founder” Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who was then teaching at the International Islamic University, Islamabad. Patronized by Afghan warlords Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Jalaluddin Haqqani, Zarqawi fought the Russians at Tora Bora together with Osama bin Laden. In 1999, he was imprisoned for six months in Peshawar “on Arab request,” but was let off on the orders of “influential friends.”
Zarqawi returned to the battlefield in Kandahar, where he was wounded. He was treated in Karachi by two Al Qaeda doctors who later fled to North Waziristan. He then planned to fight the Americans in Iraq and made his way to Kurdistan in Iraq through Pakistan’s tribal areas (where he reportedly also had time to sire children from two wives) with Iran helping him pass through its territory on the request of another Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
According to The Washington Post, “On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a 36-year-old Jordanian who called himself ‘the Stranger’ slipped into the suburbs of Baghdad armed with a few weapons, bags of cash and an audacious plan for starting a war he hoped would unite Sunni Muslims across the Middle East.” But after Zarqawi started killing the Shia in Iraq instead of Americans, Al Qaeda tried to ditch him but couldn’t because of the support and funding he was receiving from Muslims in the United Kingdom.
Zarqawi was killed in an American bombing raid in Baghdad in 2006. Pakistan’s proscribed Jamat-ud-Dawah (the former Lashkar-e-Taiba) carried out a memorial for him in Lahore and condemned the Foreign Office for saying that the death of the Shia-killer was an achievement in the war against terror. The congregation that blessed Zarqawi kept weeping loudly for the “great martyr.” In the National Assembly, the clerical alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal demanded a prayer for Zarqawi but was rebuffed by the Speaker. Jamaat-e-Islami’s Syed Munawar Hasan claimed Islamabad was reluctant to acknowledge Zarqawi as a martyr so as not to offend Washington.
Today, ISIL is once again at odds with Al Qaeda. But, again, all auguries point to a reconciliation which may see Al Qaeda taking a backseat to ISIL in the Middle East.
Unlike Pakistan, which is broke, Muslim-majority Nigeria represents one of Africa’s largest economies. It has 36 provinces and, at 40 percent, a substantial Christian population. It is vulnerable to Boko Haram, an Al Qaeda affiliate, the same way Pakistan is to the Taliban. Like Pakistan and its Taliban, Nigeria and its Boko Haram are also both Sunni. In Nigeria, Shariah has been instituted as the main body of civil and criminal law in nine Muslim-majority provinces and in some parts of three Muslim-plurality provinces since 1999. The enforcement of the Shariah on Christians has frequently led to violence and exodus.
Like the Taliban in Pakistan, Boko Haram is active in Nigeria’s tribal north but frequently attacks the south. Boko Haram created a global stir when it kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls from Chibok saying it would sell them to pious Muslims. In all, about 3 million of Nigeria’s 168 million people have been affected physically and economically by the unhampered rise of Boko Haram. On June 29, Boko Haram once again attacked Chibok. It encountered resistance from the local population, armed with bows and arrows, and was thwarted. The Army had been called for help, but it refused to show up. Nigerians openly express loss of faith in their Army.
The Nigerian Army’s reluctance to fight terrorism is comparable to Pakistan’s previous unwillingness to take on the “unfriendly” Taliban of North Waziristan spreading their “persuasion through fear” in the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan.
This was particularly true during the tenure of General Kayani, who lapsed into anti-Americanism and began harassing U.S. diplomats in Pakistan seemingly succumbing to the Taliban’s demand that Pakistan break from the U.S.-led war on terror. “He was very reluctant when it came to the North Waziristan operation,” said former military spokesman Athar Abbas, who served under Kayani. “He thought the decision to launch the operation would reflect on his personality and people would take it as his personal decision, which is why he kept delaying the operation.” More pointedly, on June 26, the current military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, told reporters that the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan was a “war of survival” and will pave the way for the dawn of permanent peace in the country.
Kayani was personally involved in the U.S.-backed plan to bring Pakistan Peoples Party leader Benazir Bhutto back from exile; and if he felt that the deal was a villainous trick played on Pakistan by the U.S, he did not say it. But perhaps somewhere deep inside Kayani there was a feeling that Pakistan was taking a wrong direction—or there was simply a realization that the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine was too strong to challenge given its extension both into Pakistan’s vast madrassah network producing cannon fodder for jihad and into the religious parties hankering for power they could not win electorally.
The attack on General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 by a gang of terrorists led by an officer from inside the Army may have made Kayani realize the limits of his decision-making. Kayani was not a “modern” man in the Pakistani sense despite his training courses in the U.S. He succeeded Pervez Musharraf as Army chief in 2007 and was given another full-term extension in 2010 by the PPP, whose government was tamed by a wave of anti-Americanism not discouraged by the Army or the Talibanized media. Prior to 2007, he had been chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, a role which qualified him as the top brain in the Army shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy and deciding how the elected government would rule.
In May 2011, he interpreted the killing of bin Laden by the Americans in Abbottabad as being against the interests of Pakistan. He reacted against the ruling PPP when it welcomed the killing. He even went to the Supreme Court seeking to prove that a PPP-appointed ambassador to Washington had treasonably asked the Americans to cut the Pakistan Army down to size. The power he wielded by blinking at the challenge of terrorism was immense in a nation which overwhelmingly hates the U.S. In September 2012, just months before his final retirement, Kayani accomplished a somersault at the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad, close to where bin Laden was shot dead a year earlier, by saying that, “Any person who believes his opinion to be the final verdict is an extremist … If this is the correct definition of extremism and terrorism, then the war against it is our own war, and a just war too.”
Kayani left Pakistan in suicidal but heroic isolation, internally self-congratulatory but externally without friends—unless you count states too scared of its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Al Qaeda as friends. As the former military spokesman Abbas indicated, Kayani will be held responsible for the delay in facing up to the challenge of terrorism—which was not imposed on Pakistan by India or America but by the Pakistani state itself through its policy of proxy wars.
It is remarkable how the decision to change course by the new Army chief, Sharif, was immediately welcomed by the entire nation despite noises of protest from elements empowered by the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine. Political parties, not long ago basking in a criminally optimistic all-parties consensus on holding peace talks with the Taliban, while they went on killing innocent Pakistani citizens, began to line up behind General Sharif and the top brass. The new war may be a long haul, but at least it has begun; and it is going to be different from the challenge faced by the armies in Nigeria and Iraq if and when they decide to stop running away from the enemy.
The Iraqi Army was rated highly under Saddam Hussein but was scattered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the American exit, however, the Iraqi Army was purged once again and made sectarian by a shortsighted prime minister who exploited democracy’s majoritarian vice. Iraq is sitting on the world’s second largest oil reserves but it is too intellectually disadvantaged to think straight on internal security. In contrast, Pakistan’s Army is not polarized on religious and sectarian grounds and remains a monolith, if you exclude the damage done by past policies of Islamization and consequent de-professionalization.
Pakistan’s Army is recognized internationally as a disciplined force unlike any in the Arab world and has steadily served under the U.N. flag with distinction. Unlike the armies of Iraq and Nigeria, it knows its terrorists closely after dealing with them under at least five well-known truce agreements. It was on the basis of the poor quality with which the Taliban observed these agreements that General Sharif decided to initiate Zarb-e-Azb, a battle General Kayani had shied away from.
Commentators who rate Pakistan unequal to the task of taking on terrorism point to the near impossibility of defeating Al Qaeda and Taliban affiliates in the Punjab and Karachi. While the Karachi nettle will have to be firmly grasped, the apparently impregnable fort of terrorism in the Punjab province is supposed to exceed the capacity of the Army to fight it. What is not realized is the nature of terrorism in the province which is mainly in the shape of Al Qaeda allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba.
Militancy in the Punjab is the result of the alleged interface between the ISI and proxy warriors garnered from the south of the province. It is claimed that former ISI chief Shuja Pasha used motley nonstate actors and madrassahs to “soften” the PPP government’s resolve to “flirt with India.” Pasha is also accused of unleashing the Defense of Pakistan Council and its “long marches” to Islamabad. The Council might have driven the country’s political parties to despair, forcing them to succumb to a policy of appeasement through “peace talks.” So it may have been General Kayani’s policy of magnificent passivity that triggered the all-parties consensus behind these talks that ended up merely making the task of General Sharif more difficult by empowering the jihadist elements aligned with the Taliban.
Of course, the U.S. took note of the gallery of rogues in the long-marching Council, which had funding from the fabulously rich but U.N.-banned Jamat-ud-Dawah of Hafiz Saeed, himself carrying a bounty of $10 million on his head. The other rogues included Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the spiritual father of the Taliban because of his madrassah in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province that counts key militant leaders among its alumni, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who was close to bin Laden, Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki, and former ISI chief Hamid Gul. The politicians who joined the Council included Sheikh Rasheed, the darling of talk shows because of his unbuttoned rhetoric, and a single representative from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
The Punjab Pickle
It is widely held that terrorism in the Punjab, present or potential, can be switched off if the Army chief wants because the ISI can sway its former proxies. To support this claim, commentators cite the inevitable discovery of terrorists officially claimed as not being in Pakistan operating openly in south Punjab. The mother of all sectarian terrorist groups, Sipah-e-Sahaba, is based in south Punjab but is spreading its wings across Sindh. It has been let off the hook and allowed to function under a changed name by a frightened and unprotected judiciary. Khanpur Madrassah Abdullah bin Masud controls the region’s Sipah-e-Sahaba. Masood Azhar, leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba offshoot Jaish-e-Muhammad, is an internationally-wanted terrorist said to be ensconced either in Cholistan, where his Al Qaeda-funded training camp is located, or in terror infested Bahawalpur, where he has a sprawling “center.”
Other cities are equally bad. Rahimyar Khan spawned Malik Ishaq, the dangerous Shia-killer who led another Sipah-e-Sahaba offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and who manages to escape conviction every time. Jaish has 20 madrassahs in Multan from where jihadist warriors can be picked up at any time. These warriors also help out Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which gets the bulk of its funding from Faisalabad and Multan, if and when required. Jaish’s reported camps at Muridke, Punjab, and Chehla Bandi, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, draw most of their Kashmir proxy warriors from Multan.
General Sharif’s initiative against the Taliban will please the world as it has pleased the people of Pakistan. He has already lessened the intensity of the “heroic isolation” that General Kayani favored. These two factors will help Pakistan fight the long-haul war against elements that its earlier policies spawned. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has revealed that some of the misgivings of General Kayani were misplaced.
In the Punjab, the battle will not be as tough because of the apparent control the Army has enjoyed over terrorists and the habit of obedience it has drilled into them. It is Karachi where the battle will be tough and long. One insight that can be drawn from the terror in Iraq and Nigeria is that the police simply can’t take on these highly-trained, well-armed and better-educated militants dying for Paradise. Induction into the police at the lower levels is not merit-based and equipped with no filter against men already converted to the enemy worldview. The war against terrorism is the Army’s to fight.
Egypt’s failure to revive democracy has revealed another lesson that Pakistan must take to heart: don’t let Islamist organizations usurp the turf of social services properly belonging to the state. In the ripeness of time, after taking over education, health services and employment sectors, these organizations will start winning elections just like the Muslim Brotherhood. Normal parties winning elections is exactly what the indirect participatory role democracy needs; but Islamist organizations reject democracy after coming to power and want to transform it into a system of perpetual power through a new and “better” constitution.
The resolve of General Sharif’s Army to take on all terrorists, including the once favored Haqqani network, is a remarkable course-correction. But Pakistan’s war is going to look dangerous because of the gradual weakening of a covertly jihadist state. Sixty percent of the territory is without the writ of the government; its functionaries shrinking from duty or liaising with terrorists. This scenario will make the taming of the Taliban devil seem hard if not impossible. To offset this internal weakness, Pakistan needs to tweak its isolationist foreign policy. Among the neighbors it must court, India is the most important with whom cooperation in Afghanistan will carry dividends for Pakistan’s internal war.
The tragedy of the internally displaced people of North Waziristan will inevitably recall the earlier evacuation of the Swat IDPs before it was cleansed of the Taliban five years ago. The IDPs of North Waziristan, numbering almost a million, have come down to Bannu in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and the initial reports simply repeat the litany of the inability of the state to roll with the blow of the operation’s consequences. Hopefully, the mostly derelict federal and provincial governments will get their act together before the refugees suffer the pain of being homeless for too long.
From our July 26-Aug. 9, 2014, issue.