The 16th of December, 2014 will forever remain etched into the national sensibility of Pakistan, for on that wretched day, Pakistan lost more than 150 of its people, mostly schoolchildren in a senseless massacre at an army school in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s capital of Peshawar. Comparisons were instantly drawn and 16/12 was touted Pakistan’s 9/11. Prior to the attack, the national narrative on how to deal with the Taliban was a mixture of varied opinions. The Imran Khan led Tehreek-e-Insaf wanted negotiations whilst others wanted an indiscriminate operation, targeting groups that posed a threat to Pakistan’s interests.
However, the Peshawar attack was enough to jolt all political forces into doing and not just proposing. In a rare show of unity an, All Parties Conference was quickly convened and a National Action Plan was presented in its aftermath. With 20 salient points, the plan introduced military courts, lifted the moratorium on capital punishment and promised unwavering action against all forms of terrorists. One would imagine that the wholesale slaughter of more than 130 children would be enough to push the Pakistani state and more specifically the military to abandon its policy of harbouring certain terror groups. But alas, as conniving statecraft would have it, four years on Pakistan is still blamed for following her “good Taliban, bad Taliban” policy.
The ISPR will have us know that terrorists are being acted against without any discrimination being made but there is one breed of terror groups which perhaps holds the sympathies of not just those in the military establishment but the Pakistani populace at large. These are the Afghan groups and the anti-India groups such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Muhammad which specifically target the Indian state in Kashmir and in places such as Pathankot and Uri, as they did in 2016. The continued support for the Afghan Taliban such as the Haqqani network is somewhat understandable. Fearing the fact that an unstable Afghanistan might become a haven for anti-Pakistan groups, the Pakistani state wants to safeguard its interests in Kabul in the case of an American pullout.
Au contraire, the Pakistani military continues its complicit support for anti-India entities despite the National Action Plan and the reasons for this are manifold but boil down to one simple factor; anti-Indian sentiment is central to Pakistani nationalism. It is what French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot calls “the essence of Pakistan’s identity”. Parts of the military establishment, as well as the nation, suffer from a collective schizophrenia of sorts when it comes to India. Opposing India is at the crux of Pakistan’s military and foreign policies and the presence of a much larger enemy to the East is the justification the military uses to justify its disproportionate share of resources in the country’s budget amongst other perceived threats.
However, of late, these groups have begun rebranding themselves as political parties. In an act of sheer irony on the anniversary of the Peshawar attacks, Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, scion of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jahngvi was elected as a member of provincial parliament from his native Jhang as an independent candidate. He later joined the Jamiat-Ulema-Islam (Fazal) which is allied with the government in the centre. Also, the by-polls held after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from a power saw the political wing (Milli Muslim League) of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the sectarian group Tehreek-e-Labaik-Ya-Rasool-Allah secure 11% of the vote in the constituency. All of this was done despite the fact that these groups are on the UN terror watch lists. Apparently, that was not enough for the Election Commission of Pakistan to rule their nomination papers null and void.
But is action against the anti-India lot inevitable? This notion might well be a folly. For any action to be taken by the Pakistani army there needs to be a public consensus against the enemy first. Unfortunately, that consensus only exists against India, not the anti-India lot. The armed forces will not take any step without that consensus and certainly not when India asks for it because that would make them look bad. Moving with the impression of those moves being a response to Indian pressure would be anathema to the Pakistani military. With the long-term presence of a right winger in Delhi pressure will always be on Islamabad to take action against these groups.
Something will have to give, but will it? The army may well give up on the anti-India lot if they turn against the state but what they’ll never give up on is India is the eternal enemy. As now notorious DAWN staffer Cyril Almeida calls it, “India being Enemy No 1 is an unalterable truth, an inalienable position that the boys (army) will never give up.” As Cyril puts it, for the army to take action against these groups, it has to look like it was their idea and without them looking bad.
Recently, keeping in tradition with the sporadic unsustainable action taken against these groups, the state moved to ban charities headed by Hafiz Saeed. Whilst this may seem like a step in the right direction the past has shown us that the military often does not follow up on these actions. The landmark elections due in July this year will be a momentous occasion for democracy in a country that has seen military rule for more than half her existence. But with successive democracies, the impenetrable and Machiavellian hold of the military on security policy will inevitably weaken. One can only hope that Pakistan’s civilian leaders will have the guts and foresight, it will take to defang the anti-India lot.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)