Pakistan Still Abides by the Musharraf Playbook When Accused of Harbouring Terrorists

Many are sceptical about Pakistan’s latest announcement regarding seizure and freezing of assets of UN-designated terrorists and militant groups and the arrest of some Jaish-e-Mohammed leaders. After all, similar announcements have been made several times in the past 30 years. Why would things be any different this time?

It is being argued that Pakistanis are now weary from years of conflict and terrorism, which makes a major turnaround easier. But that argument was also used soon after the 2014 terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School that left 141 Pakistanis, including 132 children, dead.

At the time, Pakistan’s military conducted major operations against terrorists who strike inside Pakistan, still leaving Jihadis who operate outside the country, particularly in Afghanistan and India, alone.

This time it is contended that the harmony of views between civilian Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will pave the way for better coordination and honest implementation of a strategy to finally wind down the terrorist-Jihadi infrastructure.

But the differences between civilian leaders and the army in the past were partly about the extent to which counter-terrorism steps were to be taken. It is unclear how Bajwa and Khan being on the same page would make a difference in prompting a more robust counter-terrorism policy.

General Bajwa could be sincere and well-meaning and Imran Khan might really be more liberal and westernised than his pro-Taliban statements allow him to seem. But clearly, Pakistan faces a structural, institutional, and deep-rooted reason that has led to the flourishing of Jihadis for three decades. That reason likely transcends personalities.

All steps announced by Pakistan against the Jihadis, on almost every occasion, have been in response to international pressure. The state’s story about the question has changed multiple times. It often starts with “There are no terrorist groups in Pakistan,” turns to “These groups have no state support,” and “There is no evidence of their involvement in specific acts of terrorism,” before evolving into “We have banned these groups, arrested their leaders, and seized their assets.”

Meanwhile, the ground reality remains the same. For example, undertaking terrorist operations is a young man’s job, and while the founders and Amirs of Jihadi groups might have aged over the years, the groups banned repeatedly still manage to recruit and train younger generations of terrorists.

Surely, putting an end to recruitment and training of new foot soldiers, after detaining those already in a terrorist group, should have diminished the Jihadi groups’ ability to launch terrorist attacks by now. Unless, the critics are right, and the various crackdowns have only been half-hearted or only meant for positive media coverage.

From 1999 to 2008, Pakistan had greater unity of command than it can ever have even under a harmonious Khan-Bajwa dyarchy. General Pervez Musharraf was the army chief and the president of Pakistan at the same time. He faced a major challenge after 9/11, when Musharraf said that he was warned the US had the capacity to bomb Pakistan into the stone age.

Responding to that threat, Musharraf effectively developed the ‘playbook’ that is still being followed in Pakistan. This playbook involves playing victim, promising action, banning some groups and ordering some arrests without changing the fundamentals of maintaining Jihadis as instruments of proxy war in the region.

One can hope as much as one likes, but the underlying logic of Pakistan’s tolerance and support for Jihadi proxies has not ended. In the minds of Pakistan’s military strategists, the Jihadis help Pakistan wage asymmetric war at low cost and help keep Pakistan’s strategic concerns – Kashmir and Afghanistan – alive at a time when Pakistan would otherwise be unable to garner much international attention.

The cost of Pakistan’s 30-year Jihadi misadventure has been borne by the people of Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan. Unfortunately, the country’s strategic geniuses have yet to show that they consider that cost as anything other than collateral damage.

General Bajwa has signalled to Pakistan’s critics that Pakistan and its army have changed, but change must be empirically observable before being recognised. So far, the repetition of old patterns is too obvious. For example, even the language used while banning Jaish-e-Mohammed again recently was very similar to that used when it was banned for the first time.

Just look at the text of Musharraf’s televised speech in January 2002, in which he famously said that “the campaign against extremism undertaken by us from the very beginning is in our own national interest. We are not doing this under advice or pressure from anyone.”

He had also promised, 17 years ago, that “No organization will be allowed to indulge in terrorism in the name of Kashmir” as he announced a ban on several militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). But the president and army chief rolled into one failed to deliver on his promise.

I was an early sceptic of Musharraf’s ability to turn things around. When, in an article published on 25 September 2002, I argued that Pakistan’s U-turn remained incomplete, several of my ever-optimistic American friends bombarded me with reasons why I should put faith in the Pakistani state’s resolve to bring the Jihad to an end.

“In supporting the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks,” I had written, “General Musharraf had expected a US tilt towards Pakistan, especially in its dispute with India. This was the same expectation that led Field Marshal Ayub Khan to allow U-2 spy flights against the erstwhile Soviet Union from Badaber, near Peshawar during the 1960s and encouraged General Yahya Khan to stumble into the war over Bangladesh in 1971. But the US cannot change its worldview to suit Pakistan. The Bush administration is willing to support General Musharraf but only to a point. As America’s need for Pakistan’s support in the war in Afghanistan declines, or the focus shifts to another region such as Iraq, its attention to Musharraf’s requirements is bound to diminish.”

That is exactly what happened. Once it was obvious that the US would not give Musharraf what he wanted in relation to India, it was back to supporting the Jihadis to generate attention for Pakistan’s case.

Now, the US is even less inclined to tilt towards Pakistan and international opinion is less favourable to Pakistan than it was under Musharraf. From the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, the only silver lining in the post-Pulwama scenario is the attention parts of the international media have given to the violence, suffering, and India’s human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Musharraf’s playbook is more likely to be repeated in such circumstances than being abandoned. Only last year, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi was recorded on camera saying no one could touch Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar while he was alive. He subsequently issued a list of 68 proscribed organisations including Saeed’s LeT and Azhar’s JeM.

Meanwhile, only until last week, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was repeating the “They are not here,” “The state is not involved,” “There is no evidence against them,” mantra of the past 30 years. I really wish that I am proved wrong this time around, but so far there is still no sign that the complete turnaround we have all been hoping for has finally arrived.

This article was originally posted by The Print. It was posted here with the author's permission.

Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson/Bloomberg News