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Pakistan and the crucible of terror

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  • Imtiaz Gul

    Centre for Research and Security Studies

In Brief

Within days of 11 September 2001, Pakistan became an inseparable element in calculations about responding to al-Qaeda. Not only was Pakistan seen as a potential springboard for punitive action against the transnational organisation, but it also came to be regarded as a crucible of terrorism.


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Pakistan’s global image today is rooted in preconceptions about the country’s role in international terrorism. It is often thought that the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are hiding and operating in Pakistan. Another is that sections of the Pakistani military establishment maintain close links with such Islamist radical groups.

These entrenched preconceptions form part of the global discourse on counter-terrorism that continues to stigmatise Pakistan. The situation is not without debilitating socio-political and economic costs. Pakistan has lost over 50,000 people since becoming part of the US-led war on terror. Pakistan’s economy has suffered a US$78 billion loss in the last decade due to terrorism alone.

Is Pakistan alone responsible or did US-led global geopolitics help suck it into this dire situation?

In the 1980s, to counter the Soviet Union’s invasion in Afghanistan, young jihadis (‘holy warriors’) were trained in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous, practically lawless western border tribal areas. Since then, the area has served as a training ground for terrorist activities both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2007, these terrorist networks in Pakistan have frequently targeted political leaders, tribal leaders, minority Shia and schools as well as the military and the police.

Some of the world’s most wanted and dangerous terrorists have been captured or killed through covert US intelligence operations or drone attacks in Pakistan. The Pakistani government estimates that more than 60 militant outfits are operating both overtly and covertly in Pakistan.

On 15 June 2014, the Pakistani army finally launched Zarb-e-Azb, a military operation to destroy and disrupt al-Qaeda-linked terrorist networks holed up in North Waziristan. Since then, the military claims to have killed over 500 mostly foreign militants.

It is ironic that the military had to move against those very groups that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had once funded and trained, with CIA support, to counter the Soviet threat in the region.

The high number of local and foreign terrorists in, or transiting through, Pakistan underlines a bitter unintended consequence of a free-for-all anti-Soviet jihad mission in the early 1980s. Militants have exploited Pakistan’s porous governance, leaking law enforcement and security apparatus, and inadequate legal and administrative structures. The security establishment’s inclination to maintain relations with non-state actors or use them as foreign policy instruments has served as a facilitating factor for global jihadists.

Global geopolitics has also contributed to Pakistan’s weakness in the face of radical Islam, particularly Washington’s campaigns against the Soviet Union and al-Qaeda. On both occasions, Pakistan found itself under the rule of military dictators who were looking for international legitimacy, and thus became willing partners in campaigns that were geo-political in nature but entailed disastrous socio-political consequences.

During the anti-Moscow jihad, Pakistani army-led authorities welcomed anyone from around the world. Despots ‘emptied their jails’ to help shore up the jihadi forces in Afghanistan, with the help of over US$6 billion that the CIA funnelled into the war.

This situation offered Pakistan an opportunity to realise its long-cherished dream of securing ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, by having a friendly and pliant government in Kabul, and so preclude the possibility of invasion from the west in a conflict with India. This at least was the premise when General Zia-ul-Haq (the then military ruler) decided to co-opt his security and intelligence apparatus into covertly fighting the CIA-funded war.

The US-led war on terror that began in October 2001 gave Pakistan another chance to stay relevant in Afghanistan and pursue ‘strategic depth’. Cooperation with the US-led coalition forces accompanied a quiet pursuit of the old policy that considered Afghan Taliban groups under Mullah Omar and the Haqqani Network to be ‘strategic assets’. It also meant condoning their command and control centres on Pakistani territory by looking the other way.

The Afghan Taliban took advantage of this and began drawing manpower from inside Pakistan. They also facilitated the movement of al-Qaeda-linked American, British, Uzbek and African Muslims through Pakistan, creating a double jeopardy for Islamabad — pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban and warlords in Waziristan began sheltering and helping local and foreign militants whom the Pakistan army was hunting.

Pakistan — unofficially and inadvertently — supports and sympathises with militant forces that qualify as extensions of the al-Qaeda-led conglomerate of global terrorism. The spirit of jihad that had been instilled in the minds of thousands eventually morphed into a quest for jihad aimed at ‘cleansing’ the world of US-led ‘satanic imperialism’.

Pakistan’s military used Islam to further its objectives. This was a huge risk which has had alarming consequences. General Zia-ul-Haq’s strategy involved indoctrinating Muslims with an extremist ideology for jihad in Afghanistan. During the CIA-led anti-Soviet war, radicalisation became a major policy instrument. Hundreds of religious schools were created to provide quick extremist education.

Not only was a significant faction of the Pakistani society radicalised, but the region also saw the emergence of several militant organisations. The Taliban’s control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan during the civil war was possible because of official and private support from multiple Pakistani sources. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were quick to recognise the Taliban regime.

These factors have all combined to render the country vulnerable to transnational Islamist networks. The official tolerance of religio-political groups with a radical pan-Islamist Weltanschauung creates space for the radicalisation of minds and even encourages radicals to peddle their anti-Western agenda, to the detriment of democracy.

There is a formidable challenge in reversing the consequences of Pakistan’s flawed policies of ‘strategic depth’ and containing the contagion of religious radicalisation. Until the government, and its entire security apparatus, drastically revises its strategic matrix, divorces itself from the radical groups it helped create and support, diagnoses the causes of internal insecurity, and draws up a comprehensive internal security strategy aimed at disrupting, destroying and pre-empting religious radicalisation, it will find it hard to shake off the image that Pakistan is the crucible of terrorism.

Imtiaz Gul is Executive Director, Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He is also the author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier and Pakistan: Before and After Osama.

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘The state and economic enterprise.

2 responses to “Pakistan and the crucible of terror”

  1. Mr Gul’s article seems a little schizophrenic. He seems to see fault in how Pakistan handles Islamic radicals, yet the bulk of his article seems to blame the evil US for leading the pure Pakistan state astray. He claims that Pakistan “unofficially and inadvertently supports” militant forces. No, that is the official policy of ISI which is the true ruler of Pakistan. The Afghan war against the Soviets ended in 1989, yet Pakistan founded the Taliban and used it to control Afghanistan after the war was over. Pakistan’s problem is the shame it feels over the wars they lost to India. This shame has burnt a black hole in soul of Pakistan which it believes it can heal with hatred of India and the US. How’s that going? Pakistan is a total mess and its government is trying to speed up the process and blame all their problems on the US and India. When Pakistan falls to Islamic radicals the Pakistani elite well run away to Dubai or the west and rejoin the billions of dollars they stole from the people of Pakistan. Mr Gul should plan on his exodus too also unless he wants to submit himself to the tender mercies of ISIS.

    • Quite a phoney comment -schizophrenic and based on old fantasies. Pakistan is here to stay, nor will we leave it

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