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Pakistan’s Frontier of Fear

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has suffered the worst of terrorism in the country for decades

by Khaled Ahmed

David L. Gosling served as principal of the Edwardes College at the University of Peshawar from 2006-2010. Trained as a nuclear physicist, he has been on the faculty of universities in Hull and Delhi (St. Stephen’s College), the East-West Center in Hawaii, and at the World Council of Churches Geneva, where he was director of Church and Society. He has also taught in the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University and was the Spalding Fellow at Clare Hall. In addition to writings on ecological and scientific issues in south Asia, he has also published on nuclear power. His book, Frontier of Fear: Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s Border (The Radcliffe Press London 2016), tells the story of his encounters with terrorism in Pakistan.

Gosling’s contributions represent the manner in which Pakistan’s Christian community has been meritoriously serving the country in the field of education even as Islamabad has not done right by them. The largest non-Muslim minority in Pakistan, Christians are mostly concentrated in the Punjab province, where they often fall prey to the blasphemy law that armed, non-state actors exploit to furbish their Islamist credentials by killing minorities with little state action.

Maltreatment of Christians

In 2012, over 100 houses belonging to poor Christians were torched in Lahore by local land-grabbing thugs who had accused them of blasphemy. In 2013, Lahore saw the forcible demolition of the walls of the Anarkali Church and St. Frances School—in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency—by a plaza-building mafia linked to the clergy. In September the same year, two suicide-bombers killed 78 Christians, mostly women and children, during a church service in Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. When the Taliban declared they hadn’t done the deed, the Peshawar government of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf accepted the denial as if the Taliban—who had earlier killed a Christian federal minister in Islamabad and not owned it—were truthful because of their superior faith. An Al Qaeda assassin later confessed to killing the minister with the help of Punjabi non-state actors.

Paul Griffin, in his paper “Finding a Place in the Partition Discourse: The Christians of West Punjab,” published in the 2013 The Independence of India and Pakistan: New Approaches and Reflections, says Christians in the subcontinent precede Muslims if you accept that St. Thomas, an apostle of Christ, came to India and spread the message. He says most of the Christians in Punjab were converts from the ‘untouchable’ caste, adding this did not result in any improvement in their social status and they continued in their community’s profession of cleaners. Before 1947, the Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha movements sought to reconvert them, convincing them to decide in favor of living in the new state of Pakistan, which they thought would ease them out of their caste stigma.

Christians as educators of Pakistan

The various churches that serve the Christian community in Punjab have also served the majority Muslims. Many in the ruling Punjabi elite attended school at St. Anthony’s (Roman Catholic) or the Cathedral School (Anglican) while two Protestant-Presbyterian colleges, Kinnaird and Forman Christian, have imparted higher education. After an interlude of disastrous nationalization, these institutions are again owned and funded by charities from Rome, London and the U.S. Add to them the efficiently-run Christian hospitals, and you have the Christian faith serving the Muslims more honestly than the madrassa and the mosque.

If the state in Pakistan survives, it must call to mind the following articles of the Constitution that give protection to Christians: Article 20, freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions; Article 22, safeguards around education with respect to religious freedom; Article 25, equality of citizenship; Article 36, protection of minorities. Unfortunately, these rights and values have been undermined by a series of legislations related to the affirmation of the state’s ideological credentials.

Gosling’s story

In his book, Gosling narrates the tale of what happened to Pakistan after the Taliban arrived in the country. In the wake of U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his associates escaped into Pakistan’s frontier territories and constituted the Quetta Shura in the capital of Balochistan province. From there they maintained a degree of operational authority over Afghanistan militants, though they also delegated significant control to local leaders—a characteristic of the Taliban throughout the region. Among those who fled with Mullah Omar was Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan mujahideen commander, and his son Sirajuddin, who later managed the so-called Haqqani Network, based near Miramshah, the capital of North Waziristan. The Miramshah Shura operated autonomously within the Taliban as whole, and Sirajuddin held a seat on the Quetta Shura. Jalaluddin and his Arab wife were close friends with Osama bin Laden, and were often seen together in Peshawar. An associated group was led by Gul Bahadur, a Wazir, and his deputy, Maulana Sadiq Noor, from the Daur tribe. They had a strong tribal base close to the Afghan border.

These Pakistan-based groups tended to support the Taliban resistance within Afghanistan. Military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq had supported this “anti-U.S. infiltration” from Afghanistan, not realizing that he was bartering Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty in the war that was to ensue. The personality of Zia was as enigmatic as were the circumstances of his death. He was educated at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, with its tolerant and liberal ethos, and yet promulgation of Islam during his 10-year presidency (1978-88) was repressive and cruel. He deposed Z. A. Bhutto’s Peoples Party government in 1977, and declared martial law, ordering Bhutto to be hanged in prison less than two years later.

Madrassa wins, education loses

Aided by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Zia and the ISI coordinated with many of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. But the year before they left, in 1988, he was killed when a bomb exploded in his private aircraft. His assassins have never been identified. Among those who died with him was the U.S. ambassador, which appears to rule out the involvement of Washington. The most imaginative explanation for his death is offered by Mohammed Hanif in his fictional A Case of Exploding Mangoes, described by John le Carre as “deliciously anarchic.”

An important legacy of Zia’s presidency was the large number of madrassas that he funded, many along the Afghan border. In 1971, there were only 900 madrassas in Pakistan, but by the end of Zia’s tenure in 1988 there were 8,000 recognized madrassas and 25,000 non-recognized ones, educating a total of over half a million students. Many of these madrassas received funding from Saudi Arabia from the 1980s until about 2000, when the Saudis began to prefer movements more orientated towards the hadith. But many mullahs were only semi-literate themselves, and more likely to be influenced by the tribal Pushtunwali. Zia’s policy was to fund madrassas of all sectarian persuasions. Some of the most important madrassa training camps were located at Chaman (Balochistan), North Waziristan, Parachinar (Tora Bora) and Bajaur. Between 1982 and 1992 an estimated 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 countries were part of the Afghan mujahideen, and thousands more came to the new madrassas funded by Zia’s government and the ISI.

After the USSR, the U.S.

“Many of these radicals speculated that if the Afghan jihad had defeated one superpower, the Soviet Union, could they not also defeat the other superpower, the U.S.,” writes Gosling. “The logic of their argument was based on the simple premise that the Afghan jihad alone had brought the Soviet state to its knees. The multiple internal reasons that led to the collapse of the Soviet system, of which the jihad was only one, are conveniently ignored. So while the USA saw the collapse of the Soviet state as the failure of the communist system, many Muslims saw it solely as a victory for Islam. For militants this belief was inspiring and deeply evocative of the Muslim of the world in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Islamic Ummah, they argued, could be forged by the sacrifices and blood of a new generation of martyrs and more victories.”

Osama bin Laden first traveled to Peshawar in 1980 to meet the mujahideen leaders, and decided to settle there two years later. He helped with the construction of the Khost tunnel complex, expanded by the CIA for the benefit of mujahideen fighters. He also set up his own training camp for Arab-Afghans. After Abdullah Azzam—the teacher of jihad—was killed by a suicide bomber in 1989, bin Laden took over his organization, which had already become known as Al Qaeda. His promotion of ultra-orthodox Wahhabism made him unpopular with many Pashtuns and Shia Muslims, and in 1990 he returned to Saudi Arabia. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he quarreled with the Saudi royal family over their willingness to accommodate U.S. forces, and was obliged to leave for the Sudan in 1992.

Lesser heroes of jihad

In 1996, bin Laden traveled to Jalalabad in Afghanistan and remained there until the Taliban conquered Kabul the same year. The following year, he became friends with Mullah Omar and moved to Kandahar. By this time Al Qaeda and the Taliban had become bedfellows, bin Laden was firmly opposed to the U.S., and the Clinton administration was committed to blaming him for every possible atrocity, desperately looking for a diversion from the mire of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Those who knew bin Laden in Peshawar describe him as a tall, quiet man who lived in what at one time was the Arab quarter near University Road (close to the British Council). As a CIA collaborator he was able to use the Combined Military Hospital close to Edwardes College when necessary. Shy, but intelligent was one comment cited by Gosling, who notes the Al Qaeda leader was never seen again in Peshawar following the 9/11 bombings, and nobody he knew had any idea where he was hiding when he was killed in 2011 by U.S. Seals in Abbottabad.

The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network were primarily concerned with opposing the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, while their Taliban groups concentrated on events in Pakistan. In December 2007 several tribal militant bodies, and others from Kashmir and the Punjab, met in the FATA areas and created the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It was led by 35-year-old Baitullah Mehsud from South Waziristan. Mehsud was a good friend of Jalaluddin Haqqani, and had fought for the Afghan Taliban. The TTP’s objectives were to rule Pakistan and convert it into a sharia state.

Waziristan, the center of terror

Within the FATA areas. South Waziristan—and to a lesser extent the North—became the main centers of Taliban activity, which is why the U.S. drone strikes were concentrated there. The madrassas are connected to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamist party founded in the 1950s that is popular in the tribal areas. Before to the formation of the TTP, the first head of the Taliban in South Waziristan was Nek Muhammad, a young Wazir aged between 18 and 19. Mehsud supported Nek’s successful resistance to the Pakistan military in 2004, but Nek was killed the same year—possibly by a U.S. drone. Baitullah also died, and was succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud. Hakimullah fought in Helmand province in Afghanistan, and in December 2008 was responsible for burning a large number of Army trucks on the Peshawar ring road. The TTP eventually based itself in Miramshah, with units spread over FATA and settled areas such as Bannu, Mardan and Swat.

In 1985 Sufi Muhammad started his Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) or ‘Movement for Implementation of Sharia’ in Swat. In the 1990s, the TNSM started blocking roads in demonstrations supporting its demands, leading to security forces confronting them. In May 1994, 11 people were killed in Buner district. The vacuum left by Sufi Muhammad’s imprisonment was filled by his son-in-law, Fazle Hayat (better known as Fazlullah), who headed the TTP following Hakimullah Mehsud’s death in 2013. He was killed by a drone after he fled Swat to avoid getting killed by the Pakistan Army.

In 2011 Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. in Abbottabad amid rumors that the Pakistan Army knew nothing about where he was living. That the Army remains a powerful force in Pakistan’s affairs is evidenced by the fact that when then-Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, paid his first visit to Pakistan he called on the Army chief before meeting then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Critic of Pakistan’s military, U.S.-based Aqil Shah, argues that the Pakistan Army bases much of its perceived role on the country’s geopolitical insecurity—essentially the threat from India and a lack of internal cohesion. In response to these dangers, the military has assumed for itself what Shah describes as “traditions of tutelage” and a misplaced notion of its “guardianship” of national interests and security. Extreme advocates of such a role for the military claim that it alone stands between anarchy and order, and therefore any weakening of it might lead to administrative collapse.

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