The South Asia Channel

Pakistan Thinks It Can Play Nice with Terrorists. It’s Wrong.

Pakistan Thinks It Can Play Nice with Terrorists. It’s Wrong.

The start of 2016 has been marked by hope for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, a result of multiple meetings of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) countries of China, the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to develop a framework for bringing the Afghan Taliban into negotiations with the Kabul government. To achieve a peace agreement, Afghanistan is relying on Pakistan’s help to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This plan expects Pakistan to engage in a counterterrorism strategy for which it has long been criticized by the same stakeholders now knocking at its door: differentiate the “good” terrorists from the “bad” terrorists, rather than consistently cracking down on all violent groups. This approach has not proved effective at curbing extremist violence in Pakistan or in the region. With the QCG process bringing the Afghan government and the “good” Taliban together for peace talks, there is little reason to believe that this strategy will now achieve sustainable peace.

The world has long been consumed with trying to distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists. To the Pakistani government, the “good” Taliban are the factions who support its interests vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan, while the “bad” Taliban are those perceived as a threat to the state’s stability. The QCG process lets Pakistan cosmetically rebrand the decades-old classifications from “good” and “bad” into “reconcilable” and “irreconcilable,” creating an acceptable environment for inviting terrorists to the negotiating table.

If the “reconcilable” Taliban could indeed be separated from the “irreconcilable,” the critical question would become how to deal with the latter. Can a workable strategy be developed to combat the violent factions while preserving the alliance with the cooperative factions? Pakistan has stated that it is prepared to help revive the stalled Afghan peace talks, but could not bring the Taliban to the negotiating table “and be asked to kill them at the same time.” Pakistan has remained reluctant to agree to use force against the factions that opt to stay out of talks with the Afghan government. This has been a contentious point during the QCG’s preliminary sessions, where stakeholders have exhaustively discussed the nature of action to be taken against those factions that reject negotiations.

Within its borders, Pakistan’s military is engaged in an existential war with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its numerous cohorts, but refuses to target the Afghan Taliban trying to topple the democratically elected government in Kabul, operating out of safe sanctuaries in Pakistan. Instead, Pakistan advises the Afghan government to pursue a reconciliatory approach and offer the Taliban a share of power in Kabul. This strategy is based on appeasing militants rather than combating them — a reiteration of Pakistan’s “good” versus “bad” terrorist strategy that has failed to achieve peace within its borders.

Even at home, more than a year into Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP), a military operation which encompassed short and long-term measures to combat the militant onslaught, there has been widespread public disapproval of the pace and scope of its implementation from all echelons of society, even from the ruling elite within the government and the military. There has been some credible progress towards battling the Taliban in North Waziristan through Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a military campaign that has resulted in the elimination of over 3,000 terrorists from the area thus far. Despite these efforts, most of the targeted Taliban fighters have avoided security forces by hiding within Pakistan’s vast urban slums, or by crossing the porous border into Afghanistan, further destabilizing the country.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts appear paradoxical: while fighting a much-trumpeted anti-terror war against militant groups threatening its own government, operations still appear soft against India and Afghan-centric terror networks. These groups are seen as friendly to the state because they appear to advance its short-term interests with regard to both its eastern and western neighbors. This approach has, predictably, mauled prospects for improved relations with them. This enduring dilemma has stymied Pakistan’s policy options and military operations to deal with terror, as evidenced by the government’s inability to initiate credible action against the ideological hubs of these organizations based in Punjab, compared to relatively successful operations in Karachi and the tribal areas. Some politicians are also accused of complicity with extremist outfits for electoral gains. Inability or unwillingness to initiate action against these terror groups can have grave adverse consequences for Pakistan’s long-term security.

Because of Pakistan’s soft spot for state-friendly terror outfits, it appears that its campaign against radicals has degenerated into a war against cherry-picked terrorists, as the root causes for radicalization have been left unattended. The fear of backlash from influential religious clergy has been the most notable factor impeding the implementation of steps laid out in the NAP, including regulating seminaries and mosques, controlling hate speech, cutting off the funding of terrorists and terrorist organizations, banning proscribed terrorist organizations from operating under different names, dismantling terrorists’ communication networks, and eliminating space for terrorists in the province of Punjab, home to the ideological centers of most of these outfits. Pakistan understands what steps are necessary to eliminate the scourge of terror over the long-term. The question now is whether or not the government is willing to take those steps.

Pakistan needs clarity of purpose before moving forward in its anti-terror war. Developing a viable and sustainable strategy requires both a strong will on the part of the ruling elite and a state writ widely accepted by the public. Pakistan currently lacks both. The weakening of the state, the disproportionate influence of radical clergy, the broad nexus linking crime with militancy, internal and external funding for the proscribed organizations, and continued growth of the nurseries of terror, are only some of the reasons behind the deep-set malaise that has spread across the country. Education reforms remain a low priority. At seminaries and schools alike, teachers continue to deliver lessons to impressionable minds drawn from regressive syllabi. This has turned Pakistan into an increasingly fertile ground for operators dealing in the scourge of militancy — the “reconcilable” and the “irreconcilable” alike.

To turn the tide in the fight against terror, Pakistan must look inwards and correct the policy aberrations that have plagued it for decades. Simply rebranding its counterterrorism strategy of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” terrorist groups will only pave the way for prolonged internal strife, not promote a viable peace agreement in Afghanistan. As a nation, Pakistan must first be at peace with itself and reform its anti-terror strategy before it can effectively work for regional stability.