There is a need to be categorical about it
The latest terrorist attack at Kamra and the sectarian killings in August 2012 provide the latest evidence of the continuing threat of terrorist and armed religious groups. Though their capacity to terrorize the state and society has declined since 2009-2010, these groups can still use violence to advance their religio-political agendas, including the desire to create a domain of authority at the expense of the Pakistani state. The Kamra attack was neutralized in less time than the attacks of the Mehran Naval base and the Army headquarters, the fact that the militants can breach the security of the prime military installations is a matter of grave concern.
The August terrorist activity has also demonstrated that the politically active and vocal sections of the society are divided on the sources of terrorism and the methods for coping with it. They also diverge on who needs to change the policies for controlling terrorism: the government of Pakistan or the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups or the United States? The response of the Pakistani state and society to terrorism is characterized by ambiguity about terrorism and a tendency to avoid criticism of the Taliban and mainland based armed religious groups. Only a small number of people are categorical in criticizing and condemning the groups that engage in terrorism and sectarian violence.
The ambiguous and split societal disposition towards religious extremism and terrorism has sapped the will of the government to adopt a unified and clear-cut stand against the groups and organizations that engage in violence and terrorism.
Only three political parties officially take an anti-terrorism stance and view the Taliban and similar extremist and hardline groups as a threat to the state and the society. These political parties are: the PPP, the MQM and the ANP. They are partners in the federal government.
The opposition and other political parties and groups may express opposition to terrorism and religious extremism as a principle but they do not criticize any specific militant organization for its terrorist or sectarian activities. They blame the federal government of failure to provide security of life and property to the citizens.
The societal disposition towards terrorism is shaped mainly by partisan political affiliations or Islamic denominational affiliations or both. The right of the centre to far-right and Islamic groups and parties demonstrate varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups. It ranges from avoidance of criticism, blaming the government of Pakistan and the military for taking action against them, claiming that those engaging in violence are not genuine Taliban but the agents of Pakistan’s foreign enemies in the garb of the Taliban to open support.
A more prominent tendency among them is to hold the United States responsible for all the ills of Pakistan. The more a person is Right-wing and Islamist in orientation the more will be the tendency to see things in Islam versus others and that the U.S. is determined to destabilize Islamic Pakistan and grab its nuclear weapons. By implications there will hardly be any criticism of the Taliban and other militant groups.
Many political and religious groups and column-writers accused India, the U.S. and Israel for masterminding the Kamala attacks. Some of them argued that sectarian killings were also arranged by some of these countries and their agents in Pakistan. Some analysts argued that the attacks and killings were the punishment from the God.
Most Islamic parties and groups, especially those identifying with Deoband, Whabbi, Salafi and Ahle-Hadith traditions of Islam offer varying degrees of support to the militant groups of their respective denominations. The Islamic groups identifying with the Barelvi Islamic tradition are openly critical of the Taliban for the last two-three years. The Shia Islamic groups are also opposed to the Taliban and other sectarian groups that attack and kill the Shias.
Pakistan’s civilian government and the military are unable to convince the people at large that Pakistan’s participation in the U.S. led effort to eliminate terrorism served Pakistan’s national interests. There are few takers of the policy that Pakistan is fighting the war for saving itself from terrorism. This perspective runs deep in Pakistani society, cutting across the denominational and political differences. It afflicts the government circles as well as the Pakistan military. The retired officers of the army are more vocal on this issue. These people may not publicly support the Taliban but their view of war on terrorism and Pakistan’s role are similar to the Taliban.
The lack of unanimity on terrorism is also caused by four dimensional power struggles in Pakistan, i.e., the PPP-led federal government and the opposition; the federal government and the military; the federal government and the overactive Supreme Court; and the military’s policy to play soft with some militant groups.
The federal government has to spend more energy in saving itself from pressures of the opposition parties, the Supreme Court and the military rather than improve governance. The military wants the civilian government to own the military operations in the tribal areas but it exerts its political clout if and when it feels that the civilian government disregards the military’s sensitivities.
The federal government under siege spends more time and energy in surviving the political onslaught. It is unable to mobilize public support for the military’s efforts to control the tribal areas.
The military has often overplayed anti-Americanism and sought the cooperation of pro-Taliban militant and Islamic groups and the Political Right to protect its institutional interests, i.e. the Kerry Lugar bill controversy (2009), the Difa-e-Pakistan conglomerate after the Salala border post incident. By now, anti-American sentiments have become so deep rooted that no rational approach to foreign and security policy can be implemented.
The elected government, the political players and the security apparatus may like to control religious extremism and terrorism but they lack the political will to take and implement difficult decisions. They are unable to evolve a shared disposition on terrorism. The key question is if the military can practically adopt a policy of treating all armed religious groups as a threat? It needs to convince the pro-military circles and retired officers to view countering terrorism as Pakistan’s war and fully support the military on it. As this is not expected to happen in the near future, the confused and ambiguous policy for controlling terrorism against the backdrop of internal power struggle will continue.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.