Last month, the Pakistan army launched what it describes as a major military offensive against the jihadi terrorist safe haven in North Waziristan. Senior generals and the civilian defence minister insist that this time Pakistan will go after all militant groups, including fighters who target neighbouring Afghanistan and have, in the past, been deemed Pakistan’s strategic assets.
Accompanied by much media discussion of “Operation Zarb-e-Azb”, the Pakistani army has fought many battles over the last few weeks, killed several terrorists and lost some soldiers. The offensive has also caused a huge humanitarian crisis as more than half a million people have become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), leaving villages that were being shelled by artillery or pounded from the skies by F-16 aircraft.
But most foreign observers and many knowledgeable Pakistani commentators remain sceptical about the extent to which Pakistan’s generals have truly changed their minds about jihadi militias as an instrument of state policy. The Pakistani military, the critics say, is only eliminating extremist groups that have started targeting Pakistan and Pakistanis. Anti-India jihadis, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), continue to flourish with Hafiz Mohamed Saeed and his cohorts parading openly in major cities like Lahore.
According to the naysayers, the military operation will target hardline Uzbeks, Chechens and footsoldiers of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who have claimed responsibility for the recent assault on Karachi International Airport. Groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban have already been directed or pushed across the Pakistan-Afghan border (the Durand Line) so that they can resume operations once NATO forces leave Afghanistan.
The Pakistani establishment has responded to its critics with a public relations offensive. In a conversation with Indian journalist Aakar Patel, a retired ISI general even made the argument that the sharp spike in violence in Pakistan over the last decade was the result of the Pakistan “military’s decision to crack down on terror groups operating against India.”
According to Patel, “The ISI general said that the thinking in India appeared to them to be that of satisfaction at the situation Pakistan found itself in. ‘Let them stew in their own juice’ and ‘You created the problem, now you suffer the consequences’ were some of the phrases he used to describe what he thought the Indian attitude was.” The Indian journalist was also informed of “limitations of the state with respect to the LeT and Hafiz Saeed in particular,” but he was also told that “this must not be seen as encouraging the group.”
Unfortunately, crisp statements are not a substitute for sound policy. Pakistan’s establishment has made similar arguments since General Pervez Musharraf famously proclaimed soon after 9/11 the country’s U-turn away from its jihadi past. Even the declaration of intent to clear the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including North and South Waziristan, of jihadi terrorists is not new, neither is the launching of a military offensive.
There is no doubt that a large number of Pakistanis, including senior military commanders, now realise the dangers posed to Pakistan by Islamist extremists. There is substantive evidence also that the latest North Waziristan offensive is better planned and better executed than previous such military operations. But instead of dismissing the opinion of sceptics and critics, Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders must try and understand their arguments.
Pakistan’s jihadi infrastructure grew out of a carefully nurtured national narrative and state ideology. Since independence in 1947, Pakistanis have been told that their country is a “citadel of Islam”, that its destiny is to be an Islamic State, and that its army is “the sword of Islam”. Advocates of modern, secular values or even of pluralism have been denigrated as “enemies of the ideology of Pakistan” and therefore cast as “traitors to Pakistan”.
This ideological milieu has helped religious-political groups exercise greater influence on national discourse than is justified by either the size of their membership or the number of votes they have obtained in Pakistan’s sporadic general elections. The jihadi groups, one more extreme than the other, is also an outgrowth of the decision to cast Pakistan as an ideological state.
If the Pakistan army is as serious about eliminating extremism as it asserts then it must realign itself in the context of Pakistan’s domestic ideological polarisation. If Pakistani nationalism continues to be defined solely in religious terms and the state rhetoric does not change, General Raheel Sharif’s efforts against some jihadis will prove as ineffective as similar juggling attempts under General Musharraf and General Kayani.
The generals’ promise of fighting extremism would be more credible if it was accompanied with an embrace, however gradual, of groups and individuals that have been marginalised and labelled as traitors because of their advocacy of a secular Pakistan or for supporting close ties to the West or India.
Until then, one cannot blame sceptics abroad for being unmoved by a military operation against terrorism that is supported by Hafiz Saeed. Nor will the army’s critics at home change their stance easily if clerics who issue fatwas against human rights activists are also the first ones to march in support of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).