By James M. Dorsey
Remarks at ISAS Panel Discussion: Pakistan in challenging times, 25 August 2017
The facetious answer to the question, what security challenges Pakistan faces is where does one start.
One place to start is with the structural issues that underlie the multiple dangers Pakistan confronts. What that does, is help Pakistan as well as the various external powers involved in Pakistani security understand drivers and formulate policies. It also lays bare some uncomfortable truths, truths many Pakistanis prefer not to acknowledge.
Jumping the gun, one thing a look at Pakistan’s structural issues does, is explain why US policy has failed and why the course President Donald J. Trump intends to chart will fail. It also leads to the suggestion that the approach of China will fail despite its support for Pakistani rejection of US allegations of Pakistani support for militancy.
The most immediate uncomfortable truth is that it is virtually impossible to separate Pakistan’s domestic security concerns from its external ones. Not because they can be dismissed as the result of foreign interference but because they are often the legacy of past policies.
Pakistanis with good reason point to US and Saudi policies dating back to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, if not earlier. That is beyond doubt. It however is also an argument that conveniently allows its proponents to distract from the fact that Pakistan was and is a full partner in the execution of those policies, not simply either the victim or the poorly acknowledged facilitator. With other words, Pakistan is and was the ultimate arbitrator of its history and shares equal responsibility for the consequences of its decisions.
Similarly, there is no doubt that Pakistan is located in a volatile part of the world. It shares borders with Afghanistan that has been in the throes of war and insurgency for decades, Iran, and an increasingly nationalist India. It is a stone’s throw from the Gulf and is one of two regional nuclear powers. Having said that, Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns are as much a function of its geography as they are problems of its own making.
There is equally no doubt that Pakistan has suffered significantly and continues to suffer from political violence. And indeed, Pakistan has done much to crackdown on militant groups. The political divide emerges over the question whether the Pakistani crackdown is comprehensive, targeting without qualification all militant groups, irrespective of who they are and what their goals are. It doesn’t. Pakistan, to its credit as well as to its detriment, makes no bones about this. In fact, this approach has become so deeply engrained that it is difficult to reverse, will not be changed by US sanctions, and ultimately will come to haunt Pakistan.
Decades of Pakistani support for various groups in support of its approach to Kashmir, its filtering of much of its threat perception through the prism of challenges posed by India, concern about vulnerabilities that arise from ethnic unrest and neglect in Balochistan, and abetting and aiding of Saudi policies, has created demons that lead their own life. To be sure, US policy, including the prescriptions recently laid out by President Trump do little to help Pakistan work through issues, take a step back, and look at alternative ways of enhancing domestic and external security. In fact, Trump’s policies threaten to harden existing differences and exacerbate regional tensions. In short, one is likely to see more of the same even if in some cases, indications are that Pakistan is adopting innovative approaches.
One such approach is evident in the case of Jamaat ud-Dawa, a group that is widely viewed as a front for Lashkar e-Taibe, a globally proscribed organization, and led by Hafez Saeed, who has been designated a terrorist under international law by the United Nations. For much of the past year, Saeed has been under house arrest rather than in prison. Jamaat-ud-Dawa has been allowed to continue operations. Treating Jamaat-ud-Dawa with kid gloves is but one issue that has raised questions about the sincerity and comprehensiveness of the Pakistani crackdown. Yet, a decision by the group to create a political party has sparked debate about how to deal with militancy in Pakistan. Indeed, a successful transition towards pluralistic, political engagement that involves an absolute rejection of violence would significantly contribute to enhancing domestic security and could serve as a model for others.
The chances of Jamaat-ud-Dawa becoming a model case, however, are undermined by the fact that there is little indication that its transition is embedded in broader policies. There is also little indication that Pakistan has the political will to reshape the environment in which, at least tacitly, militancy is allowed to flourish. Decades of Pakistani and Saudi support of various strands of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has woven that worldview into the fabric of significant segments of government, the military and society. It is a worldview that does not encourage pluralism, tolerance and competitive, political engagement.
Granted, it is easy to look in from the outside and be critical. Similarly, tackling legacies is easier said than done. It is easy to criticize the US for invading Afghanistan in 2001 and having been engaged in a war ever since that has only served to exacerbate threats to regional and Pakistani security and that the United States ultimately cannot win. The problem is, one has to deal with the cards one is dealt. Without going into great depth, one could argue that the US in 2001 had no choice in Afghanistan in contrast to the invasion of Iraq two years later. Diplomatic engagement with the Taliban would have been the preferred route were it not for the fact that US and Taliban officials had been secretly meeting in various world capitals ever since the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam. The negotiations were going nowhere. 9/11 left the US with no choice. The result is a poorly executed war and at best half-hearted attempts to rebuild Afghanistan – a sine qua non for creating the economic, social and political conditions to put an end to the violence. Multiple proxy wars, including the one between Pakistan and India, have only contributed to a situation that progressively deteriorates.
None of this detracts from Pakistan’s inability to project the image of a state that has zero tolerance for political violence and is selective in its confrontation of militancy. Doubts about the comprehensiveness of the Pakistani approach are fed by multiple factors, ranging from the lack of political will to seriously tackle educational reform to failing to even project an image of a state that at the very least goes through the motions of confronting all militancy, to turning a blind eye when it suits the state’s purpose. The risks are huge and could threaten what Pakistan sees as a lifeline, its all-weather friendship with China and China’s multi-billion-dollar investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Reports that Saudi Arabia and Iran are about to exchange diplomatic visits justify a degree of optimism that the kingdom may, at least for now, shelve plans to use Balochistan as a spring plank for efforts to destabilize Iran. The reports are bolstered by leaked emails that quote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying that he would favour US engagement with Iran. Time will tell. There is much that calls into question how serious talk of reduced tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is, something that Pakistani security would greatly benefit from.
Nonetheless, Pakistani policy in dealing with the potential threat of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry playing out in part in a crucial, but already troubled province raises similar doubts. For much of the past year, Pakistan has turned a blind eye to the flow of Saudi funds to militants, some of whom are associated with outlawed groups such as the successors of Sipah-e-Sabaha and madrassas in Balochistan that nurture, violent anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite groups. The funds are often channelled through Saudis of Baloch descent.
Pakistan’s response to the US Treasury’s designation in May of Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist is a case in point. The response highlighted the murky world of Pakistani militancy in which the lines between various groups are fluid, links to government are evident, and battles in Pakistan and Afghanistan and potentially Iran are inter-linked. To be sure, the US Treasury’s designation is not legally binding on Pakistan. Nonetheless, Pakistan would have gained much from being seen to take note of the designation and publicly look into the Treasury’s allegations. It did nothing of the kind, putting out at best a meek statement.
Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, the Council of Islamic Ideology; maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups. A leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group, board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV, and head of the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities, Abu Turab was designated on the very day he was on a fund-raising trip to the kingdom.
The Treasury described Abu Turab as a “facilitator…(who) helped…raise money in the Gulf and supported the movement of tens of thousands of dollars from the Gulf to Pakistan.” The Treasury said funds raised by Abu Turab financed operations of various groups, including Jama’at ul Dawa, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the Taliban; and the Islamic State’s South Asian wing. A suspension of Abu Turab’s membership of the Council of Islamic Ideology pending the outcome of an independent Pakistani investigation would have done much to enhance Pakistan’s credibility. The failure to do so says much about the structural problems that underlie Pakistan’s security dilemmas.
So does the curious case of Masood Azhar, whose group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been proscribed by the United Nations as well as Pakistan. It raises questions about China’s approach that frankly I am at a loss to explain. China, at the behest of Pakistan, has for the second time this year prevented the United Nations from listing Azhar as a globally designated terrorist. It strikes me that various justifications put forward, including China honouring a request by the Pakistani military, and seeing Azhar as a way to needle India, do not cut ice given the threat militancy in Pakistan poses to China’s vast interests in the country.
In the short term, Pakistan, which has rejected Trump’s allegations of Pakistani support for militancy as scapegoating, is likely to see its escape route as closer relations with China and perhaps Russia. Ultimately, however, Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its ties to Beijing and Moscow amid escalating violence in Balochistan and no end in sight to the militant insurgency in Afghanistan.
As a result, Pakistan’s refusal to confront its demons could in the final analysis leave it out in the cold: its relationship with the United States severely damaged, India strengthened by closer cooperation with the US, and China and Russia demanding that it do what Washington wanted in the first place. Pakistan is likely to have fewer, if any, options and no escape routes once China and Russia come to the conclusion Trump has already articulated.