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Is Pakistan finally getting serious about tackling Islamist terrorism? On the face of it, events this month look promising, or at least more promising than they’ve looked in a long time.
On June 15, a week after an audacious terrorist strike on Karachi airport that killed 28 people, the army finally launched a long-awaited assault on one of the country’s deadliest terrorist groups, the Taliban movement of Pakistan, or TTP. But even if troops manage to take control of the TTP’s militant-infested sanctuary in North Waziristan, a longstanding U.S. demand, the ongoing operation won’t be enough to turn Pakistan’s fortunes around. For that, Islamabad must act against radical Islamist groups more broadly, including those nurtured by the army itself.
But first the good news: For the first time since 2009, when TTP militants alarmed many Pakistanis by imposing a crude form of Shariah law on the Swat Valley just 100-odd miles from Islamabad, Pakistan has cobbled together a viable coalition against a radical Islamic group. Virtually all major mainstream Pakistani politicians, including the Taliban’s leading apologist in public life, Imran Khan, publicly support the army operation. Those who implausibly expected negotiations with the thuggish TTP are silent.
Pakistan’s media has been awash with support for “our boys” on the frontline. It has regurgitated without question unlikely tales of fighter jets bombarding terrorists while miraculously avoiding harm to civilians, and kind-hearted soldiers filled with compassion for the average North Waziristan resident. In contrast, the UNHCR estimates that the fighting has uprooted more than 400,000 people.
To be sure, few groups are as singularly unsympathetic as the TTP. Their bloody record includes the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the 2012 shooting of teenage activist Malala Yousafzai for the high crime of favoring education for girls. Many analysts believe the group was responsible for the 2008 bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel.
In parts of the country, the TTP, which preaches a hardline version of Sunni Islam, has become notorious for execution-style killings of Shia civilians. The Pakistani scholar Hassan Abbas likens TTP to the bloodthirsty al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He believes “a TTP-ISIS alliance is only a matter of time.”
In its offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan, Pakistan appears to have put in place the essential elements of any successful homegrown strategy against radical Islamic violence. There is common purpose between the army and civilian politicians, the support of much of the media, and a narrative that portrays the terrorists as antithetical to the Islamic values they claim to represent. By naming the operation after a sword used by the prophet Muhammad himself in an historic battle, the army sidesteps the charge that attacking Islamist terrorists is the same as attacking Islam.
Unfortunately, this isn’t enough. Beyond the anger of a nation roused to revenge after years of suffering, there’s little evidence that the fundamentals of Pakistan’s outlook toward terrorism have changed.
Simply put, Pakistan is battling the TTP not because it is a group of Islamist terrorists, but because TTP turns its guns not just against religious minorities like the Shia or NATO forces in Afghanistan or Indians in Kashmir, but against the Pakistani establishment.
Neither the Pakistan army nor its notorious spy service, Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, has reconsidered its deadly habit of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” jihadists. Not surprisingly, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, widely regarded as among the ISI’s favorite jihadists, loudly backs the army operations in North Waziristan.
Two years ago, the U.S. announced a bounty of $10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mr. Saeed for his alleged involvement in terrorist attacks, including the 2008 strike on Mumbai that killed more than 160 people, among them six Americans. On Wednesday, the U.S. added four L-e-T aliases to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, and two L-e-T leaders to its list of specially designated global terrorists.
Equally dangerous, and as well protected, is the Haqqani Network. In 2011, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen called the terrorist group “a veritable arm” of the ISI after Haqqani fighters attacked the U.S. embassy in Kabul and nearby NATO headquarters.
Along with the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis have concentrated their firepower on NATO and Indian targets in Afghanistan, rather than on Pakistan. But in terms of their penchant for violence and their core beliefs—that society and the state must submit to their interpretation of Shariah—the so-called “good Taliban” are no better than the TTP.
To be sure, Pakistan’s new willingness to fight one terrorist group is a step up from doing nothing. But unless the government and military begin to battle all violent Islamists, not merely the ones who won’t play ball with the ISI, even the most successful operation in North Waziristan will do little to change the fundamentals that made Pakistan such a congenial place for jihadists to begin with.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He tweets @dhume.
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