Many have called it a game-changer. On December 16, gunmen loyal to the Pakistani Taliban attacked a military school in Peshawar, killing 148 people. Most of the victims were children, and many were killed as they hid under the desks. The violence was so gruesome it seemed to rattle the country like never before. Quickly, the Pakistani government rushed to assure people it had the situation under control. In the aftermath of the attack, the government set up special military tribunals in which to try suspected terrorists, and the penalties are expected to be harsh. Meanwhile, the army reportedly broadened its crackdown in the federally administered tribal areas, in hopes of thwarting terrorism. “There will be no differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said. As Matthew Green wrote in Newsweek, Sharif’s words were “a rare public acknowledgement of Pakistan’s murky record on state sponsorship of extremist proxies.” But more than a month after the massacre in Peshawar, has anything really changed? To explore that question, I chatted with Christine Fair, a professor of South Asian political and military affairs at Georgetown and the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Was the school shooting a turning point for Pakistan?
It absolutely was not. The army has said very clearly that they’re hoping these [tribunals] are going to give Pakistanis confidence that the military has the situation under control, but they don’t have anything under control
Who are the “bad militants” in Pakistan?
For the most part, almost all of the so-called bad militants have their origins in groups that the state has long sponsored, aided, abetted, trained and in some cases even developed from the grassroots, either to fight in India or in Afghanistan. So there would be no Pakistan Taliban if there had not been this flotilla of militant groups that the state developed.
The groups targeting the state follow the Deobandi interpretative tradition of Islam. This is important because this means that they share a significant common organizational infrastructure. For example, they rely on mosques and madrassas that adhere to the Deobandi tradition of Islam. When 9/11 happened and Pakistan was forced to work with the Americans, these Deobandi groups were furious. Many of these groups came to know Al-Qaeda through their association with the Taliban in Afghanistan. [The Afghan Taliban emerged from Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan.] And these Deobandi groups were furious that the Pakistani state was aiding the overthrow, not only of the Taliban government, but the only government in the world that was exercising a Deobandi version of Sharia [Islamic law]. After 9/11…[some] of these Deobandi groups began fracturing and disobeying the [Pakistani] state. That’s when the insurgency began. Over time these Deobandi organizations began calling themselves the Pakistani Taliban.
Who are the “good militants”?
The “good militants” are, of course, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, which continue to be loyal to the Pakistani state. And elements of the Pakistani Taliban that refuse to kill Pakistanis. All of those groups kill in Afghanistan on behalf of Pakistan’s interests. The other “good militant group” is Deobandi is Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was raised to kill Indians in Kashmir and beyond. Over the past year or so, Pakistan has been trying to resurrect Jaish with the aim of luring away some members of the Pakistani Taliban into Jaish for operations against India. There’s one other group that we haven’t talked about, because they’re not Deobandi, and that’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. That organization belongs to the Ahl-Hadith tradition of Islam. This organization has never conducted an operation in Pakistan. They have exclusively focused on India for the vast majority of its history. In recent years, they have been operating against Americans and our Afghan and other allies in Afghanistan.
Is Pakistan unable to crack down on the “bad militants”? Or do they simply choose otherwise?
The problem is they want to preserve the networks that produce terrorists because those networks are the same networks that also produce the “good militants.” When the “bad militants” come after the state, the Pakistanis do try and kill them. And they try and kill them rather than arrest them because Pakistan’s [civilian] legal system is so decrepit, judges are afraid to convict. But they can’t shut down the system comprehensively because Pakistan still hopes to use “good militants” as tools of foreign and defense policy in the region.
What purpose do these “good militants” serve?
Pakistan is an ideological state, not a security-seeking state. Pakistan was founded as the homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. The Pakistan movement mobilized around the Two Nation Theory, which held that Muslims and Hindus are equal nations even if Muslims are fewer in number than Hindus. The proponents of the Two Nation Theory argued that Muslims cannot live under Hindu domination. Pakistan needs to wrest Kashmir away from India to fulfill the dream of the Two Nation Theory because Kashmir is the only Muslim majority area in India.
Pakistan also hopes to retard India’s ability to impose its will on Pakistan and other countries in the region.The only assets Pakistan has to accomplish these goals are its jihadis, who operate with impunity thanks to Pakistan’s growing nuclear weapons. Also, these groups undertake operations with plausible deniability.
The so-called good militants also have an important role to play in Afghanistan. Pakistan prefers a manageable chaos in Afghanistan rather than an Afghanistan that is friendly to India. Pakistan is trying to bring some of the “bad militants” back into the fold of the “good militants.” Pakistan’s efforts to reorient part of the Pakistani Taliban in this way also explains why the Pakistan military gave a five-months warning before undertaking operations in North Waziristan. They wanted to make sure they could return as many of their assets as possible to the category of good militants. And they were pretty successful. What remained in North Waziristan are committed foes who can be dealt with through violence and death.
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