The terrorist attack on the Police Training Centre in Manawan on March 30 underlined the mounting challenge terrorism poses to Pakistan. A small group of well-trained and ideologically motivated attackers carried out the assault in a coordinated manner. Though the attackers were neutralised in eight hours by the Elite Force, Pakistan Rangers and the Army, the attack displayed the confidence these groups have gained to undertake a second high-profile raid in Lahore in March.
Pakistan is under siege by religious extremists and hard-line groups that are using violence in an indiscriminate manner to create fear among the people and threaten the Pakistani state in pursuit of their narrow, intolerant and bigoted socio-political agenda in the name of Islam.
The menace of extremism and terrorism has now become the major internal threat to Pakistan. The recent attacks in Lahore and suicide bombings elsewhere, coupled with increased religious-sectarian killings, aim at discrediting the state and causing insecurity among the people. They expose the inadequacies of Pakistani state institutions to protect the lives and property of its citizens.
If such groups continue to carry out attacks at the times and places of their choosing, the state cannot sustain its primacy. Such attacks also aim at undermining Pakistan’s reputation at the international level and isolating it from the rest of the world. If Pakistan is isolated internationally, terrorist groups will find it easy to paralyse the state and establish their authority in mainland Pakistan.
This growing threat has not produced a broad consensus in political circles about terrorism and how the state and society should cope with it. The overall disposition of official and non-official circles towards terrorism is generally ambiguous, and they lack the much-needed unity of mind on who is to blame and how this problem should be handled. This confusion runs deep in society as well as government, as well as the military and intelligence agencies. Divided or weak political will is the main reason for the inability of the Pakistani state and society to cope with terrorism.
The media and political leaders described the March 30 terrorist attack as ‘an act to destabilise Pakistan’, a ‘conspiracy against the people of Pakistan’, and termed the terrorists ‘enemies of Pakistan’. However, the shared perspective falters when it comes to who did it and what should be done to cope with the growing menace of religious extremism and terrorism.
Only three political parties take a clear and categorical position on the issue, and they openly identify the groups involved — the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. Most other parties maintain varying degrees of vagueness on the issue, at times avoiding blaming a group and instead holding the government responsible for not providing security to the people.
The PMLN is indecisive on three key issues: religious extremism and terrorism; who should be blamed; and how Pakistan should deal with it. Nawaz Sharif shies away from taking a categorical position on this matter. However, some of his close associates, including Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, have declared that the war on terrorism is not Pakistan’s war and that Pakistan is serving the interests of others.
Commenting on the Manawan attack, Sharif said that “no Muslim or Pakistani can engage in bloodshed of his brothers.” It is interesting to note that when a terrorist was arrested outside the police training centre, the first thing he said to the security forces was that he was a Muslim. Most of the people engaged in such activities view themselves as genuine Muslims and are convinced that those who do not subscribe to their religio-political worldview are bad or misguided Muslims.
Another popular theme with the PMLN regarding the two terrorist attacks in Lahore is that the security arrangements were weakened in Lahore due to the removal of Shahbaz Sharif’s provincial government, the imposition of Governor’s Rule, and the resulting transfers of a number of bureaucrats and police officials.
Islamist political parties often act as the political front of the militants, defending their activities with one explanation or another. At times, political parties and various people condemn terrorism and suicide attacks in principle. However, when it comes to the involvement of the Taliban or mainland-based groups, they either avoid comment or give obscure explanations.
Some such explanations are: these attacks are sponsored by the adversaries of Pakistan like India, Afghanistan and Israel to destabilise Pakistan; the US wants to destabilise and divide Pakistan in order to justify taking control of its nuclear programme; Pakistan’s participation in the global war on terrorism alienates the Taliban and other militant groups who retaliate in different ways; if Pakistan stops playing the American game in the region, the Taliban and other militant groups would again become Pakistan’s friends as they have nothing against Pakistan; terrorist activities are a reaction to injustice faced by the Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir and elsewhere.
These explanations do not focus on the ideological and power ambitions of militant groups; they want to establish their territorial domain at the expense of the Pakistani state for advancing their ideological agenda in Pakistan and abroad. These explanations also shift the blame of violence in Pakistan to ‘foreign devils’ and their ‘anti-Islam’ policies. The argument is that others have wronged Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslims; that needs to be rectified if terrorism is to be stopped.
Such a mindset developed gradually because of the carefully orchestrated policies and administrative strategies of the military government of General Zia-ul Haq and the army and intelligence agencies from the mid-1980s. The army/intelligence agencies continued to pursue these policies even after the restoration of civilian government in 1988.
A generation has been socialised into religious orthodoxy and militancy, which continues to sympathise with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. A half-hearted attempt was made in 2002-2003 to pull back from open support for militancy, but the Musharraf government could not pursue this to its logical conclusion because it needed to woo the MMA to hold on to power.
This pro-militancy mindset consciously cultivated by the Pakistani establishment has resulted in divided thinking on terrorism in non-official and official circles, including the security and intelligence apparatus. The argument that terrorism is a threat to Pakistan does not necessarily mean that they think Pakistan’s counter-terrorism is justified or that militant groups are responsible for Pakistan’s predicament.
The opposition parties view the government’s counter-terrorism policy from their partisan interests. They are not willing to help the government overcome the problems caused by intellectual disarray on terrorism in society and state institutions. It seems that the government will continue to find it difficult to pursue a coherent and sustained counter-terrorism policy.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Reproduced by permission of DT