A discerning disaggregation of the phenomenon of militancy among the groups that have, over decades, taken root in central and southern Punjab makes for an important study. This is especially so at a time when their widening ambit of deadly influence only seems to be compounding itself in Pakistan.
Three groups stand out in identity, all with roots in Punjab. The oldest Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Sipah-e-Sahaba/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (its political face) – the LeJ, SSP and ASWJ are mutations of the same sectarian outfit – has roots in and around the Jhang district. This group targeted Shias in and around these districts and was caught subsequently in a tit-for-tat killing war with the competing Shia militant group, the Sipah-e-Muhammad.
How the same group is now engaged in Quetta against the Hazaras makes for another complicated reading of the underpinnings that have continued to drive the internal environment within Pakistan.
The two other groups, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad had linkages in Jammu and Kashmir where organisations sympathetic to their cause were spawned as Kashmiri Muslims intensified their freedom struggle popularly called the 1989 uprising in Jammu and Kashmir. That these groups engaged themselves in Kashmir is an accepted argument.
When in 2003, President Musharraf announced to the world that no further cross-border infiltration of Indian held territories would be permitted from the Pakistani side of the LoC, the space available to these groups gradually decreased. Pakistan has had to pay a heavy price for such policy change when the same groups diversified into activities alongside the Taliban – sometimes the deadlier component of the larger Taliban conglomerate – fighting both in Afghanistan, and against the state in Pakistan.
Sectarian warfare has always been considered an irritant in Pakistan’s politico-security calculus. Never confronted to its fullest, the preferred approach mostly has been to let these sleeping demons lie rather than raking latent sensitivities. As long as society was driven by existential pacifism it served the purpose, but with greater external influences in puritanical Islam making inroads all conventions were challenged, including the highly vulnerable Shia-Sunni equation.
Unable to thwart ideological activism, Pakistan finds itself burdened under yet another contraption of militant Islam, exemplified in repeated attacks on the Shia community, that weigh it down.
There are other factors that largely extenuate the singular failure of the state in fighting off the sectarian menace. These include its utter ineptitude to grasp the inherent implications of raking vulnerabilities when faith is exploited to formulate a policy of non-conventional response to security challenges.
It is true that even when sectarianism seemed a seasonal beast it was tolerated by the political class of Pakistan. It not only ensured effective political support to established parties, but also offered winning candidates from their regions of perpetual influence adding up to the numbers in competing political parties.
Even today when simple sectarianism has mutated into active terrorism, there are larger issues of political gamesmanship within Punjab that tend to obfuscate the deadliness that afflicts other territories such as Balochistan.
Another factor is that a secessionist nationalist element has gained strength in the last decade in Balochistan. Though still relatively small, it seems to have a presence larger than its true expanse and yet it has kept the state occupied.
There remain various contributory causes to the phenomenon, including the failure of conception in both the military and the political institutions and in how Balochistan has been poorly governed. Yet, the most visible entity that seems to be engaged in fighting off such secession is the military, the politicians having washed their hands off it sans a larger sense of policy attention which could ameliorate some alienation.
To a re-energised democracy – which Pakistan is now – a counterinsurgent application of military force, be it the army or the FC, bucks the trend of what is a patently modernist sensibility. Human rights groups, a proactive judiciary, a boisterous media and a laissez-faire polity have allowed the confrontation in Balochistan to become a military vs nationalists war.
Incessant criticism of the military and its agencies, either in the form of the ‘missing persons’ issue or about the use of force against nationalist groups, is used persistently to question the military’s credibility. While such resistance aims at limiting the military’s preponderant influence over policy formulation, an unintended consequence is to also restrict its space for effective operation against these secessionist groups.
Under such restrictive regimes of operation, when a secessionist movement rages on without check, and the military’s power and that of the Frontier Corps – the two contending forces – is rescinded under judicial scrutiny, these forces allegedly resort to using militant groups such as the LeJ to fight the war and save the state from the larger threat of fragmentation. That is no easy logic to validate any blood – least of all of the helpless Hazaras – but the contributors to this consequence are many and all need to take the blame. Isn’t the incumbent IG known to have had links with the LeJ while posted in Punjab?
The FC’s current duties in aid of civil power, as determined by the political authorities in Balochistan, are to control borders and to check smuggling of arms and ammunition – nothing else. Checking the smuggling of all other commodities comes under the provincial law-enforcement agencies, as part of internal law and order. Why groups such as the LeJ then resort to killing the Hazara lies in the doctrinal genesis of their formation in the first place, as much as in the freedom with which these groups operate under patronage.
There is a popular belief that Balochistan is also undergoing a subtle proxy war between Shia Iran and the Sunni Gulf states. It may all point to the creation and support of the Jundallah by the CIA in Balochistan to intrude into Iran; this may have alternately given cause to the contending presence of mutually inimical forces. And then along came the money from the Gulf and various other Sunni contraptions, including the LeJ, to stage another theatre of gory blood. The Hazaras became the unfortunate fodder for this. Is India too partaking off this incredibly combustible mix? Why not?
There cannot be a more convenient moment than the opportunity offered by the current context to look for pay back for Pakistan’s alleged involvement in Kashmir. Such tragic manifestation of deep politico-military misconception can only be dealt with by the application of an equally wide-spectrum politico-military correction in policy and implementation that should include responsibility and ownership by all facets of the state to treat the malaise in Balochistan.
Disaggregation will help in understanding the underlying nuances, thereby enabling the right remedy. Clubbing it all under one banner can be counterproductive and grievously harmful.
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff.