Pak ties itself in knots

The  attack on the Peshawar school is certainly the most horrific case of terrorist assault in South Asia. It is, however, not `Pakistan’s 9/11 and a turning point’.

Neither will it alter public opinion about jihad nor will it change Pakistan’s policy of support and deployment of terrorist groups as strategic instruments of the state. The attack, its reasons and Pakistan’s actions, nevertheless, have grave implications for Pakistan as a state, for India and Afghanistan, and the region as a whole.

The attack was carried out by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an assorted group of militants and insurgents based in Waziristan, a large swathe of `ungoverned` land abutting the contested Durand Line which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some significant reasons for the Peshawar attack could be gauged from the circumstances under which TTP was formed.

The TTP came into existence in December 2007, about five years after Pakistan Army began its first serious military operations against al Qaeda in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The military offensive, using gunships, artillery guns and combat jets, had killed scores of tribes people, largely innocent men, women and children, creating a growing sense of anger and alienation among the Pashtuns.

The TTP’s main target, in the initial phase, was military and intelligence personnel and assets.

Realising the gravity of creating another full blown insurgency on its western borders and the strong response from the tribal militant leaders, the army backtracked and offered peace pacts to assuage the tribes but with little success. As the military withdrew to its earlier standing positions, the militant tribal leaders consolidated their position and strengthened their military capability by utilising their associations with al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Uzbek militant groups. Many of the tribal leaders were part of Afghan jihad and had worked closely with these groups, besides Pakistan Army.

What makes TTP’s challenge for Pakistan more complex is that it is not merely an insurgent group; its alliance with global terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State  (IS) poses even greater threat than Pakistan’s older insurgency problem in Balochistan. Besides, its relationship with at least two key `agents` of the state—the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) or Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) – make it even more a difficult challenge.

The Haqqani Network has also been used to undermine Indian interests in Afghanistan by carrying out terrorist attacks against its embassy in Kabul and other consulates. The LeJ is a rabid anti-Shia group which has enjoyed patronage of both Pakistan Army as well as the political leadership. The group has also been instrumental in finding al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders’ safe houses in Pakistan, some of them in the tribal areas. The group also has considerable political clout in Punjab and has remained untouched by any `war on terror` till date.

Good and bad Taliban

This how Pakistan has tied itself in knots in dealing with terrorism. The Peshawar attacks and the actions taken by the state so far underline a simple but telling fact—the country’s leadership has certainly achieved a remarkable consensus that terrorism was indeed a major threat but is not yet ready to identify who the terrorists are.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifts the moratorium on death penalty, says there will be no distinction made between `good` and `bad` Taliban and declares that a new counter-terrorism policy will be in place sooner than later.

And, the man with the $10 million reward on his head, Hafiz Saeed, leader of global terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), however, remained free to declare another jihad against India even when Pakistan was supposed to be in mourning for the death of school children in another act of jihad.

There is no way Pakistan Army can withdraw its support and patronage of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network when the US and other international forces would be leaving Afghanistan in a matter of days, leaving the army to play a major role in the transition. The Peshawar attack is not going to deter the army from pursuing its long-held goal of establishing a `strategic space` in Afghanistan.

The only problem is that such a pursuit in the `graveyard of empires ` had only brought doom and disaster for major global military powers in the past, the US being the most recent. The consequences of this quest could only be suicidal for a country which is already riddled with growing poverty, spiralling radicalism and a blooming economic crisis.
For India, the biggest challenge in the near future would be to deal with two major countries on its western front, one with nuclear weapons, spiralling out of control with consequences not easy to fathom.

(The writer is Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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