The South Asia Channel

A Morass of Its Own Making: Pakistan’s Destructive Taliban Policy

Will there be a new resolve in Pakistan to fight militancy and radicalism? No guarantees.

Pakistani children and mourners pray for the children and teachers killed in an attack by Taliban militants outside the army-run school where the attack took place in Peshawar on December 18, 2014. Pakistan is mourning 148 people -- mostly children -- killed by the Taliban in a school massacre that prompted global revulsion and put the government under new pressure to combat the scourge of militancy. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED (Photo credit should read A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

The sickening murder of at least 132 innocent students at the Army Public School and College in Peshawar on Tuesday is a bleak reminder of how Pakistan’s destructive use of violence and proxy elements as tools of statecraft has effectively backfired. Regrettably, Pakistani civilians are now absorbing the negative effects of their leaders’ flawed policies. But in light of this week’s unspeakable tragedy, will there be a new resolve in Pakistan to fight militancy and radicalism? The augurs of that happening in the foreseeable future are not positive.

For starters, Pakistan’s security apparatus — seen as two minds in the fight against terrorism — still makes a misguided distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban. Among Pakistan’s elected (civilian government) and unelected (military) institutions, there exists a division between those who sympathize with the militants and those who want to fight them. More profoundly, it appears that Pakistan’s rebellious army is interested in doing whatever the country’s civilian government is not. At the heart of this, however, lies a bigger problem: radical Islam remains grossly under-examined.

From the outset, religion and politics have been strongly entwined in Islam. For the Umayyad and Abbasid (661-1258) caliphates, as well as the Mughal (1526-1858) and the Ottoman (1300-1923) empires, statehood and religion have, historically, been both seen and treated as one. A principle belief of Islam is that the state is to create an environment where its followers can properly practice the religion, and if the state fails to do so, the people have the right to overthrow it. This feeds directly into the arguments of jihadists who want to emulate those periods in early Islam. The underlying objective of all jihadist groups, including ones encouraged by Pakistan itself, is the merger of mosque and state under Islamic law. Yet despite their common goal, not all of the militant groups hold anti-Pakistan sentiments.

Ever since General Zia ul-Haq came to power in 1977, almost every military and civilian ruler in Pakistan has continued the Islamization of the country within a rather problematic ideological context. Over the years, Pakistani leaders have created an environment — through the shari’a bill and strict blasphemy laws — where, contrary to the popular culture, people appear to be more religious in public than they are in private. The outcome of this has been an overdependence on policy that is heavily grounded in religion, and has led to state-fomented factionalism.

More crucially, by promulgating what is Islamic and what is not, the religious ideals that the Pakistani state imposed on its population excluded previously included religious sects, effectively segregating Pakistani society. Disputes between Sunnis and Shiites, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Karachi, and the growing hatred toward and ongoing institutionalized persecution of the Ahmadiyyas sect and other minority groups can all be traced to the Pakistani state-encouraged (and imposed) form of Islam. The growth of the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group responsible for the carnage in Peshawar, is a direct outcome of those state-driven societal divides, as well as the ruinous policy of propping up jihadist proxies directed toward India and Afghanistan. With the proliferation of jihadist groups over the years, the growth of anti-state Islamist groups such as the TTP should not come as a surprise. As the TTP’s strength grew, Pakistan’s security forces appeared reluctant to confront it out of fear of retaliation.

This problem is further aggravated by the increased radicalization of Pakistan’s military, a once secular and Westernized institution. This is a reflection of both drastic changes in Pakistani society writ large and the military’s own policy of recruiting uneducated, impressionable, and often disgruntled youth from across the country to protect the faith. Consequently, the growth of radical Islamism is now reflexive for many in Pakistan’s army, too.

Nonetheless, contrary to conventional wisdom, Pakistan’s military does not appear to be learning from its past mistakes. At present, while Pakistan’s army is cracking down on the TTP’s (the ‘bad’ Taliban’s) strongholds in North Waziristan, that is precisely where the Haqqani Network (considered the ‘good’ Taliban), another criminal-terrorist entity which serves as the “veritable” arm of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, holes up and stages frequent attacks against Afghan and international coalition troops in Afghanistan. Although Pakistan’s army has legitimated the network’s actions by its policy of necessity — tackling its India-centric insecurities in Afghanistan — there is no guarantee that the network’s fighters, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban, won’t eventually bite the very hand that feeds it.

Additionally, the Pakistani media — both television and radio — are significant forces in the country’s political life. However, the press, perhaps encouraged by the army, has oftentimes publicly legitimized the actions of the Taliban and their affiliates. For instance, in response to the attack in Peshawar, local media outlets interviewed militant leaders such as Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the founder of the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Jama’at-ud-Dawa, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Such extremists are often portrayed by the Pakistani media as legitimate voices in Islam, despite frequently encouraging jihad and violence. The net result is that nearly one in every 10 Pakistanis holds a favorable view of the TTP.

The ongoing violence in Pakistan is a direct consequence of groups being propped up and nurtured by Pakistan’s state institutions. Jihadist groups such as the TTP may be a problem today, but, in the long run, it is radical Islam that poses a bigger threat to Pakistan’s internal stability. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s ruling class has turned a blind eye because that same radicalism seemingly serves their policies. Unless there is a fundamental rethinking within Pakistan’s military, there is no guarantee that dreadful events like the massacre in Peshawar will not recur, and the “Islamic State” of Pakistan will likely to sink further into a violent morass of religious fanaticism of its own making.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Javid Ahmad, a South Asia analyst, is a graduate student at Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid. Twitter: @ahmadjavid