Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Scourge of Terrorism

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Decision makers and intellectuals in Pakistan resent the term “Af- Pak.” The claim is made that Pakistan cannot be equated with Afghanistan because it is far superior to that hapless, war-ravaged, corruption-ridden country where the rule of law and good governance are non-existent. The same people profess belief in the sovereign equality of states but such equality does not extend to countries such as Afghanistan. Yet it is undeniable that the problems that Pakistan faces are as intractable as those encountered by Afghanistan.

When Socrates professed ignorance at the Delphic oracle a mysterious voice proclaimed that he was “the wisest of men” and the timeless advice “Gnothi Seauton (know thyself)” was given to him. This applies as much to nations as it does to people. It is true that Afghanistan bleeds but Pakistan bleeds no less. More people have died in terrorist-related violence in the country in 2009 than in Afghanistan. Statistics compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) reveal that 3,021 people were killed and 7,334 were injured in 2,586 terrorist attacks which included 87 suicide bombings. This represented a 45 percent increase in incidents over 2008. The insurgency-related tally for Afghanistan, according to a UN report, was 2,412 civilian deaths signifying a 14 percent rise from the 2008 figure of 2,118.

The findings of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies vary from the UN report inasmuch as it is claimed that 25,447 people, including extremists, were killed or injured in militancy-related violence in Pakistan in 2009, eclipsing the 8,812 such casualties in Afghanistan. In comparison, at the height of the violence in Iraq four years ago, there were some 3,000 fatalities in that country each month.

The UN report on Afghanistan claimed that approximately 70 percent of civilian deaths in 2009 were caused by the insurgents. As a result of military action by NATO and allied forces 596 non-combatants were killed compared to 828 in 2008. A survey commissioned by ABC News, BBC and ARD German television in December 2009 found that 42 percent (up from 27 percent in 2008) of 1,534 Afghan respondents blame the violence in their country on the Taliban while 17 percent (down from 36 percent the previous year) felt that the US, NATO and Afghan forces were responsible. While conceding that the survey has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points, the claim was made that there is a steep drop in public support for the Taliban-led insurgency.

Similarly in Pakistan, whatever little sympathy there may have been for the Taliban is no longer publicly articulated. The military operations against them in Swat and subsequently in South Waziristan, according to the findings of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, resulted in the killing of 7,945 terrorists in 2009. More important, there is overwhelming popular support for the army action which has resulted in the pacification of Swat and the ouster of the Taliban from South Waziristan. The down side is that the inept political leadership has done little to consolidate the gains and the foreboding that the liberated areas could again revert to the control of extremist groups is not far-fetched.

In the third week of October 2009, four days after the commencement of the South Waziristan operation, the Taliban carried out a terrorist attack on the International Islamic University in Islamabad in which six students, three of them girls, were killed. The renowned Palestinian scholar,  Abdullah  Azzam,  who  previously  headed  the  Rabita  al- Alam al-Islami and later established the Al Qaeda in Peshawar as a response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had once taught at the University. He later fell out with his deputy, Osama bin Laden, and was assassinated along with his two sons in November 1989. Around the time that the University was attacked a number of local levies were killed in the Khyber Agency by a terrorist group established by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called the Abdullah Azzam Brigade. The terrorist incident at the Islamic University which is a centre for the study of sharia, and like most universities in Pakistan, is under the influence of the religious right, signaled both a change in TTP policy as well as an act of desperation. In a rare display of anger against the Taliban, students of the Punjab University led by the Vice Chancellor staged a demonstration. The opportunity was missed by the government to begin the process of weaning campuses away from the influence of religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami who are opposed to the military action and favour dialogue with the TTP.

The religious parties in Pakistan along with political organizations such as Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf ascribe the Taliban insurgency and the extremist violence to the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. However none of them concede that the violence in Pakistan has also been stoked by Iran and Saudi Arabia in the form of sectarian terrorism. The terrorist attack of 28 December 2009 on the ashura procession in Karachi left at least 43 dead and many times that number injured. The damage to property is estimated at around 30 billion rupees. Incidents such as this, from which Afghanistan has been immune, keep recurring.

Sectarian terrorism is a product of fierce competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world. The struggle between the two countries has to be seen from a historical perspective. Till the 15th century Iran was a sunni majority country but this changed in the beginning of the 16th century when Ismail Safavid came to power and made the ithna ashari school of shiaism the state religion. Those who did not convert were confronted with the choice of either facing death or exile. The few who survived were confined to Baluchistan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. Since the 1920s, petroleum has been the main industry and the affluence thus generated enabled the government to pursue more assertive internal policies. After the 1979 revolution, orthodox shiaism became the state ideology as a result of which the sunnis became even more marginalized. Of the estimated 14 million sunnis in Iran, who account for about 10 percent of the population, none are in government.

In Saudi Arabia the armed struggle of the Wahabis was directed against the traditional sunnis as well as the shia minority. Abdul Aziz bin Saud whose struggle for supremacy began in 1902 culminated in 1932 with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the ascendency of the House of Saud, the Wahabi interpretation of Islam became the official ideology as a result of which the shias, who constituted between 3 and 5 percent of the population, were persecuted and confined to the eastern provinces. In March 1938 vast oil reserves were discovered and, like in Iran, the burgeoning wealth prompted the state to vigorously enforce the Wahabi ideology.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 was not inward looking and the export of its ideology became a part of state policy. Pakistan which has the world’s second largest shia population, more than in shia majority Iraq, became fertile ground for Iran’s external enterprise. To neutralize Iranian influence in the country, the Saudis sponsored anti-shia groups and sectarian    terrorism became a recurring nightmare in Pakistan. Shias and sunnis had always coexisted   peacefully in the country but this was to change after the Iranian revolution and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. In the period 1989-2009 there were 2,481 incidents of sectarian terrorism resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. The nexus between sunni extremist groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-e- Sahaba and Al Qaeda is undeniable. The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has declared shias to be “American agents” and therefore they are the “near enemy” in the global jihad.

Even if Afghanistan is eventually stabilized and normalcy is restored in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Pakistan will still have to contend with the problem of sectarian terrorism. The inescapable truth is that the situation in Pakistan is no less serious than that prevailing in Afghanistan. The arrogance of those who object to such comparison is unwarranted. The wisest of men, as Socrates learnt at the Delphic oracle, are those who know themselves.