State of Delusion

The murder by the Taliban of more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar on December 16 has stunned Pakistan, and indeed the world. But the incident marks only an escalation in the brutality of jihadis, not its beginning. Over the years, Pakistan’s homegrown terrorists have bombed Shia and Ahmadi mosques, Sunni shrines, Christian churches and Hindu temples. Over a thousand attacks on schools by the Taliban have been reported since 2009, mainly in the northwestern Pakhtunkhwa province. Jihadi targets over the years have included local ISI offices in several cities, naval and air force bases in Karachi and Kamra, the Karachi International Airport and even the army’s General Headquarters. If the breadth of attrition has not cured Pakistan’s jihadi addiction, would the death of innocent children and the burning alive of their teachers in a Peshawar school result in a fundamental change of heart?

Soon after the Peshawar carnage, Maulana Abdul Aziz of the infamous Islamabad Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, refused to condemn the Taliban’s action, indicating the stubbornness of the jihadi worldview. Taliban apologist Imran Khan parsed his words to condemn the act but not its perpetrators by name. Another Pakistani establishment favourite, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of Lashkar-e-Toiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, went on television to blame India for the Taliban’s school attack and vowed revenge inside India.

The roots of Pakistan’s jihadism lie in its establishment’s obsession with India, which goes back to partition, the twonation theory and the fear that powerful forces want the dismemberment of Pakistan. The break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh in erstwhile East Pakistan, has reinforced national paranoia instead of convincing the country’s Punjabi elite of the need to come to terms with Pakistan’s size and power and finding security within the parameters of reality.

Pakistan’s constructed identity emphasises religion and ideology at the expense of ethnic, linguistic and sectarian diversity of a complex society. As a result, the country’s approach to national security has been driven by ideological rather than pragmatic considerations. Although Pakistan’s military and civil bureaucracy both originated from institutions created under the British, their approach and attitudes have progressively been driven more by the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ than the professionalism that they often project to outsiders.

The relationship between Pakistan and jihadism cannot be understood without understanding the country’s ideological dimension, the fact that it was created as a result of an idea. Pakistan has a national narrative, a national milieu and a national identity all built around Islam. For the first 30 years of Pakistan’s existence the clamour was for religiosity within and Pan-Islamism in foreign policy. For the next 30 years global jihadism has been the overarching security and foreign policy idea that has advanced the Pakistani ideology.

Even though three successive commanders of the Pakistani army-Gen Pervez Musharraf, Gen Ashfaq Kayani and now Gen Raheel Sharif-have sought to curtail the jihadis’ influence within Pakistan, including through military operations, their efforts have always fallen short because of the nation’s ideological compulsions. The ideology of Pakistan, and the falsified historic narrative taught in schools to justify it, produces sympathy in society for Sharia rule, for an Islamic caliphate and an Islamic state. This works in favour of more than 33 militant groups that operate out of Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic planners may see no difficulty in eliminating global terrorists and fighting local jihadis while supporting regional ones. But the general public is conflicted in its attitude towards jihadi groups. Unfortunately for those who want to stop the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, their rhetoric about Sharia and against western values resonates with supporters of other, ostensibly ‘more palatable’, jihadi groups even if their methods are abhorred by Pakistanis.

For most countries, nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee against invasion or territorial extinction. But to the disciples of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’, security is not enough. Built in into the two-nation theory is the notion of parity between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. The events of the last 67 years may have rendered the twonation theory redundant. The number of Muslims living in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is now roughly equal and there are more Muslims in the subcontinent that live outside Pakistan than in it. But the ideological conception of Pakistan requires that it claim the mantle of Muslim nationhood and pursue equivalence to India in status, power and international standing.

Pakistan’s size and economy does not allow it to be on a par with a much larger and increasingly wealthier India. The machinations of the Cold War that enabled Pakistani leaders to punch beyond their weight through alliance with the West, especially the United States, is also over. That leaves asymmetric warfare through jihadis as the only strategic option for Pakistan’s ideologues. The other course, that of pursuing security and prosperity of geographic Pakistan and its people without insisting on the ideology of Pakistan, has simply not found sufficient resonance among Islamabad’s powerful quarters.


The case made by Pakistan’s ideologues is appealing to Pakistanis even as it drags the country down the road of tragedies similar to the recent one in Peshawar. In 1947, the country inherited few resources and feared strangulation at birth. The partition riots and the exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir scarred Pakistan’s founding generation. The country survived because of its people’s resilience and its leaders’ adept Cold War alliances.

As early as 1948, Pakistan’s first military foray into Kashmir involved lashkars from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The irregular fighter added to the Pakistani military’s muscle. Engaging the tribesmen in jihad across the Indus, in Kashmir, pre-empted the possibility of their becoming involved in schemes for Pashtunistan-the land of the Pashtuns-advocated at the time by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the government of Afghanistan. Thus began Pakistan’s tolerance and support for non-state actors tied by ideological nationalism to the strategic vision of Pakistan’s military establishment.

In the 1980s, Pakistan’s policy received a shot in the arm with the US decision to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to combat the Soviet Union. As substantial amounts of money, weapons and fighters flowed in, Pakistan’s security establishment began setting up camps to not only train fighters to battle in Afghanistan, but also in Jammu and Kashmir. Today, a wide array of militant organisations operate in Pakistan with safe havens in urban and rural areas. Some of these include sectarian organisations that target religious minorities and Muslim sects (Sipah-e-Sahaba), anti-India outfits (Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed), anti-Afghanistan groups (Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the Haqqani network), and militants waging war against the Pakistani military (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan).

The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan was the first turning point in the nature of militancy in Pakistan. General Musharraf was quick to sever ties with the Taliban government in Kabul and supported American operations in Afghanistan. To give the peace process with India some traction, he put a temporary halt on militant flow into Jammu and Kashmir. In April 1999, Musharraf had told a group of retired military officers that “Taliban are my strategic reserve and I can unleash them in tens of thousands against India when I want”. By 2002, he had changed his tune, nominally banning groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But the banned organisations and their leadership were allowed to operate under new names.

Under Musharraf, Pakistan began differentiating between jihadi groups. While foreign terrorists with links to al-Qaeda were handed over to the United States, local and regional militants (sectarian, anti-India and anti-Afghan groups) were left alone. Some militants built capacity to challenge the writ of the state right under the nose of Pakistani security forces. They have inflicted huge casualties on security forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the years. Other groups such as the Haqqani network were ‘managed’ by intelligence agencies in a bid to exert influence on events in Afghanistan.

The current Pakistani problem of increasing terrorism at home is the result of that policy. While the state might differentiate among terrorists, the jihadis often tend to be sympathetic and supportive towards one another. The jihadis supported by the establishment end up supporting terrorists attacking Pakistan’s army and civilians. As is often the case with ideologically motivated militants, ideology takes precedence over strategy and, in the case of jihadis, even those accepting Pakistani state support see the value of some fighters using force to Islamise Pakistan further even at the cost of undermining the country’s stability. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 19,152 civilians and 5,839 security force personnel lost their lives in terrorismrelated violence between 2003 and 2014, excluding the casualties of the latest massacre in Peshawar.

Pakistan’s adherence to an ideological nationalism based on Islam has allowed radical groups to propagate their message and raise large sums of money without much hindrance. Further, while the military and intelligence coercive apparatus has been strong, the local police has never been provided the political support, resources and skills required to be able to combat these radical outfits. Faced with a poorly trained and demoralised police force, some groups run extortion and kidnapping rackets in urban centres. They also raise money through narcotics trafficking and trade of smuggled goods. The militant organisations have thus a sophisticated system of raising funds to support their activities that would enable them to operate even after the Pakistani state has made a final decision to cut them off. So far, unfortunately, that decision itself seems elusive. For years, Pakistan has been living in denial. For years, Pakistan denied support for the Afghan Taliban or the existence of Kashmiri jihadi training camps. The presence of al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, was attributed to the inadvertent consequences of Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. But denial does not offer a way forward. Pakistan’s Islamo-nationalism has bred radicalism, diminished economic growth and weakened its international standing. Also unknown is the extent of ideological radicalisation within Pakistan’s armed forces, which remain the country’s dominant institution.


There have been numerous instances of military officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men co-operating with jihadists or deserting their service to join jihadist ranks. But the Pakistani military tends to hold back information on the matter, making an assessment of the extent of this problem difficult. Incidents such as the attacks on the Pakistani naval base ‘Mehran’ in 2011, air force base Kamra in 2012 and the 2014 foiled attempt by Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to take over a navy frigate in Karachi harbour point to the persistence of jihadi influence within the ranks of the armed forces.

Jamat-ud-Dawaleader Hafiz Saeed during Arallyin Islamabad In May, Courtesy: AFPAs US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani establishment would want to give up its decades-long pursuit of paramountcy over Afghanistan. Faced with international pressure as well as growing threats from the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan has cleared out the known jihadist sanctuaries in North Waziristan. This has deprived Afghan groups such as the Haqqani network of their former headquarters. But Pakistan has neither acted against nor militarily confronted the Afghan Taliban leaders and the Haqqani network is believed to have relocated to other parts of FATA.

Pakistan’s policy in the immediate future would likely be to engage with the government of Afghanistan and the US in negotiations, with the stated objective of finding a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. At the same time Pakistan will most likely continue to try and militarily change the ground situation in Afghanistan in an effort to force the world to deal with de facto Taliban control of parts of Afghanistan as fait accompli. In Islamabad’s view, this would enable it to determine the final terms of an Afghan settlement, resulting in India’s exclusion from Afghanistan and the northwestern neighbour being acknowledged as Pakistan’s sphere of influence.

But are fantasies of parity with India and paramountcy over Afghanistan realistic policies? For 67 years, Pakistan has developed one element of national power-the military one-at the cost of all other elements of national power. The country’s institutions, ranging from schools and universities to the judiciary, are in a state of general decline. The economy’s stuttering growth is dependent largely on the flow of concessional flows of external resources. Pakistan’s GDP stands at $245 billion in absolute terms and $845 billion in purchasing price parity-the smallest economy of any country that has so far tested nuclear weapons.

Twenty-two per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and another 21 per cent lives just above it, resulting in almost half the people of Pakistan being very poor. It is little comfort for Pakistanis living in poverty when they are told that poverty across the border in India or Afghanistan is even starker.

Soon after independence, 16.4 per cent of Pakistan’s population was literate compared with 18.3 per cent of the much larger population in India. By 2011 India had managed to attain 74.04 per cent literacy while Pakistan’s literacy rate stood at 57 per cent. What was atwo percentage points difference in literacy rates has expanded into a nearly 20 percentage points difference in 67 years. In 2009, Pakistan allocated 2.7 per cent of its budget for education-the school life expectancy is seven years.

A staggering 38 per cent of Pakistanis between the school-going age of five and 15 are completely out of school. With a population of 180-190 million out of which 60 per cent fall in the working age category of 15-64 and another 35 per cent under 14 years of age, Pakistan has a demographic dividend which can also turn into a demographic nightmare. The low literacy rate and inadequate investment in education has led to a decline in Pakistan’s technological base, which in turn hampers economic modernisation. Textiles is the country’s major industry but despite being a major cotton-producer, Pakistan has been unable to become a leader in value-added textile products.

With one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world of around 9 per cent, a GDP growth rate of 1.7-2.4 per cent and population growth rate of 1.5 per cent, Pakistan needs foreign as well as domestic investment in addition to drastic changes in local laws, all of which need broad political consensus and stability, both of which are lacking.

With almost 40 per cent of its population urbanised, the Pakistan government spends around 2.6 per cent on public healthcare. As a result, social services are also in a state of decline. On the other hand, Pakistan spends almost 6 per cent of its GDP on defence and is still unable to match the conventional forces of India, which outspends Pakistan 3 to 1 while allocating less than 3 per cent of GDP to military spending.

Over the decades, Pakistan has managed to evade crises and failure status primarily because the international community has bailed it out. But now the rest of the world sees Pakistan as ‘jihad central.’ Training camps nestled in the tribal areas have trained and equipped militants who have gone on to fight in the name of Allah in different regions of the world. Foreign fighters trained in Pakistan have reportedly been in action in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and China’s Xinjiang region. It is no longer possible to keep Pakistani jihadis as a strategic reserve only to cause damage to India.

Instead of securing parity with India and paramountcy over Afghanistan, jihadis have only created greater internal crises and disruption within Pakistan. It might be a difficult decision but Pakistan must recognise the heavy cost being exacted by its pursuit of regional influence through asymmetric warfare. Fighting some jihadis while embracing others is self-defeating. Thirty years of escalated jihadism since the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan has caused erosion of the writ of the Pakistani state and decline in capacity of state institutions, especially the coercive apparatus.

Even with sporadic military operations, Pakistan’s tribal areas will remain host for some time to a wide range of militant organisations with local, regional and global agendas. Pakistan’s most populous area, Punjab, is now the main recruitment area not only for the Pakistani army but also for assorted jihadi groups. The growing presence of jihadis in south Punjab and northern Sind and even Pakistan’s financial hub, Karachi, does not augur well for Pakistan’s economy.

Pakistan’s jihadis are already exercising virtual veto over Pakistan’s relations with India. The Mumbai attack proved Lashkar-e-Toiba’s ability to undermine the initiatives of a civilian government for normalisation of India-Pakistan relations. They could, in future, force the Pakistani military’s hand in a similar manner. Pakistan needs to get out of denial that there are any jihadi groups that can be trusted or considered allies of the state. However useful they might have been for external purposes, non-state actors will always be a danger for the state internally. Instead of increasing Pakistan’s strategic options, as they were designed to do, the jihadis are now limiting Pakistan’s foreign policy choices.

Instead of doubling down on its jihadist misadventure, Pakistan could plot its course out of the disaster. To do so, it would have to change the defensive national narrative about Pakistan’s creation, raison d’etre and prospects of survival. So far, any discussion of the nation’s origins that does not conform to the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ has been treated not as history but as an attack on the country’s foundation.


After mobilising support for the demand for Pakistan, and establishing it as an independent country, successive Pakistani leaders have chosen to keep alive the divisive frenzy that led to Partition. If Pakistan was attained with the slogan ‘Islam in danger’, it has been built on the slogan ‘Pakistan in danger’, creating a constant sense of insecurity among its people, especially in relation to India and internal demands for ethnic identity or pluralism. This might be the time to revisit the ideas of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Bengal’s Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who had opposed the conjuring of this ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

Suhrawardy had told Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in March 1948 against building Pakistani nationalism around the notion of Islam being under threat. According to him, the rhetoric used to mobilise Muslims for the creation of Pakistan was no longer needed after independence. “You are raising the cry,” he said, “of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power.” Suhrawardy warned against transforming Pakistan into a state “founded on sentiments, namely that of Islam in danger or of Pakistan in danger”. He declared that “a state which will be held together by raising the bogey of attacks” and “friction” with enemies “will be full of alarms and excursions”. Suhrawardy’s words seem almost prophetic today. He said, “You think that you will get away with it but in that state there will be no commerce, no business and no trade. There will be lawlessness and those lawless elements that may be turned today against non-Muslims will be turned later on, once those fratricidal tendencies have been aroused, against the Muslim gentry and I want you to be warned in time.” He also defined the two key issues for the new country.The “fundamental aspect of the foundations of Pakistan”, he asserted, should be “the goodwill of the people and of the citizens of Pakistan within the state” and “the mutual relationship between the Dominion of Pakistan and the sister dominion, Indian Union”.

If the Pakistani establishment decides to turn the corner, it would have to stop treating Pakistan’s anti-jihadists as its enemies and gradually embrace a new national narrative for the country. Confronting the jihadists comprehensively would make Pakistan more secure, paving the way for greater prosperity and a place under the sun. Refusing to confront and marginalise them will only lead to recurrent tragedies like the one in Peshawar, followed by grief and outrage.