Our foreign policy establishment claims ad-nauseam that there is no ISIS (Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham) in Pakistan. In the process the nation, already engaged in an existential war against the Taliban/al-Qaeda brand of terrorism, is reassured that it need not fear Da’ish as it simply does not exist.
Before 9/11 few had heard of al-Qaeda. It had no presence in Pakistan. So went the official mantra. For that matter not many were aware of its existence even in Afghanistan.
Since then different jihadist groups have become household names in the Islamic Republic. Before the present military leadership launched Zarb-e-Azb a year and a half ago, there was no dearth of those amongst the political elite and the media pundits who actually extolled the activities of such groups.
For almost quarter of a century Pakistan had become a hotbed of outfits of different hues, colours and nationalities perpetrating jihad according to their own distorted version of religion. Exporting terrorism from the training grounds of our badlands unabated and unchecked virtually became an industry.
This was the time that most terrorist incidents in the west were traced back to persons who had received training in our tribal areas or at least had paid a visit to coordinate with groups commuting freely from Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East.
During the same period the world started viewing Pakistan as a net exporter of global jihad. Thanks partly to Indian propaganda and partly owing to weak-kneed policies of our successive governments, such groups were perceived as operating with impunity from our territory.
Policies pursued by the military regimes since the days of General Zia-ul-Haq right down to General Musharraf and by the ubiquitous establishment — fuelled by open funding by our so called petro-dollar rich Middle Eastern friends — exacerbated the situation.
Before 9/11 few had heard of al-Qaeda. It had no presence in Pakistan. So went the official mantra. For that matter not many were aware of its existence even in Afghanistan
Things have come full circle since then. There is a somewhat belated realisation that terrorism in all forms is eating into the very entrails of the state. Matters have improved somewhat, but still we have a long way to go.
Officially it is stated in unequivocal terms that the state will not spare the terrorists. Nor will they be allowed to use our territory as a launching pad for terrorist activities in other countries.
According to this mantra how can Pakistan, itself a victim of worst forms of terrorism, be a perpetrator of terrorism? Going by the same logic it is claimed that distinction between good and bad Taliban no longer exists.
But despite protestations to the contrary there is a strong perception in the west that Pakistan still harbours and favours certain jihadist groups. Some of them are perceived to be India centric while others like the Haqqani network operate under the banner of the Afghan Taliban.
Thankfully Islamabad’s image in Washington and London has somewhat improved. Despite deep reservations persisting, Pakistan is seen as a key player to facilitate talks with the Afghan Taliban for a peaceful transition in Kabul. ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led talks’ is virtually used as a cliché by western diplomats.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif followed by General Raheel Sharif’s sojourn to Washington is viewed in this context. Both had successful visits beneficial to Pakistan’s strategic and economic interests.
An unnecessary controversy was generated in the media regarding the military chief’s recently concluded trip to Washington. There were those who claimed that the COAS himself sought the invitation to the US capital. The kind of reception he received there negates the logic behind creating and fuelling such controversies.
The visit should be viewed as a follow up to the prime minister’s trip. And from a strategic and tactical point of view it served Pakistan’s interests.
Ostensibly things are looking good for Pakistan. Internationally it is not as isolated as it was in the past decade or so.
Nonetheless deep-rooted strategic and existential problems persist. Structurally speaking endemic issues that need immediate and persistent attention remain unresolved. Unless there is a reset there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel.
Since the military’s powerful public relations wing the ISPR’s controversial tweet criticising the government for not getting its act together on NAP (National Action Plan ) to combat terrorism and governance, the state of civilian-military relations has become a subject of national debate. The army leadership is obviously not happy in the manner in which civilian rulers are managing existential issues relating to combating terrorism and governance.
Unfortunately, without perhaps fully realising it, the military mindset is as much part of the problem as the solution. It has to outgrow its persistent ‘heads I win tail you lose’ syndrome in order to fix Pakistan in the long run.
It is good to hear that Da’ish does not exist in Pakistan. It is being viewed by Islamabad as a Middle Eastern franchise. But rent events, including bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai and dastardly terrorist attacks in Paris, compounded by Turkey deliberately downing a Russian fighter plane, have further complicated the matrix.
ISIS that controls swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and runs a government in the form of a caliphate is quite distinct from al-Qaeda. It is better financed, more ruthless and perhaps now more desperate too.
Apart from tackling terrorism on a tactical level, there is an urgent need to change the mindset and embark on a new narrative
After ceding territory and Russia out to destroy its capacity to sell oil, ISIS is resorting to more ruthless and well planned acts of terrorism. By the same token, al-Qaeda in order to remain relevant is in fierce competition. Already facing an existential threat, this is worrisome for Pakistan.
Apart from tackling terrorism on a tactical level, there is an urgent need to change the mindset and embark on a new narrative. IS might not exist on the ground but it does exist in the minds of our leadership, khaki and civilian, and amongst large swaths of the populace.
There is a lot of outrage being expressed on our media about the manner in which the large Muslim minority is being treated in India. The Modi-led BJP government is rightly castigated for a weak response to the Hindu extremists within its folds.
But on the other hand, apart from token condemnation, very little is said about the manner in which we treat our own minorities. Hate speech by so-called proscribed organisations and from sections of the pulpit goes unabated.
Apart from expressing performa disapproval even mainstream political parties are not willing to move a finger to resist this alarming trend or even to condemn it vociferously. Our exalted lawmakers are simply not interested in amending divisive and discriminatory legislation that in its present form can be misused against political opponents and minorities.
Unless the civilian leadership –in the government as well as the opposition — is willing to work in tandem to exorcise a mantra based on hate it will be virtually impossible to combat the menace destroying us from within.