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Teetering on the Brink

Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

First published in the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR)

Pakistan’s continuing engagement with the production and export of Islamist extremism and terrorism continued to produce a bloody blowback at home, with a total of at least 6,142 persons, including of 2,797 militants, 2,580 civilians and 765 Security Forces (SFs) personnel killed in 2011. However, even this worrying total constituted an improvement of 17.75 per cent over the preceding year. 7,435 persons, including 5,170 militants, 1,796 civilians and 469 SF personnel, had been killed in 2010.

While civilian and SF fatalities increased by whopping 43.65 and 63.11 percent, respectively, the steep decline (45.89 percent) in fatalities among the militants, primarily due to Islamabad’s approach of going soft on terror, was the sole reason for the decrease in overall fatalities through 2011.

Meanwhile, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik on August 2, 2011, informed the National Assembly that the SFs had arrested 3,143 alleged terrorists in the country and recovered 4,240 weapons from them over the preceding three years. However, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on December 24, 2011, expressed dissatisfaction over the slow disposal of cases in Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATC), over delays in submission of charge sheets and frequent adjournments being sought and granted to prosecuting and defence counsel in trial courts.

The country recorded at least 476 major incidents (involving three or more killings) of terrorism in 2011, in which 4,447 persons were killed. The fiercest of these attacks took place on May 13, 2011, when 90 people, including 73 Paramilitary Forces (PMF) personnel and 17 civilians, were killed by twin suicide bombers who attacked troops as they were about to leave a Frontier Corps (FC) Training Centre in the Shabqadar tehsil in the Charsadda District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). After the attack, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan declared, “This was the first revenge for Osama’s martyrdom. Wait for bigger attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The number of major attacks in 2010 stood at 662, inflicting a total of 6,088 fatalities.

There was, however, a dramatic decline in fatalities inflicted by suicide attacks, though the diminution in the total number of such attacks was not as sharp. 41 suicide attacks, inflicting 628 fatalities, were reported in 2011, as against 49 such attacks inflicting 1,167 fatalities in 2010. Revelations by Umar Fidayee (14), the teenage suicide bomber who was arrested as an accomplice in the suicide attack on the shrine of Sufi saint Ahmed Sultan, popularly known as Sakhi Sarwar, in the Dera Ghazi Khan District of Punjab on April 3, 2011, indicated that up to 400 suicide bombers were being trained in NWA, suggesting that little respite from such attacks was to be expected in the days to come.

The number of terrorist engineered explosions across Pakistan increased from 473 in 2010 to 639 in 2011, resulting in 1,547 and 1,092 fatalities, respectively. Sectarian violence also continued to haunt the troubled country, with at least 30 such incidents reported in 2011 as against 57 in 2010, resulting in 203 and 509 fatalities, respectively.

‘Target killings’ – a continuous stream of assassinations inspired by sectarian, political or purely criminal motives, and executed by a range of armed non-state actors – engulfed the nation. A February 14, 2012, Home Department Report observed, “Target killings still continue in most parts of the country and major reasons behind these are sectarian, demographic changes, easy access to illicit weapons, mistrust among ethnic groups, family enimities and business rivalries”. Significantly, official documents noted that, over the preceding four years, since the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition came into power in 2008, the Government had issued about 50,000 prohibited-bore arms licenses. The licenses had been issued to applicants from all the Provinces, allowing them to carry sub-machineguns and AK-47s for their ‘personal security’.

Meanwhile, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) remained the most volatile region, followed by KP, Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Gilgit-Baltistan, in terms of terrorism related fatalities. FATA recorded 3,034 fatalities in 2011, as compared to 5,321 in 2010; KP accounted for 1,026 fatalities in 2011, as compared to 1,212 in 2010; Sindh registered 1,054 fatalities in 2011, as compared to 238 in 2010; Balochistan had 711 fatalities in 2011, as compared to 347 in 2010; while Punjab recorded 137 fatalities in 2011, as compared to 317 in 2010.

While FATA continued to reel under the impact of terrorism, there was no respite from terror in KP as well. Sindh continued to experience a more centralized pattern of violence in and around Karachi. However, the extension of the influence of armed extremist political, ethnic, sectarian and criminal groups in the city, and the chances of violence spreading to other areas of the Province, could not be ruled out.

As in the past, Islamabad also failed through 2011, to devise any coherent or unified strategy against mounting intimidation and violence by terrorist groups in Punjab. Meanwhile, the policy of encouraging Islamist extremists, while using brute force against those demanding genuine rights and redressal of long standing grievances, in Balochistan deepened problems. The most dramatic and brutal instance of this strategy was witnessed in Karachi on January 31, 2012, when gunmen shot dead the 34 year old sister, Zamur Bugti, and her daughter, the 13 year old niece, of exiled Baloch leader Brahumdagh Bugti. Baloch sources have openly blamed Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), for the killing. In another context, Baloch nationalist leader and Senator Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo declared that Balochistan had been run by the ISI for all practical purposes for the last 15 years, with no civilian control over governance in the Province.

Moreover, the fundamentalists and extremists continued to exercise their uncontrolled sway across the country. At least two prominent personalities were killed for voicing their criticism of the country’s draconian blasphemy law – Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own security guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in Islamabad on January 4, 2011; and Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in the limits of the Industrial Area Police Station in Islamabad on March 2, 2011.

Meanwhile, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reiterated that schools in Pakistan continued to use textbooks that preach intolerance towards non-Muslim religious minorities. A USCIRF report stated that most teachers view non-Muslims as “enemies of Islam”. The Commission reviewed more than 100 textbooks from grades 1-10 from Pakistan’s four provinces. Indeed, charities from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates financed a network in Pakistan that recruited children as young as eight to wage “holy war”. A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks noted that Saudi Arabia was widely seen as funding some of Pakistan’s hardline religious madrassas (seminaries), which churn out young men eager for “holy war”. “At these madrassas, children are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy,” the cable noted.

A highly radicalized society and politics has created vast spaces for religious extremism and terrorism to thrive. The Federal Ministry of Interior released a list of 31 banned outfits in November 2011. Most of the organisations had been on earlier lists of proscribed organizations, but the People’s Aman Committee of Karachi, Shia Tulaba Action Committee, Markaz Sabeel Organisation and Tanzeem-i-Naujawanan-i-Sunnat of Gilgit-Baltistan, were new additions to the list. The list included several militant outfits which now operate under new names. Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), for instance, was on the list, but its new identity — Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) — was missing. Meanwhile, according to media reports, the Interior Ministry has increased the number of banned organisations to 38. Despite bans, however, the Government continued to avoid confrontation with most of these organizations, and little effective action has been initiated for their neutralization.

Meanwhile, all Jihadi groups, in consultation with the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan (the Mullah Omar led shadow Taliban Government which operates from Quetta), decided to set up a committee, Shura-e-Muraqba (Council for Protection), to set aside differences in their ranks and step up support for war against western forces in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s opportunistic alliance with the United States (US) deteriorated rapidly, even as the US announced the decision to withdraw ‘combat Forces’ from Afghanistan by 2014, providing a fillip to Pakistan-backed radicals to escalate their campaigns in Afghanistan.

In the most recent of a long chain of such incidents, at least 18 militants, among them foreigners, were killed when US drones fired missiles on a compound and a vehicle in different areas of South Waziristan Agency of the FATA on March 9, 2012. According to intelligence sources, up to 12 militants were killed when drones fired four missiles on the vehicle in the Jandool Mandow area of Shaktoi. In another incident, six Uzbek militants died when drones fired two missiles at a compound in Nesphah, 12 kilometers from Jandool Mandow.

Drone attacks had, in fact, been stalled in the aftermath of the strong Pakistani resentment over the killing of at least 25 Pakistani soldiers on November 26, 2011, in a cross border attack by NATO Forces on a check post in Salala village in Baizai tehsil (revenue unit) of Mohmand Agency in FATA. These were, however, resumed on January 10, 2012, when missiles fired by US drone killed four suspected militants in the outskirts of Miranshah in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of FATA. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, 2012 has so far witnessed at least eight drone attacks on Pakistani soil, in which 68 persons have been killed. 548 persons were killed in 59 such attacks in 2011; and 831 were killed in 90 drone attacks in 2010. 2,142 persons have been killed in drone strikes since 2005.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders, who had, earlier, privately supported US drone attacks, have developed sharp anxieties on this count during the course of 2011, and have repeatedly protested against US operations, including drone strikes, inside Pakistani territory, as a transgression of Pakistan’s sovereignty. US-Pak relations, consequently, continued to sour through 2011.

The first open confrontation followed the Raymond Davis case. Pakistan had been coerced by the US to release American official Raymond Davis, arrested for killing two men in Lahore in Punjab on January 27, 2011. Another blow to an already edgy relations was dealt on April 25, 2011, when official documents leaked by the WikiLeaks website disclosed that the US administration had placed Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, ISI, on a list of terrorist outfits alongside groups like Hezbollah, al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Before the storm over these issues could settle down, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Army operation at Abbottabad in KP on May 1-2, 2011, without ‘Pakistani knowledge’. When Pakistan made hue and cry over the issue, the US argued that the trust deficit between the Forces of the two countries precluded sharing of intelligence prior to the attack.

The NATO attack on November 26, 2011, brought relations to their nadir. Pakistan has since shut down all supply routes through the country for materials to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces stationed in Afghanistan, forcing NATO to rely increasingly on the relatively cumbersome Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Indeed, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report of December 19, 2011, the US had progressively increased reliance on the NDN with regard to non-military supplies since 2009, with as much as 40 per cent of cargo going through the NDN, and just 29 per cent transported through Pakistan. However, the Committee report noted that the NDN was not a perfect substitute for the current supply routes in Pakistan as it costs roughly an additional USD 10,000 per twenty-foot container to ship via the NDN instead of Pakistan. The US was forced to pay as much as six times more to send war supplies to troops in Afghanistan through these alternate routes, according to an Associated Press report.

Meanwhile, the worsening situation in Afghanistan has not helped US-Pakistan relations. According to a February 29, 2012, US Congressional Research Service report, as many as 3,021 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2011, as against 2,777 in 2010. The number of civilian fatalities stood at 2,412 in 2009, 2,118 in 2008 and 1,523 in 2007. 116 civilians had been killed in 2012 till the date of the report. Media reportage, meanwhile, indicated that Pakistan continued to play a pivotal role in the militant campaigns in Afghanistan. In one of the most high profile attacks of 2011, former Afghan President and head of the High Peace Council (HPC), Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated on September 20, 2011, with the finger of suspicion pointing to a Pakistani role in the assassination, which is currently being investigated. Pakistan also continues to support and encourage militants to continue attacks on ISAF forces. According to data compiled by the, a total of 566 ISAF personnel were killed in 2011 as against 711 in 2010. A total of 2,915 ISAF personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan since November 25, 2001.

Simmering border tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan between June and August, 2011, provided Pakistan an ‘opportunity’ to increase assistance to militants in securing control over a larger swathe of land in the border region. On June 18, 2011, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani told a visiting European delegation that “Pakistan wants a stable Afghanistan but not at the cost of Pakistan,” suggesting that Islamabad sought to dominate any peace initiative in Afghanistan and was unlikely to accept a solution that would undermine its purported strategic interests. Significantly, footprints of Pakistani terror continued to manifest themselves across the globe. In the most recent incident, nine British-Asians of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, arrested on December 20, 2010, were jailed in the UK on February 10, 2012, over an al Qaeda-inspired plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange and to organise a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. A US Congressional report observed that Islamist militant groups operating in and from Pakistan territory fell into five broad types: globally oriented militants, Afghanistan-oriented militants, India- and Kashmir-oriented militants, sectarian militants, and domestically oriented militants.

US efforts to bring peace in the region has also been adversely affected by Pakistan’s continued reluctance to act against various Afghan Taliban Forces operating from its soil, most significantly including the Haqqani Network, the most formidable force in Afghanistan operating from sanctuaries in NWA. Islamabad’s continuing patronage to other militant groups operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere the globe has added fuel to the fire. In a recent indictment, the Chairman of US Senate Committee on Armed Services, Senator Carl Levin, on February 16, 2012, said, “Pakistan’s support to the Haqqani Network is a major cause for US-Pakistan relations reaching a low point where they’re going to remain until the Pakistan military ends its ties to these extremists carrying out cross-border attacks.”

Unfortunately, the disastrous military-mullah combine continued to thrive. In one glaring instance, Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban, leader who suffered a heart attack on January 7, 2011, was reportedly treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with ISI help, according to a report prepared by the Eclipse Group, which operates an intelligence network run by former CIA, State Department and military officers. In another instance, a November 4, 2011, BBC report, confirmed that the ISI was behind the Mumbai attacks (November 26, 2008, also known as 26/11) as well as the July 7, 2008, bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. In a two-part series titled ‘Secret Pakistan’, Bruce Riedel, the CIA officer who served as advisor to US President Barack Obama, disclosed that he had informed the then President-elect about 26/11: “Everything pointed back to Pakistan. It was a defining moment.”

Meanwhile, the media continued to bear the brunt of both state and extremist ire. The SATP recorded at least nine journalists killed in 2011, the same number that were killed in 2010. The most prominent of such killings took place on May 31, 2011 when Syed Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative journalist for leading European and Asian media, was found dead near the town of Mandi Bahauddin, about 75 miles (120 kilometres) south of Islamabad. Shahzad had been tortured before being executed. Reports indicate that he had been ‘picked up’ by ISI agents before his ‘disappearance’ and the subsequent discovery of his body. The ISI’s involvement in the case is being ‘investigated’. More recently, on January 17, 2012, a senior tribal reporter, Mukarram Khan Atif, correspondent for the Washington-based Pashto language Deewa Radio and a reporter for a private TV channel, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants in the Shabqadar area of Charsadda District in KP. Meanwhile, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s media adviser Farahnaz Ispahani on January 24, 2012, alleged that she fled the country over fears that the ISI might abduct her to force her husband, former Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, to sign a confession and implicate the President in the MemoGate scandal.

On the political front, the MemoGate scandal created an upheaval that retains the potential to destabilize the ‘democratic setup’ of the country. Wikileaks had disclosed that the then Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, had asked Pakistani businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, to deliver an anonymous “memo” to the American military leadership in May 2011, offering to rein in the Pakistani armed forces in return for US support for the civilian Government. This resulted in a significant confrontation between the Army command and civilian Government in Pakistan, with the judiciary stepping in to ‘investigate’ treason charges against Haqqani.

A rising economic crisis is adding to the political instability in the country, with GDP growth stagnating at 2.4 per cent in fiscal year 2010-11, barely offsetting population growth, as compared to 3.8 percent in the preceding year, and the population in poverty burgeoning to an estimated 90 million out of a total population of about 177 million.

Conspicuously, as the US adventure in Afghanistan approaches a critical juncture, events in that country will have a critical bearing on Pakistan, even as developments in Pakistan will leave an inescapable impact on Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel has noted that the US needs to ‘reset’ its policy toward Pakistan, to contain the ambitions of the Pakistan Army, the ISI and the flourishing syndicate of terror, including groups like the LeT, if it is to hope for any success in Afghanistan. Pointing to President Obama’s promise to make the al Qaeda core, or al Qaeda al Umm (the mother al Qaeda), his top target if elected, Riedel noted, “The group’s [al Queda’s] allies and affiliates in Pakistan, by contrast, are under virtually no pressure,” adding, “Al Qaeda is on the defensive in Pakistan, but its many allies and affiliates are on the march”.

The incoherence of US policy and strategy in Afghanistan can only add to instability in the AfPak region. Despite noting that aid given to Pakistan to fight militancy had been diverted ‘for other purposes’, US aid continued to flow into the country. The US State Department requested Congress to approve USD 2.4 billion towards allocations for Pakistan for the fiscal year 2013. USD 20 billion has already been pumped into Pakistan over the last decade and over a billion dollars had been provided under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill.

Despite the US-Pakistan relationship approaching its nadir, and Pakistan’s continuing domestic crises, there is little to suggest that Pakistan is going correct course and to improve, in the foreseeable future, its current rank, as the 12th among the countries approaching state failure. Indeed, available indices suggest that none of the power players in the country have altered the fundamentals of their devastating, indeed, suicidal, approach to the instrumentalization of Islamist extremism and terrorism, both for domestic political management and for strategic extension across and beyond the country’s neighbourhood. Increasing cooperation, outside state patronage, among Islamist extremist formations, under umbrella organizations such as the Shura-e-Muraqba and the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council (DePC) (the latter, forging unity between more than 40 religious and extremist formations under the leadership of the LeT-JuD), creates the spectre of even greater radicalization and a progressive loss of control by state agencies that have, in the past, ‘handled’ Islamist terrorism in the region. A flight of elites from the country has long been in evidence, even as those who remain within the country build up their assets abroad for eventual and quick escape. The progressive evisceration of state structures and institutions of governance, the visible weakening of the Army’s stranglehold over the country’s affairs, and the increasing accumulation of armed force among non-state actors can only combine with rising popular frustrations and anger against arbitrary, repressive, indiscriminate and often brutal state action against groupings that seek justice and redressal of real grievances, to push the country further into the embrace of a rising anarchy.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).