Fixing a conventional problem

Published August 10, 2014
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE free and unchecked activities of welfare or charity wings of banned organisations in the camps set up for the internally displaced from North Waziristan are once again in the news.

As the government faces criticism from some quarters for its failure to implement the administrative aspects of a ban, many argue that a legal declaration putting certain groups on the list of those ‘banned’ cannot solve the problem by itself.

Pakistan’s militant landscape is diversifying in discourse and outreach, making it difficult to assess the potential threat it could pose. Populated with militant groups formed during the Afghan-Soviet war and terrorist cells that have appeared in recent years, a diverse militant landscape has emerged in the country. Many of these militant groups’ ideological and political aspirations overlap but each group tries to achieve those aspirations in a distinct and exclusive way, which keeps them on different courses.

Most of the militant groups in Pakistan operate underground, and the ordinary Pakistani has little information about them. However, some of these groups are quite visible on the surface but only through their welfare and charity wings, which create ambiguity in the minds of the people about these groups’ militant credentials.

Most militant groups in Pakistan operate underground, but some are quite visible through their welfare wings.

Though these groups are not involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan, their breakaway factions and individuals had empowered Al Qaeda and tribal militants. But at the moment, many of these groups are trying to become part of far-right politics in Pakistan. For that purpose, they are gradually detaching themselves from anti-state militant groups.

These militant groups can be described as conventional jihadist organisations. They were established earlier in connection with the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s and later their operational scope was expanded to fight in Indian-held Kashmir. The purpose of the establishment of these groups was to fight proxy wars for the state and to safeguard its strategic interests in the region.

Though these groups were formed to achieve certain strategic objectives, their ideological foundation rested on religion and Pakistani nationalism, ie a separate identity based on the two-nation theory. They believe that Pakistan’s independence movement would culminate with the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. Jamaatud Dawa goes a step further and demands the merger of what were then India’s Hyderabad and Junagadh states with Pakistan arguing that both states had announced their annexation to Pakistan after partition in 1947.

While these groups have had clear nationalistic tendencies, which limited the scope and target of their militant struggle, blending this nationalistic discourse with religion was an area where they enjoyed a great deal of independence.

The groups formed during the Afghan-Soviet war had strong religious credentials, while the groups that came into existence in Kashmir were, in the beginning, nationalist in character. Gradually, the former came to dominate the Kashmiri nationalist groups, which also changed the composition of the militant movement in Kashmir. Some Kashmir-based groups which had strong faith-based credentials, like Hizbul Mujahideen, succeeded in gaining a prominent role in the ‘jihad’.

The strength of religious credentials played a critical role in shaping the jihad movements both in Afghanistan and Kashmir. These militant groups were free to use religion to glorify their movement, in recruitment, even differentiating themselves from each other. State institutions allowed them to play with religion as long as they were serving their cause.

Later, in an effort to enhance their religious credentials, many of these groups established links with international organisations, and started thinking of operating independently. The nationalist cause started losing its attraction and appeal; the process was speeded up especially after 9/11.

When, after 9/11, some conventional militant groups decided to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against the international coalition forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security establishment realised for the first time that religion was an area in which it could not be certain of its control over these groups. Especially after the assassination attempts on Gen Musharraf by some militants associated with Kashmir-based groups, the establishment began to realise that these groups may no longer serve as proxies.

These groups were banned under international pressure at a time when they were facing internal crises and external pressure. Their leadership was arrested, or went underground, which caused rifts among the lower cadres that started fleeing to the tribal areas to join tribal-based and international groups there.

Over time, these groups developed expansive infrastructures including schools, madressahs and health centres across the country, and came to have properties, offices and organisational networks, which were difficult for their leadership to surrender. This forced them to gradually revert to their traditional nationalist agendas. As this nationalist cause had little attraction for new associates and some members of the groups, they started to join other militant groups such as the Punjabi Taliban and violent sectarian organisations.

Interestingly, this happened at a time when religious-political parties of Pakistan, considered by many as puppets of the security establishment, had started efforts to shed their image as ‘B teams’ of ‘dictators’. These parties had served the purpose of the far-right in the ’80s and ’90s. The space was there, and conventional militant groups started filling this void, while forming alliances like the Defence of Pakistan Council.

There is no doubt that the far-right retains the po­tential to trigger violent campaigns; in particular, those with a militant past can cause more damage. However, to cope with the current diverse militant landscape of Pakistan, what should the state prioritise? The answer is obvious but, on the other hand, the state needs an innovative approach to deal with conventional groups.

The state can take steps to reintegrate individuals and even conventional groups into society. Many measures can be taken, and a reintegration model built, but two issues need to be addressed: the first relates to the political will of the state and the second pertains to how the state will satisfy the concerns of the international community about some militant groups.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, Aug 10th, 2014



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