By: Vikram Sood
Pakistan watchers would not find the current spate of terror in that country surprising because there has been a steady escalation in its lethality, its dramatic impact, geographical range and targets for some years. And that this has been mostly within Pakistan except for the attacks against Indian interests in Kabul and Mumbai in recent years. No one perhaps really noticed that Pakistani jihadis nurtured fondly for years, had gone into a catharsis of sorts soon after President Musharraf announced in September 2001 that he was reversing jihad. He was going to support the US in the war on terror in Afghanistan and, by implication, against some Pakistani jihadis. Musharraf had apparently been overawed by Washington’s “either you are with us or against us” message.
Unsurprisingly, for many more familiar with Pakistani behaviour and paranoia, it was known that this was going to be only selective reversal. The cooperation with the US was not meant to apply against the India-specific jihadis nurtured by Pakistan for years. Despite this selective approach to tackling jihadis, there were perhaps half a dozen attempts to assassinate Musaharraf by Islamic radicals between 2001 and 2003 — the most lethal being Christmas Day in 2003 when he had a miraculous escape. The attackers were professionals and they obviously had insider information about Musharraf’s movement that day.
The attack on the Karachi airport with instant media coverage, is perhaps the most high profile attack by Pakistani terrorists in recent years. Over time, Karachi has become a haven for the Taliban, sectarian militants, jihad financiers and Al Qaeda sleeper cells. With a high mix of criminal activity and a large Pukhtun population it is relatively easy for the Taliban to operate here. This would explain the ease with which there were two attacks on the airport on consecutive days.
There have been other, even more sinister and audacious attacks in Pakistan since the Lal Masjid episode in July 2007 in which 156 fundamentalist Islamists were killed in an operation by the elite SSG commandos. Attacks by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi in October 2009, the Pak naval base PNS Mehran in Karachi in May 2011 in apparent retaliation against the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier that month, the Kamra airbase in August 2012, and in December 2012 and the Bacha Khan airport in Peshawar were particularly audacious and exhibited a well thought out game-plan. Even the ISI Office in Lahore was attacked by the Taliban in May 2009 and later the ISI office in Sukkur was targeted. SSG commando training headquarters and the Sargodha air base had similarly been targets. These attacks were carried out by highly trained suicide squads armed with sophisticated weapons and aimed at inflicting maximum damage. Besides, high-profile strategic targets derive international publicity and send a message. Meanwhile the world, including Pakistanis, haven’t noticed the killing of 25 Shia pilgrims in Taftan, Balochistan, by Sunni terrorists, the day the airport was attacked.
Let us also not forget the two attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 and another recent one on the Indian consulate in Herat. In the midst of all this there have been innumerable terrorist attacks all over Pakistan. This was not the first and definitely not the last assault on Shias in Pakistan. A little known Sunni militant organisation called Jaish ul-Islam claimed to have carried out the suicide attack. The Pakistan establishment has often resorted to encouraging Islamist and sectarian forces to discredit and suppress nationalists by deeming them as anti-Islam. Like everything else this too has diminishing marginal returns.
There is considerable confusion about who carried out the Karachi attacks. The TTP was first to claim credit even though there were initial reports that some Uzbeks were involved in the attack. Usman Ghazi, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, that has been based in FATA for years and sheltered by the Haqqani Network, has now claimed that their organisation carried out these attacks. We all know, success has many fathers.
There is also continued ambivalence in the ruling circles in Pakistan. Politicians state they prefer a dialogue to solve this, while the Army has been insisting that they would prefer to militarily tackle this without seriously pursuing the option. There are other long standing reasons for the differences between Pakistan’s civil and military establishments as the civilian leadership seeks to establish its dominance on Pakistan’s foreign and security policies. The Army is not prepared to give up this dominance. Meanwhile, the TTP is understood to have split with the Mehsud faction breaking away. It could be that the Deep State had organised this split to be better able to control the group as Pakistan readies itself for the departure of US and ISAF forces next year. Inevitably, such plans have a way of playing out differently and the TTP has hit back at the Pakistan state with this show of force in Karachi.
The fact that internal terror took over Pakistan soon after the September 11 attacks in the US and Pakistani assurance to help, despite objections from many inside the Army, indicates that the mood in Pakistan had begun to change more than 10 years ago. The rejection by the Pakistani extremists of this change in Pakistan policy was voiced by some within the ruling establishment and the revenge was visible in all the various bombings and killings. Pakistan’s surrogates were getting out of control. The gamble of playing good terrorist versus bad terrorist or good Taliban versus bad Taliban was unraveling.
The US may claim that the Al Qaeda had been reduced in its presence, but one is not sure how much its ability has been curbed. The Al Qaeda footprint is now visible in various West Asian countries, almost as if someone somewhere was running a franchise system. Extremists run their own print and online magazines and websites in fluent English and local languages, they have Twitter and Facebook accounts and they are not banned but YouTube has been banned in Pakistan for showing stuff that hurts the religious sentiments of these extremists.
This mindset is visible in the protests against the killing of Osama bin Laden, the reactions of the society to the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer where the lawyers cheered the assassin and the judge had to flee the country, the inability of the government to modify the blasphemy law and the continued murders of Ahmediyas and Shias. Sophisticated drawing rooms and farm houses in the Punjab nowadays discuss not application of Sharia rules, but only which Sharia rules are good and required.
Pakistan, for long the epicentre of terrorism, is also becoming the eastern flank of a widespread Sunni extremism visible in the Arab world. Clearly it is facing the effects of blowback — the unintended consequences of unacknowledged actions. It is up to Pakistan to deal with this, if at all they choose to.
It is possible that, unable to control the various jihadis in their country or control events in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military rulers will first try to blame India for all its troubles and then launch a diversionary jihadi attack to provoke a reaction from the Indians and bring the whole world into play. Only the weak will go around flailing their arms pretending to take retaliatory action. The strong will react too — but at a time, place and manner of their choosing. The idea is not shoot the messenger, but to hurt the person who sent the message.
The writer is former head of R&AW and currently adviser to Observer Research Foundation, Delhi