The Pakistani state is still unwittingly assisting militant groups
Those who spend significant amounts of time in foreign policy making – analysts, donors, security experts, and journalists – would be forgiven for thinking that trying to fight terrorism through ideas, and through principles, won’t get you taken seriously.
A fashionable cynicism hangs over the publications, meeting rooms, and post-conference drinks of those with influence. Unsurprising, maybe.
A good analytical mind is judged on an ability to anticipate trouble, and, when it comes to countering terrorism, there’s plenty of trouble to be had.
But for all the protection that grim anticipation may offer us, it comes at a price. The very goals and values that motivated action become our own first casualties.
Nowhere is this truer than in the nightmare zone of policy makers for the past decade: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If we are serious about ending our military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we have to start de-militarising our thinking, and turn our attention to those who are working in the realm of ideas.
And, for inspiration for the work still to be done, there are few who can teach us more than the late Sabeen Mahmud. Mahmud, the Pakistani activist and owner of The Second Floor (T2F), epitomised the philosophy that ultimately wins the day.
T2F was a space for debate: a coffee shop and community organization in Karachi that held discussions few others dared to take up.
Religion, politics, and the abuses of the powerful were all fair game for discussion. Yet, for all the risks associated with these provocations, Mahmud never forgot the spirit of reconciliation. Her obituary in The Economist described how:
“Friends said she should put a security guard on the café door; she preferred to invite her enemies in, to eat panini and join the conversation. In 2007 she hosted a talk by an author who had uncovered army finances; ISI people were invited, and some came.”
The sad truth is that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not safe places for tolerant provocateurs. Mahmud herself was gunned down in April in Karachi, after a talk on the ‘disappeared’ in Balochistan Province.
Pakistan is a hotbed of militant Islamist groups, with murky connections in political spheres. Challenging extremist stances can make you enemies in unexpected places.
The power of armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are such that even evidence against rarely pertains, if ever they are brought to trial.
The head of LeT’s political wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawah, remains a free man, to the chagrin of Pakistan’s historical rival India, given LeT’s involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
There is a disturbing, and increasing, number of militant groups that have a trademark sectarian ideology, making it their business to attack Shia Muslims and other religious minorities.
Unfortunately, the Pakistani state itself has a long way to go before it stops unwittingly assisting them. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a powerful tool for Islamist extremists, and are easily twisted against minorities.
The policy of state Islamisation under General Zia ul Haq throughout the 1980s led to a proliferation of madrasahs, or religious schools, that, while compensating for shortages of state education, also continue to proliferate intolerant religious ideologies.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is becoming ever-more complex ideologically, as splits emerge over the future, and they attempt to fend off new militant competitors.
Shades of grey are emerging in an extremist worldview, and they largely depend on attitudes to working with government. This is not an entirely new phenomenon; the Taliban held state power once themselves, and the less hawkish factions within them have attempted peace talks with the previous Karzai administration.
Two rounds of informal talks between Taliban and civil society actors have been held this year, the latter set in Oslo with a number of female lawmakers.
Ensuring that progress in women’s rights is maintained has been a sticking point of past negotiations, but in this round, support for female education and work has been mentioned.
However, Sunday’s attack on the Afghan parliament in Kabul occurred while the talks were ongoing. If consensus about whether or not to talk can’t be met within the Taliban, then neither will it be reached on human rights and religious interpretations.
If, then, we can’t deal with the movement as a whole, what is to be done?
Making the situation worse is the apparent influx of Islamic State (IS) into the region. Quilliam’s latest report on South Asia closely examines the possibility that, despite relatively low numbers of fighters, and a lack of coordination and territory, IS may leave its sinister mark on the region.
Because IS operates as a franchise, with a powerful global brand, militant groups wishing for a new lease of life and ideological galvanization are increasingly being tempted to join their ranks in name.
While these affiliates have neither the numbers nor unity to annexe swathes of South Asia as IS territory in the foreseeable future, they will inspire mimicry of IS tactics, the brutality of which I need not remind the reader.
IS’s sectarian leanings align worryingly well with a number of vicious militant groups in Pakistan, which may be further inspired into committing ever more brutal attacks on religious minorities.
Up against these challenges, a call for a response grounded in morality, and in the realm of ideas, may look naïve. Can efforts based on counter-extremism, rather than the ‘hard power’ of counter-terrorism strategy, survive, when those who propagate debate must gamble with their lives to do so?
We argue that they must if we ever wish to see peace in the region again. The fact is that, while military ‘hard power’ remains necessary to quell militant expansion, it cannot stop the growth of extremism.
High-tech counter-terror technologies, particularly drone strikes, give us sitting comfortably in the west a false sense of creating security.
Tempting as it is to believe that taking out high level jihadist leaders (with a minimum of military input) will cripple their organisations, there is little evidence to suggest that translates into a safer Pakistan.
Drone strikes have undeniably damaged the cohesion of the Pakistani Taliban; indeed, in late 2014, it appeared to be irreversibly fractured. Yet that did not stop their most devastating attack to date, on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 146 people, most of them children.
Nor did it stop later mediation efforts by Al Qaeda that have succeeded in reconciling some of the factions. More worryingly, resentment fuelled by numbers of civilian casualties that are far too high already is not ameliorating either the state governments, or the international community, to dubious civilian populations.
A strategy based on military efficiency, at the expense of moral and ideological concerns, is, quite simply, strategically unsound, a view that’s shared by a number within security and policy circles.
We cannot reconcile with everyone, but we must begin to take seriously any opportunities for grassroots reconciliation, and debate about the political and religious futures of these countries.
These futures will not be decided by us, but by those populations.
However, until both countries are able to protect those working for peace and change, we must practice what we preach, and be prepared to support the slow, difficult, but essential businesses of counter-extremism on the path towards peace-making.
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