A London seminar co-hosted by The Democracy Forum and The Henry Jackson Society generated intense debate as it raised issues of state-sanctioned terrorism, threats to global democracy and the problems of ‘blowback’


Pakistan’s status as an architect or target of terrorism, and the role of the international community in responding to militancy, were among the topics discussed by a panel of speakers gathered at Senate House recently to address the central question, ‘Is Pakistan a victim or perpetrator of terrorism?’

Chairing the event, Dr William Crawley of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies emphasised that the title focused on the state rather than the people of Pakistan. The importance of state institutions in relation to terrorism was a complex issue, he added, that would be clarified by the speakers.

For Dr C Christine Fair, Associate Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Pakistan is both a perpetrator of Islamist terrorism and a victim of Islamist insurgency. Via Skype, she presented a series of slides with data collected on political violence from 1989 to 2011, including maps that illustrated significant trends in the kinds of violence that Pakistan has experienced.

Terrorism, she said, is only one kind of political violence. She talked the audience through all the different types of such violence that affected various regions of Pakistan, with certain districts such as Punjab and Sindh having a much stronger propensity for sectarian violence than others, and a greater support base. Perpetrators tended to be Deobandi militant groups targeting Shias and Ahmadis, as well as non-Muslims such as Hindus and Sikhs. Ethno-nationalist violence is very localised, said Dr Fair, while terrorist violence, by definition, targets non-combatants. Guerrilla violence, in which militias target state security forces, is a new phenomenon in Pakistan.

tdf seminar september 2016

Dr Fair challenged certain myths surrounding terrorism, such as the notion that the poor are its biggest supporters, and that spreading democracy would lead people to support terrorism less. Not true on both counts, she argued. Being disproportionately affected by acts of terror in Pakistan, the poor are most against it; and those most in favour of democracy tended to believe the militant groups’ narrative that they are engaging in the liberation of oppressed people.

Pakistan has always experienced terrorism, concluded Dr Fair, yet Islamist insurgency is new there, deriving from Pakistan’s long-standing reliance upon Islamist terror groups as well as its co-operation with the United States in Afghanistan. Such policies have backfired, but development and democracy would not provide solutions to the problem.

Journalist and author Irfan Husain agreed that Pakistan is both a victim and a source of terrorism. He argued that ‘blowback’ is something the country has lived with for many years now, and that when the Pakistan Army created the monster of jihad during the Afghan war, together with the US, it did not know that these jihadis would turn against Pakistan. After the Soviets withdrew, the Pakistan army used the uprising in Kashmir in 1989 to channel these zealots to another arena to further its agenda, but when it tried to rein them in, it was too late. They had acquired legitimacy and support, and are today wreaking havoc within Pakistan.

Husain insisted not enough is being done to counter the existential threat that terrorism poses to Pakistan. Party leaders such as Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan were reluctant to go after militant groups, as they did not want to alienate their own support base. With low conviction rates for terrorist killers and a flawed criminal investigation system, there is no real political will in Pakistan so far to move forward, said Husain. There is also a military dimension to the problem, insofar as the Army sees the possible use of militants as a tool to counter India. As long as the Army is convinced India presents an existential threat to Pakistan, and as long as politicians want to use these militant groups to shore up support for themselves, Husain feared that nothing much would change.

Dr. C Christine Fair
Dr. C Christine Fair

Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, said the whole of Kashmir belonged to India, and demanded that what he called Pakistan’s illegal occupation of parts of Kashmir should end. Pakistan-supported proxies undertook a genocide of Hindus in the Valley, said the MP, and were determined to ethnically cleanse Kashmir of all non-Muslims and frequent terrorist attacks in India can be traced back to Pakistan.

Another danger facing India, according to Blackman, is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which he described as part of Beijing’s effort to increase its control of both the sea-lanes and airways of the world. The world’s largest democracy faced encirclement by one of the world’s most totalitarian states, placing in jeopardy religious and other fundamental freedoms. Kashmir, meanwhile, was being used as a buffer zone to keep India busy, he said. The world needs to send a clear message to Pakistan and China that this is unacceptable, said Blackman, with the UK in particular building up security and friendship with India on a strong democratic basis.

In considering Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy, Dr Aqil Shah, Wick Cary Assistant Professor of South Asian Politics at the University of Oklahoma, queried whether it was the ‘same as it ever was’. In short, his answer was: ‘Of course.’ The Pakistan Army, he maintained, was not fighting terrorism; it was simply fighting a few terrorist groups, with some modifications in tactics, like the Zarb-e-Azb campaign against militants in North Waziristan.

Dr Shah dismissed the perception that the military had reappraised its threat environment, and that internal threats had now become primary. In literature produced by the Pakistan military there was no acknowledgement that Pakistan is facing new threats, and India remained the number one enemy. The existential threat Pakistan faces from groups such as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is perceived as coming from India’s proxies, according to Dr Shah, so everything is being externalised. Pakistan claimed its enemies were using the country’s instabilities to make it implode, because it is a nuclear-armed Muslim country.

The Pakistani military is said to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, but Dr Shah said there were finer distinctions. Groups were ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’. Some ‘good’ groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network, were free to roam at will in the country and collect funds; others, though seen as ‘bad’, could be brought into the fold and used. The ‘uglies’, such as sections of the TTP, were irreconcilable. But there was no attempt to acknowledge or redress the blowback from this policy, or acknowledge the operational links, ideological overlap and mutual manpower that these groups shared.

Dr Shah saw the National Action Plan as a ‘laundry list’, designed simply to assuage public scrutiny of the military’s failure to contain terrorism. At the same time it allowed the military to exercise almost complete control over internal security and counterterrorism, while doing little to deal with the problem. Indeed, Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy – if there was one – had become deeply militarised, he said, harming civilian governance and the rule of law, and benefitting terrorists. The Army wanted civilian institutions to take responsibility for implementing the NAP without being able to participate in any decision-making.

Middle East analyst and Research Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, Kyle Orton, saw Pakistan as the Taliban’s author and victim, arguing that the terrorism afflicting Pakistan was in large measure the making of its own security services as part of their various foreign policy objectives, primarily to contest control of Kashmir with India and to exert influence in Afghanistan. The policies pursued in legitimising such groups, especially the Islamisation policies under General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, opened the way for groups and trends independent of the military and intelligence services, and they have now been forced into an internal war.

The event was interspersed with often heated Q & A sessions between members of the audience and panel. Given the emotive nature of the subject matter and widely differing opinions, no agreement was reached but those present acknowledged the monstrous task facing the leaders of Pakistan in tackling extremism.

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