Pakistan: the deer in the jihadist headlights

As unhinged as Mr Nawaz Sharif’s antiterrorism policy is, his bigger problem seems to be a military still working through its good/bad Taliban paradigm. 

The more things change in Pakistan the more they remain the same when it comes to handling the jihadist terrorism. A country grappling with terrorism ideologically anchored in the virulent exclusivist interpretation of Islam i.e. Wahhabism/Deobandism/Salafism for almost 14 years still does not have a coherent counter-jihadist policy. For the past seven years the bane of a common Pakistani’s life has been the jihadists ganged up under the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) umbrella. Since its inception the TTP or one of its affiliates have claimed virtually every attack inside Pakistan, killing upwards of 50,000 people. Still the country’s interior minister Mr Nisar Ali Khan had the gall to say that “a clear majority of the Taliban are not anti-Pakistan” as he went on to announce possible direct negotiations between the federal government and the TTP soon. Ironically, his cabinet colleague in charge of the defence affairs, Mr Khawaja Muhammad Asif said in an interview that the country was on the verge of a military operation against the TTP if the latter violated a truce it had announced. The Pakistan Muslim League- N (PML-N) government’s one hand does not seem to know what the other is doing. A supposedly well-oiled political machine has been clumsily ad-libbing its anti-terrorism act.

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In about two months since the Pakistani prime minister Mr Nawaz Sharif opted to negotiate with the TTP via a proximity committee, his message has been muddled and his policy confused at best and disastrous at worst. The TTP on the other hand has been beating Mr Sharif at his political game as well as continuing deadly attacks on a daily basis. Mr Sharif, and indeed the Pakistani state, increasingly comes across as the proverbial deer caught in the headlights as the jihadist truck heads their way full speed. In tackling terrorism the current civilian government has fumbled every step of the way since it assumed power nine months ago. The government’s dysfunction is partly due to the civilians opting to take flak for the reluctance of the country’s all powerful military to act decisively against the jihadists.

The PML-N clearly remains apprehensive about the TTP carrying out retaliatory attacks inside the Punjab province, which is the party’s power base. Out of the four Pakistani provinces and the tribal areas, the Punjab has been least affected by terrorism. The TTP has successfully used the threat of violence in the Punjab to cow the religiously conservative and pro-talks PML-N into negotiating with it. The TTP did carry out sporadic attacks in the Punjab and the contiguous federal capital Islamabad to indicate it meant business but it has generally exercised tremendous tactical restraint there. The TTP is well aware that the public opinion turning against it in Punjab will force both the civil and military establishment into meaningful action. While battering the Pashtun tribal areas and the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province the TTP keeps the pot simmering in Punjab but never brings it to the boil. The TTP’s negotiations ploy has effectively divided the public opinion between the anti-Taliban Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement demanding action against it while the pro-Taliban elements like Mr. Imran Khan and his rightwing clerical allies of the Jama’t-e-Islami party vociferously pushing for talks and blaming the United States for terrorism in Pakistan. The TTP’s primary objectives are to retain control in the tribal areas and parts of the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province where it holds sway through terror and avoid a head on confrontation with the military till the things become clearer in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal and elections there. The TTP intends to hold out till its Taliban counterparts in Afghanistan can provide it more strategic depth there.

Ironically, the Pakistan military establishment also seems intent to wait till the dust settles in Afghanistan. Despite the noise and rumble to the contrary, the Pakistani army is still avoiding a face off with the jihadists in the tribal North Waziristan Agency (NWA). While the armed forces have conducted sporadic punitive air assault on the TTP positions in the NWA keep dragging their feet on launching a ground offensive there. For the last several years the Pakistani army has steadfastly refused to act against its jihadist allies a la Afghan Haqqani terrorist network (HQN) and the Pakistani jihadist Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group in NWA.  The TTP still maintains ideological, logistic and operational bonds with both these groups. The army is not about to change its policy to not interfere in the NWA in near future despite knowing full well that the TTP cannot be effectively countered without first denying sanctuary to its patrons. The army’s solution to its NWA conundrum seems to be offloading its “good Taliban” on to Afghanistan as soon as things become conducive there.

The army’s reluctance to take fight to the TTP despite the bravado and sporadic retaliatory attacks is not lost on the Pakistani civilian leadership. The outgoing government of the PPP and ANP was also forced to negotiate with the TTP in Malakand, Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa because the army virtually refused to act. As unhinged as Mr Nawaz Sharif’s antiterrorism policy is, his bigger problem seems to be a military still working through its good/bad Taliban paradigm. The PPP and the ANP had opted to fall on the sword for the army to keep their nascent, shaky government going. Mr Nawaz Sharif with a comfortable parliamentary majority has no such compulsions and would do well to take up the army on its word that it can take the fight to the TTP. But sadly Mr Sharif appears to have opted to plunge Pakistan into his Saudi patrons’ war against Syria rather than sorting out his domestic terrorism crisis. Mr Nawaz Sharif, the Afghan Taliban, the HQN and the Lashkar-e Jhangavi (LeJ) et al all have one thing in common, which is the Gulf Arab, especially Saudi patronage. The question then is whether Mr Nawaz Sharif’s velvet glove handling of the TTP and the LeJ is a matter due to paucity of capacity or a lack of will. In either case Mr Sharif is not about to even slap the Pakistani military establishment’s wrist, which means the continuation of the Pakistani policy of “good/bad” Taliban along with its disastrous results at home and in the region.

Photo: Zoriah