“There shall be no distinction between good and bad Taliban,” Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif exclaimed while chairing the All Parties Conference after the Peshawar school massacre on December 16. Sharif’s words were the ostensible curtain call on Pakistan’s decades-long policy of using Islamist militants to wage proxy jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Even so, there remained the small matter of affirmation from the military establishment that had founded and expounded the “strategic assets” as an integral part of the foreign policy of a state that has surrendered most of its pull-able strings to the Army.
“I see no reason why the Pakistan army would reverse its Good/Bad Taliban policy,” said Myra MacDonald author of Heights of Madness: The Siachen War, echoing the popular sentiment among the intelligentsia associated with South Asian security.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“The Peshawar attack, however heinous, does not actually change the overall security environment in the region,” she added.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, agreed: “While the ‘Good/Bad Taliban’ policy shall remain, the definition might be revised.”
The Litmus Test
The outcome of two high profile cases that emerged in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack will be decisive in revealing the official state stance on the Army’s customary policy of differentiating between militant organizations.
Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander and alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, was granted bail by an anti-terrorism court (ATC) two days after the attack in Peshawar. Lakhvi was, however, kept in jail after an abduction case was filed against him following a backlash over the previous verdict.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended Islamabad High Court’s detention order via the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) on January 7, which means Lakhvi will be in the Adiala Jail for at least another month.
Does the state’s effort to keep Lakhvi in jail mean that he is no longer being considered a strategic asset,” despite LeT’s historical significance as the Pakistan Army’s asset-in-chief in Kashmir?
“What we need to understand is that there’s a difference between the state and the courts,” said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who was posted in the tribal areas till 2005.
“The reason why criminals like Lakhvi escape is simply because of a lack of evidence. It does not reflect the official state policy,” he added.
Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which is believed to be the political wing of LeT, is another alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, and understandably among the bigger bones of contention jarring Indo-Pakistan ties post 26/11.
“Hafiz Saeed can openly give verdicts on terrorism in Pakistan because he has the popular backing of religious leaders and the politicians,” Munir said.
Reluctance to take action against Saeed, while seemingly intent on keeping Lakhvi behind bars seems to send mixed signals as far as Pakistan’s stance on alleged militancy in Kashmir is concerned.
“It depends on how India behaves. While Indian rhetoric is focused on arousing anti-Pakistan sentiment, the doves will remain silent in Pakistan and the jingoistic hawks will be on the loose,” believes Aamir Mughal, research analyst and a retired officer in the Pakistan government’s intelligence bureau.
Sectarian Head of the Monster
Almost parallel to the Lakhvi case, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) leader Malik Ishaq’s release was announced on December 23, only for a special court to remand him in judicial custody in a murder case. The leader of the banned anti-Shia militant organization, who has been charged in over a hundred cases, had been detained for inciting sectarian violence.
“The jihadi assets have become a liability for the state due to their sectarian nature and that’s what worries the Army. They wanted to use these jihadists against India, but were completely oblivious of the sectarian backlash within the state,” Mughal said.
“This is why in my opinion the state will not allow sectarian outfits the space which they used to enjoy before October 12, 1999 (the day Pervez Musharraf toppled Nawaz Sharif’s government)” he added.
LeJ, along with Siphah Sahaba Pakistan, the alleged militant wing of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), which is an ally of the current ruling party, has been orchestrating Shia killings all over the country, with Balochistan’s capital Quetta the most prominent stage for what many are dubbing an ongoing Shia genocide.
Pakistan Army has also been accused of shielding the Afghan Taliban and providing them safe havens in and around Quetta cantonment, where many believe Mullah Omar is hiding.
“I believe Mullah Omar is dead. No one has heard of him for over a decade,” Munir said adding that, “the conspiracy theories surrounding Army’s involvement in shielding the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network up north are mostly exaggerated.”
Munir further claimed that the Good/Bad Taliban policy has been shelved for quite some time.
“The Good/Bad Taliban policy has been obsolete for quite a few years,” he said.
“During my time in the tribal areas, there was clear instruction to not discriminate between the militants, at least in those zones. The conspiracy theorists thought that we would not take action against (TTP Leader) Gul Bahadur. But we did.”
Siddiqa hinted at a potential understanding between Pakistan and the US, vis-à-vis Afghan Taliban.
“Probably there is some kind of understanding with the U.S. regarding the Taliban which means that Pakistan will probably not be hyper about Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network but will make sure that some of them do get adjusted in the Afghan political setup,” she claimed.
Munir believes that the Army and ISI were guilty of negligence and not connivance in Osama Bin Laden’s case, claiming that the forces are united in the war against militancy in the northwest.
With Afghanistan accusing Pakistan of shielding the Afghan Taliban, India pointing towards LeT, China claiming that Uighur militants receive training from the TTP and Iran’s parliament passing a bill in April last year vying to improve security cooperation with Pakistan following a surge in cross-border attacks orchestrated by the al-Qaeda linked Jaishul Adl, Pakistan’s biggest security concern is one that the region collectively shares.
Is Pakistan doing enough to address the concerns of its neighboring countries?
“Honestly Pakistan has to redefine its position on militancy. Right now, it does not seem to be doing so. My fear is that over time the internal cost will increase. These people have stakes in jihad. They would want action. This certainly does not bode well for Pakistan’s position, but sadly there is no evidence that repositioning is being done,” said Siddiqa.
If Pakistan does not abandon the policy of discriminating between militant organizations, does it risk regional alienation? Has taking indiscriminate action against the jihadist become an existential question for Pakistan? Will Pakistan survive without a change in policy?
“Pakistan will survive because it has nuclear weapons and because it knows how to make itself useful – whether to the U.S. or China. The question isn’t about survival but whether the state has become so dysfunctional that it is no longer able to offer any hope to its citizens,” said MacDonald, going on to suggest that Pakistan have already passed the point of no return.
“More violence at home will lead to a strengthening of the security state (as we have already seen with the military courts) which in turn will lead to even more violence at home. I don’t think there is much that countries in the immediate neighborhood can do about that,” she added.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist covering human rights, security, militancy, diplomacy, energy and finance. He is web editor for The Nation and reporter/columnist for The Friday Times.