The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s real terrorism problem

The brutal, execution-style attack on Shi’a Muslims in the Mastung area of Baluchistan this week was, at once, debilitating, shocking, and instructive. It was debilitating because it reminded observers and Pakistanis alike that the threat of indiscriminate violence Pakistanis face as a result of domestic militant groups shows no signs of abating. It was shocking ...


The brutal, execution-style attack on Shi’a Muslims in the Mastung area of Baluchistan this week was, at once, debilitating, shocking, and instructive.

It was debilitating because it reminded observers and Pakistanis alike that the threat of indiscriminate violence Pakistanis face as a result of domestic militant groups shows no signs of abating.

It was shocking because even by the standards of Pakistani society, where violence is accepted with nonchalance — or "resilience," depending on your point of view — the attack represented a new low, mainly because of the method of the killings. As multiple reports have indicated, the militants stopped a bus en route to Iran, forced the pilgrims off, lined them by the side of the road, and shot them. As Dawn noted in its editorial on the killings, the attack showed a "descent into new depths of savagery."

Finally, it was instructive because it shed light on the precise nature of the militant threat the Pakistani state and society face, and the long-term struggle ahead to adequately address the threat.

Since Pakistan’s alliance with the United States after 9/11 — I use the term "alliance" loosely here — Pakistanis have borne extremely high levels of violence; some 35,000 civilians, police and military officials have perished in the last seven years. Within the country, this has led to a sharp debate about the origins of the violence, and the advisability of the partnership with America.

The dominant narrative within Pakistan is that this war is not "our war"; that Pakistani leaders, both military and civilian, have allied with the United States out of a combination of greed and pusillanimity; that the militant violence directed at the Pakistani state and society would not have occurred had Pakistan not signed on to do America’s bidding in its war; and that the solution to the terrorist threat lies in the U.S. exiting the region.

The proposition that the death toll from terrorism would be lower had Pakistan not gotten involved in the U.S. war in Afghanistan is likely accurate. But to take that to mean that Pakistan would have been a peaceful society without U.S. intervention in the region is a step too far.

The gruesome events on Tuesday demonstrate this truth, because groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claimed responsibility for the attack, existed well before 9/11 and will exist well after the U.S. draws down in Afghanistan. Indeed, rather than being strictly being an anti-American group, LeJ’s raison d’être is primarily sectarian — they are an offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, itself an anti-Shi’a terrorist group. The notion that groups such as LeJ did not threaten Pakistanis until the military and civilian leadership allied with the United States rests on a very narrow understanding of "Pakistani." Shi’a still count as Pakistani, despite the efforts of groups such as SSP and LeJ.

For more than fifteen years, LeJ has carried out attacks against Pakistani religious minorities. In April 2010, the group was responsible for a bombing in Quetta – in a hospital, no less – which killed 11 people. That same month, two LeJ female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a relief camp for internal refugees who were waiting to get registered and receive food, reportedly because Shi’a were receiving food aid. In September 2010, the group was responsible for a suicide bomb and grenade attack in Lahore, targeting a Shi’a procession that killed more than 40 people. This year alone, LeJ has been behind at least four different attacks on Hazara Shi’a in Baluchistan, resulting in dozens of casualties. And this is just a sample of the group’s activities in recent times.

LeJ is an extremely daring and dangerous organization. In the late 1990s, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a crackdown on it, a move that invited assassination attempts against him. In Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, Owen Bennett-Jones reports a remarkable incident of the group’s reach:

The police were told that anyone who managed to arrest or kill Riaz Basra [then head of LeJ] would be given a 5 million-rupee award.

Despite this, the security forces proved incapable of controlling the militants’ activities. Riaz Basra showed his contempt for the police’s capabilities when he turned up at one of Nawaz Sharif’s political surgeries [meetings with party supporters]. Having slipped in with the petitioners who wanted to see the prime minister, Basra positioned himself directly behind Nawaz Sharif and got one of his accomplices to take a picture. Three days later staff at the prime minister’s house received a print of the photograph. The faces of Sharif and Basra, within a few feet of each other, had been circled and underneath there was an inscription: ‘It’s that easy.’

Those claiming that widespread terrorism in Pakistan is solely a result of U.S. involvement in the region cannot address the existence of groups such as LeJ. Essentially all militant groups operating in Pakistan today, including LeJ, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, existed in some form before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. That their activities were less widespread before Pakistan backed the United States is neither here nor there, because their very existence on Pakistani soil should be intolerable to Pakistani citizens and the state.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of the Tuesday attack itself sends a signal of the state’s woeful capabilities in tackling groups such as LeJ. The organization’s leader, Malik Ishaq, was meekly placed under house arrest for ten days due to "security reasons," and authorities followed the next day by placing his key aide Ghulam Rasool Shah under house arrest as well. Malik Ishaq was released from prison earlier this year, despite having 44 court cases against him (he was acquitted in 34, and granted bail in 10). His release was due to a lack of evidence.

Though outsiders may scoff at a publicly recognizable leader of a terrorist group not having sufficient evidence tying him to murder, it is actually quite understandable for those more aware of ground realities in Pakistan. First, witnesses are scared to death — literally — of coming forward and testifying. Second, judges themselves are unsafe, and afraid of handing out guilty verdicts in high-profile terrorism cases. Third, police procedures, investigative techniques and equipment are not advanced enough to tie individuals to specific incidents; even if police forces in an area know exactly who is behind a particular incident, proving it in a court of law is not easy, especially since Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws remain flawed. Fourth, there exists a baseline of sympathy for such organizations and their actions even amongst the "educated" legal community, as the reaction to the Salman Taseer assassination so eloquently showed.

All this is to suggest that, unfortunately, the terrorism problem in Pakistan is not going to disappear as U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. To the contrary, it will take dedicated work and long-term reform in the Pakistani legal system, the courts, and the police to rid the country of this scourge.

Most pertinent of all, the Pakistani military must abandon the analytical distinction between "good" and "bad" militant groups, as well as abandoning the hope that "good" militant groups can fulfill regional strategic objectives, such as bringing India to the negotiating table on Kashmir or attaining "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. If nothing else, the last decade should have put paid to that theory of national interest. Notwithstanding the security establishment’s desire to play favorites, the array of militant groups in Pakistan have a lot more that unites them than divides them. Indeed, LeJ — to take one relevant example — has deep connections with the Pakistani Taliban as well as al-Qaeda, both of whom have used extraordinary levels of violence against Pakistani targets. The idea that the state can take on one set of elements and leave others untouched is, in the medium- and long-term, completely fanciful.

Ahsan Butt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and blogs at Five Rupees.

Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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