Pakistan: Stuck In A Cul-De-Sac – Analysis


Pakistan, a state created in the name of Islam, is today divided along linguistic, ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines. It also claims to be the ‘heart of Asia’, making any observer want to ask, ‘a wounded, bleeding heart?’ While it is beset with domestic issues that directly threaten the well-being of the nation as a whole—unrest in Baluchistan; the on-going military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); and the rapidly increasing sectarian violence against minorities—Pakistan is attempting a rather bizarre re-invention of itself as a progressive Muslim nation. This attempt is reliant on the creation of a non-Muslim threat as a rallying point to focus the population away from domestic challenges. Accordingly Pakistan has drummed up the rhetoric of Indian intervention and the hidden hand of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), the external intelligence agency of the Indian Government in recent months. This is at best an ostrich-like approach to its own security and the very real threat of disintegration on sectarian and tribal lines.

A General Appraisal

Although Pakistan’s officialdom vehemently and repeatedly denies it, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Pakistan uses terrorism in different garbs as a tool of foreign policy, especially in its dealings with India and Afghanistan. Pakistan has always aided, abetted, facilitated and protected terrorists, dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists; the good being the groups that toes the line and does its bidding, and the bad being the ones that create inconvenient domestic disturbances. In doing so it has emerged as a master at playing the double game, a duplicity that the Bush administration was unable to fathom in the early days of the ‘war against terrorism’. The Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, on-going from around 2006, is completely Pakistan supported, being controlled by the Army and ISI through the Frontier Corps. There is no indication that Pakistan wants to, or is attempting to, reign in the active Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Yemen crisis was a wakeup call for the Pakistani Government and the Army. So far they had adroitly played the nations of the Middle-East to their advantage. However, when the call came from Saudi Arabia for military participation in the Arab coalition, the reality of the situation hit the establishment. Whatever the agony involved, Pakistan had to say a direct ‘no’ to its benefactor for two reasons. First, the sectarian nature of the Yemen conflict made it impossible for the Pakistani Parliament to endorse a Sunni-biased military intervention. Second the Army found that it had no spare capacity to deploy to the Middle-East when they were in the midst of an intense counter-insurgency operation in North Waziristan. After the denial Pakistan has tried desperately to make amends through intense diplomacy, but the pragmatists in government and the Army know that it will not be business as usual anymore with the major nations of the Middle-East. Even so, Pakistan is unwilling to take sides in the increasingly confused politics and developing crises of the Middle-East—the conflict against the Islamic State (IS); the Sunni-Shia sectarian fights; and the Saudi-Iran stand-off.

The current Nawaz Sharif Government is caught in a cleft stick; it needs the support of the military to stay in power while its political support stems from the right-wing, the madrasa establishment. The deteriorating internal security situation has forced the government to accept the upper hand of the military. However, this balancing act cannot be continued for the long-term and there is always the possibility of a popular backlash, contrived by the religious right. Even without a political crisis the drift of the civilian government could continue till the next elections, scheduled for 2018.

There is clear and unambiguous evidence of the emergence of a cleric-criminal nexus functioning against the minorities. A number of militant religious groups have been indirectly state supported since the 1980s and their persecution of the Shia, Christian and Hazara minorities has somewhat discomfited the government. The situation is exacerbated by the lethargy in dispensing justice and the absence of any witness or prosecution protection in terror-related cases that makes people wary of violent extremism within the criminal justice system.

Other than the domestic sectarian violence and terrorist threat, there are two major internal issues that keeps Pakistan in a turmoil—the unrest in Baluchistan and the Army involvement in governing the State.

The Baluchistan Issue

There has been a festering dissident movement demanding greater autonomy in Baluchistan for decades. However, the agitation intensified after the popular Baluch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, was killed in a military operation on 26 August 2006. The official government response to the agitation has been based on physical suppression. Baloch dissidents have been killed and dumped on the roadside or have ‘vanished’. It is generally believed that government agencies are behind the killings, although these agencies have resorted to falsification of evidence to show that they were not involved. The Protection of Pakistan Ordnance (PPO) gives the Army a free hand and the power to arrest and detain any ‘suspect’. More worryingly, it gives the Army the authority to shoot anyone committing, or ‘likely to commit’ any terror-related offences. This gives a carte blanche for the Army to pursue its own agenda in the region; the Frontier Corps, a para-military force, functions outside the law of the Baluch Government.

The Pakistan Supreme Court recognises the extra-judicial killings and have reprimanded the Government, which in turn pleads its inability and helplessness to stop them. Since the beginning of the dissident movement, it is estimated that the Pakistan Army and other government agencies have been responsible for 21,000 persons going ‘missing’. The question of the missing persons in Baluchistan has become sensitive enough for the government agencies to now try and silence the media through a targeted and focused campaign of assassination. By all accounts, 30 journalists have so far been killed. A classic case was the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, a women’s rights activist, in early May this year.

Baluchistan is resource-rich and the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, although it is sparsely populated with only seven million residents. Despite its vast natural resources, it is also Pakistan’s poorest province. There are a number of Baluch ‘Liberation’ militant formations that are listed by the Baluchistan government as being anti-national and are being targeted as part of a ‘smart and effective security policy’. Along with this, Islamabad has followed a strategy of supporting armed Islamic extremist militant groups that function as proxies of the State in the province. The situation has been purposely aggravated, almost like a smoke screen to cover up the extremely brutal suppression of Baluchi aspirations that is taking place on a daily basis. The tragic cycle of events—the killing of ethnic Baluchi people by the security forces and the retaliatory attacks on non-Baluchi residents—tells a story of Pakistan’s repeated failures.

The Army – In a World of its Own

The Army has been carrying out Operation Zarg-e-Azb in North Waziristan, against the insurgents, since June 2014. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) responded on 16 December 2014 with the infamous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in which 132 students were massacred. It is interesting that initially the operation was a unilateral Army decision with very reluctant civilian government support garnered after its commencement. However, the Peshawar school attack by the insurgents made it easier for politicians to support the on-going Army action. The terrorists unwittingly played into the hands of the Army by perpetrating this brutal and sadistic attack on school children.

The Army initiated and ratified a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) to tackle terror, listing a number of initiatives with very ‘noble’ intent. One of the major initiative was the establishment of the Military Courts to try terrorists, facilitated through amending the Constitution as well as the 1952 Army Act. These courts entail the risk of irreversible miscarriage of justice with no recourse to appeal for the accused, a point that brings into question their legal veracity. There is only fragile support for the Military Courts and a number of religious groups are directly opposed to it. Reading between the lines it can be seen that the democratically elected civilian Government is now incapable of coping with the internal security issues that envelope the nation, especially the dissonance that comes with religious extremism, and has turned to the Army for assistance. The Army has used this situation to entrench its position in the body politic of the nation as an indispensable protector of its sovereignty.

The NAP is supposed to usher in a policy of ‘enlightened moderation’; and recognises the need to regulate the madrasas if the virulent tide of Islamic radicalisation that is sweeping the country is to be controlled and eventually reversed. However, other than the Military Courts that have started to function, the NAP so far seems to be a paper exercise. A lack of political will to follow through with the lofty ideals set out in the Plan is transparently visible. Further, with the ISI itself radicalised to a great extent the NAP is unlikely to bear any tangible result, irrespective of the intentions of the Army.

Currently there is a visible lack of support for liberal activists, who are being targeted at will across the country by the religious extremist elements, the right-wingers. Already embroiled in the Tribal region, the Army is unwilling and perhaps also lacks the capacity to effectively interference in this deteriorating situation. Lip service is all that is available at the moment to the liberal activists. In the latest disturbing development, the IS has made deep inroads in Karachi and some other parts of the nation. They exploit the historical fault lines of the Sunni-Shia rift and stock anti-Shia sentiment to which the State has so far closed its eyes. The anti-Shia sentiment seems to be legitimised by the Sunni Ulama religious organisation that has been State-backed since the 1950s.

Sectarian demagoguery is increasing in the entire nation. In Karachi, the Federal Government has initiated a drive against gangsters and terrorists, since 5 September 2013. The partial success of this drive has had unfortunate consequences in that it has provided increased space for the more radical Islamist fanatics to operate. Pakistan today is dominated by unconstrained religious extremism and the arrival of the IS into the mix increases the threat of sectarian violence exponentially. The politico-army arrangement provides only a tiny shimmer of hope in this darkness. Another fall-out of the military lead in securing the country is that the situation definitely diminishes the strength of civilian institutions, which can have long-term detrimental effects to Pakistan evolving into a truly democratic State. It looks as if the wheel is coming full circle in Pakistan with the relevance of democracy being covertly questioned. The only difference this time is that the Army is content to play the puppet master rather than perform on the centre stage.

Looking at the manner in which the elected Government and the Army is going about trying to secure the nation, it seems that Pakistan does not understand the need to institute radical change—it is still pursuing reckless policies without any thought for the security of the nation, and is being driven purely by religious ideologies and compulsions that have become entrenched in its body politic.

Pakistan – Afghanistan’s Challenge  

Afghanistan and Pakistan have historical misunderstandings at the strategic level and continue to nurture them. The new National Unity Government in Afghanistan, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has made overtures to Pakistan to create a conducive atmosphere to usher in peace. An agreement on intelligence sharing has been signed between the ISI and its Afghan counterpart National Directorate of Security (NDS) with the aim of making Pakistan alter its policy towards Afghanistan. This is a simplistic approach from an inexperienced Afghan Government and has already cost the President political support at home. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Pakistan is critical to peace in Afghanistan, since the Taliban is dependent on Pakistan’s support to continue their insurgency. Pakistan’s Afghan policy is purely Army controlled. There is also a viewpoint that over a period of time the Taliban have gradually become more independent, especially after the withdrawal of NATO forces, and therefore, the influence that Pakistan has over their activities is in decline and exaggerated; although this change in the equation is something that cannot be categorically verified.

Almost immediately after signing the agreements, the Afghan President criticised Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in the Taliban who have refused to come to the negotiating table. In all this flurry of activity, of accusations and counter-accusations, a long term vision for peace in Afghanistan is not discernible. The activities are all at the tactical level and the political process that is critical to further peace initiatives at the strategic level cannot be detected. At the moment, the Taliban continue to move across the Durand Line, the de facto border between the two countries, at will in either direction with no effort visible from Pakistan to stop this cross-border incursions. Even China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, has not been able to persuade it to take effective steps to stop cross border terrorist activities. In this confusing game of decision and indecision, the IS has been making steady inroads into the region.

As in most cases of terrorist activities emanating from its soil, Pakistan has maintained a completely different narrative regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had expected Pakistan to ensure that the Taliban would not start their customary ‘Spring Offensive’ this year, but Pakistan has not obliged. The Afghan-Pakistan relationship is fragile, to put it mildly. The distrust continues and last week Afghan lawmakers accused Pakistan of providing refuge to Taliban leaders on their side of the border. In turn Pakistan has resorted to its age old strategy of declaring that it has nothing to do with the Taliban and washing its hands off the entire issue. In comparison the original ‘washer of hands’, Pontius Pilate, would have been put to shame.

Underlying this charade is the fact that Pakistan considers Afghanistan as a contested territory with India, mainly for influence. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, Pakistan was acutely aware of the need to keep on the right side of the United States, and accordingly resorted to double-dealing. On the one hand they train, promote and export terror and extremists, while also giving the impression of fighting them. Under these circumstances Pakistan is unlikely to force the Taliban into peace talks. The question however remains—do they have that kind of influence on the Taliban anymore? The double-dealing seems to have so far achieved its purpose, since the US continues to pump in aid to the country, while it continues to train and export terrorists.

The India Factor

Pakistan invariably accuses India for any mishap that takes place inside their country. The proverbial foreign hand is always blamed. So it is no surprise that Pakistan accuses the R&AW, of fomenting trouble in Baluchistan and the tribal areas, although no convincing evidence has been produced. Anti-India propaganda has been an on-going norm in Pakistan for decades and clever media strategies have increased the magnification of the allegations. The Army increases the pitch of the rhetoric whenever there is a need to muddy the waters when it becomes necessary to distract and mislead the domestic public opinion or to thwart foreign policy initiatives from India that is perceived as being against the interests of Pakistan. The recent case of the Army propaganda machine going into overdrive during the Indian Prime Minister’s official visit to China is an illustrative example. The move was meant to scuttle any rapprochement between India and China. An anti-India stance has always been, and continues to be, the one single focus of Pakistan in all aspects of its national interest.

The Blind US and All-seeing Pakistan

The US strategy—if it can be called a strategy—in its dealings with Pakistan has always been based on what the US wants to believe rather than on ground realities. The US wants to believe that Pakistan is trying to defeat and neutralise the Taliban, while in actuality the Taliban could not have withstood the onslaught of the US and its allies and continued as a fighting force without the active support of Pakistan. In Afghanistan the US is fighting the Taliban, who is being supported by Pakistan, who is a US-ally. What is going on here?

There is a long history of US appeasement of Pakistan, while Pakistan has been consistently undermining US interests in the region. Viewed dispassionately, it is not difficult to see that Pakistan is not a ‘problematic’ ally, but a cynical and manipulative nation serving its own purpose and nothing else. The fundamental flaw has been that in 2001 the US believed that Pakistan indeed wanted to be a responsible partner in the ‘war against terror’. In this blind belief, the US reimbursed Pakistan for its contribution to the war and set up the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to pay for putative Pakistani support for NATO troops in Afghanistan. The CSF has already disbursed around $13 billion to Pakistan. A 2008 US Government Accounting Office report was scathing about Pakistan cheating regarding the accounts of the fund. However, the funds have not been abolished and continues to be used to ‘bribe’ the country to ensure that the Pakistan Army continues to stay and fight the insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Who has ever heard of a nation getting paid by an external government to protect its sovereignty and integrity?

The fact is that Pakistan has been using the US supplied funds to buy arms that are meant to fight a conventional war with India and not an internal counter-insurgency conflict, and the US has turned a blind eye towards this misuse of international funds, provided in good faith. Since the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 and Pakistan enthusiastically joining the war on terror, the US has transferred a large number of military equipment to Pakistan: One Perry-class frigate; 18 new and four used, nuclear-capable F-16 fighter aircraft; 500 air-to-air missiles; 1,450 2000-pound bombs; 1,600 kits to convert unguided bombs to laser-guided munitions; 2,007 anti-armour missiles; 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles; seven naval guns; 374 armoured personnel carriers; and 15 uninhabited aerial vehicles. It would seem that the insurgents that the Pakistan Army is fighting in the remote tribal regions have developed extraordinarily potent air, naval and ground force capabilities! At least by US reckoning.

Pakistan has over the years carefully cultivated the perception within the US policy-making establishment that it is ‘too important to be allowed to fail’—built on the often mentioned possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, if Pakistan disintegrates as a State. This is playing on the inherent fear in some Western capitals. Further, Pakistan wages a selective war on terrorism, dividing the terrorists into ‘good’ and ‘bad’: the good ones being the groups that follow Pakistan’s instructions and export terrorism into neighbouring countries, principally India and Afghanistan; and the bad ones being the groups that create mayhem within Pakistan itself. It is easy to deduce that the principle tool of foreign policy for Pakistan now is terrorism.


It is time that the international community started to treat Pakistan as what it is—the breeding ground of terrorism. The US has to read the writing on the wall—however blind it may have become in the past 15 years. Accommodation and appeasement has run its course, with disastrous results both for US and its allies, as well as for Pakistan. It is time for the US to initiate a massive overhaul of policy and hold Pakistan to account not only for the enormous amount of wealth that has been poured into the nation, but also for its nefarious activities that have led to death of thousands of US and NATO troops. This policy has to be fully rooted in sober realism and an understanding as well as acceptance that it was US-supplied funds that were directly used to resource the current Pakistani terrorist and nuclear capabilities. Any other course of action will be an affront to the free-thinking people of the world. Pakistan, the land of the pure, is playing a catastrophic game of deceit and is not so pure and innocent as it likes everybody to believe. Even in diplomacy there are certain times when a spade must be called a spade.

Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

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