The South Asia Channel
The False Savior of Pakistan
Pakistanis hope that the army’s new chief of staff, Raheel Sharif, will crack down on militants and boost security. But can one man change a corrupt legal system and prejudiced security infrastructure?
Pakistan has finally found a hero in General Raheel Sharif, the army’s chief of staff since November 2013. In a short time, he has become one of the most powerful and beloved men in the country. From Peshawar to Karachi, billboards and banners thank him for curbing terrorism. This adoration stems, in part, from his warnings that regional rival India will suffer “unbearable costs” if it causes mischief.
What truly catapulted General Sharif to stardom was Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an operation launched in June 2014 to eradicate militants from every corner of North Waziristan. The operation was to serve as an aggressive response to the deadly attack on Jinnah International Airport that occurred earlier that month, and gave new hope to a nation that had lost over 3,000 lives to terrorist attacks in 2013 alone.
Zarb-e-Azb signaled a strategic shift for Pakistan’s internal terrorism policies. The international community had long charged Pakistan with providing safe haven to select militants — those fighting in Afghanistan and who do not pose a direct threat to, and perhaps even support, the interests of Pakistan’s government– and Zarb-e-Azb attempted to prove that Pakistan was, in fact, targeting all militants equally. There would be no more turning a blind eye to the terrorist activities of “good” militants.
General Sharif does deserve a certain level of praise for increasing security. Not only have terrorist attacks in Pakistan dropped by 70 percent since 2012, but Zarb-e-Azb made a significant impact on the terrorist groups Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi through military operations to weaken safe havens and confiscate weapons — progress all of the general’s predecessors failed to achieve.
Yet, this success is tempered by accusations that the crackdown against these groups has ulterior motives. The most-targeted groups are ones known to oppose the Pakistani state. The international community has demanded a stricter crackdown on other groups, too, ones like the Haqqani network and the India-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba – neither of which Islamabad considers to be an anti-state actor in addition to a terrorist organization. Rather than tackling all of the militants in the area simultaneously, Pakistan is first eliminating anti-Pakistan groups before setting its sights on anti-U.S. or anti-India groups.
These accusations of selective counter-terrorism enforcement gained momentum following claims made by Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain during his visit to Beijing in September. According to Hussain, Zarb-e-Azb managed to almost completely eliminate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an anti-China separatist group. But that celebratory announcement was marred by questions of whether the recent developments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor had anything to do with the government’s swift moves against the group. The agreement could boost Pakistan’s economy over time, but hinges on China’s $46 billion investment in various projects to improve the trade route from China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.
On December 16, 2014, militants stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar, brutally executing almost 150 students and staff. In response, the government lifted the moratorium on the death penalty, leading to the death by hanging of 180 alleged terrorists. These executions were ostensibly meant to deter other militants, much like the military’s Zarb-e-Azb Operation and National Action Plan, legislation developed under the guidance of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to curb terrorism.There is another aspect of Pakistan’s National Action Plan that should give pause: military tribunals meant to rubber stamp the government’s death warrants against suspected militants.
Eliminating the threat of 180 terrorists would be a praiseworthy step, if only those hanged were actually guilty of terrorism. In reality, those behind bars came to be there through the country’s two most corrupt institutions: law enforcement and the judiciary. A lack of transparency in these institutions has led to rampant bribery and nepotism. Those with the means to escape punishment can easily do so without any accountability or fear for the consequences. In such a corrupt system, there is no way to guarantee the guilt of those who hang nor the innocence of those who walk free.
The facts certainly don’t seem to support the Pakistani government’s narrative of increased security and accountability for militant activity. According to a Reuters analysis, fewer than one in six of those hanged were associated with militancy. From kidnapping to murder, those executed were charged with a wide range of crimes; several cases had severe legal shortcomings that should have marred the guilty verdict with reasonable doubt. While some may not have been innocent of violent crime, they were not guilty of terrorism or militancy like the government claimed.
In most of the cases, the police relied heavily on witnesses who were prone to intimidation or bribery, rather than gathering hard evidence. Most of the accused were too poor to afford a good lawyer, which curtailed their chances of a fair trial.
The most talked-about case is that of Shafqat Hussain, a man sentenced to death in 2004 for the kidnapping and murder of a seven year old boy. Hussain’s case was filled with ambiguities and loose ends, but despite questions about his guilt, his age, and his legal rights, he was executed on August 4th, 2015. Although the prosecution submitted a confession as evidence of his guilt, Hussain claimed he was forced to confess despite his innocence after nine days of severe torture in police custody. Additionally, his birth certificate indicated that he was a minor when the crime occured , a status that should have precluded him from receiving the death penalty.
Hussain’s story rings with the injustice and corruption that prevails in Pakistan’s legal system. His is one of many. Yet, the government celebrates countless executions without challenging the methods that produced the guilty verdict.
There is no doubt that under the tutelage of General Sharif, the security situation has improved considerably, creating a more stable Pakistan. The country’s credit ratings are up, and Foreign Direct Investment has increased 7.6 percent. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves crossed the $20 billion mark in October, 2015, a new record for the country.
With these achievements in mind, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, have praised the army chief on numerous occasions, a surprising development given their contentious relationships with the army in the past.
While it seems contradictory, the praise syncs perfectly with the latest narrative in Pakistani media and among the people, which builds up General Sharif as a man of stronger resolve than his predecessors, a leader who puts national interest at the core of his ideology and mission. People are now calling for him to be promoted to field marshal, the highest military rank which has only been held by Ayub Khan, the second president of Pakistan.
This celebration is premature. The progress made since Zarb-e-Azb launched appears shallow under the light of questions that remain unanswered. Are Pakistan’s efforts to flush out terrorist elements still divided into the category of state-friendly and anti-state? Has Pakistan truly given the executed and those on death row a fair chance? Are crackdowns against militants in individual cities, like that in Karachi, just stop-gap measures? Pakistanis have waited for the blissful day when their country is finally militant-free. But after a year of relentless operations, that day does not appear to be any closer.
Until these questions are answered, I refuse to acknowledge that true progress has been made. I refuse to acknowledge that the people and the government of Pakistan earnestly fight to keep their country from becoming a breeding ground for radicalization. With much sorrow, I refuse to accept General Sharif as my nation’s hero.
KAY NIETFELD/AFP/Getty Images