Activist and blogger Khurram Zaki was shot and killed last week in Karachi. He was known for his vocal criticism of the Pakistan-based jihadists and anti-Shia sectarian terrorists. A faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the assassination, indicating that despite the military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the country’s tribal region and a paramilitary campaign in Karachi, the jihadists retain the capability to silence voices that call them out for their heinous crimes. Interestingly, the blog Let Us Build Pakistan that Zaki coedited has been quite sympathetic to the Pakistani army chief, General Raheel Sharif, and his policies. I recall that the blog had posted a scathing critique of me and the prominent Pakistani scholar, Ayesha Siddiqa, when we raised concerns about General Raheel Sharif cherry-picking which terrorists to go after in Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Pakistan army has retained its arbitrary distinction of targeting the so-called “bad” jihadists, that is, the ones who attack the Pakistani state, versus the “good” jihadists, who unleash terror against Afghanistan and India. The Afghan Taliban and its most lethal affiliate, the Haqqani Network (HQN), have remained completely unharmed in the two years of the Zarb-e-Azb operation that commenced in June 2014. In fact, a series of media reports this past week indicated that the Pakistan-based deadly HQN is ascendant within the Taliban hierarchy and waging a particularly brutal campaign against Afghanistan and the US and Nato forces stationed there. The Afghan Taliban proper remains headquartered around the Pakistani city of Quetta, in the Kuchlak vicinity of which they had selected their new emir, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, last year. According to a UN report, 2015 was one of the deadliest years in the Afghanistan conflict, during which 11,002 civilian casualties, including 3,545 deaths, were recorded. And it is all happening under the watchful eye of General Raheel Sharif. Indeed, the Pakistani leaders have even dropped the pretence and a senior advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, readily conceded in the US, “their [Taliban] leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here”.
The India-oriented jihadists, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), largely domiciled in Pakistani Punjab, have also remained completely intact. The fanfare about Pakistan’s inquiry into the Pathankot airbase attack notwithstanding, there has been no significant move against the JeM. On the domestic side, the anti-Shia sectarian outfit, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which operates under the name Ahle-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), and is effectively a front for the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), has also been operating freely. LeJ ringleader Malik Ishaq was killed in a police encounter last year but the Pakistani state has taken no formal action against the group’s parent outfit, the SSP/ ASWJ. The SSP/ ASWJ was one of the groups the late Khurram Zaki was protesting against, albeit quite outlandishly at times, when he blamed an ostensible Indo-Saudi nexus for providing patronage to such outfits. More importantly, assorted terrorist outfits, including the SSP/ ASWJ, TTP, Afghan Taliban, the HQN and al-Qaeda are but hideous shades of one jihadist grey. They have all shared not just the ideology but also the logistics and targets.
The recent rescue of former Pakistani PM Yousaf Raza Gilani’s kidnapped son, Ali Haider Gilani, in a joint US-Afghan operation in the Gyan area of Paktika, Afghanistan, underscores yet again that the various jihadist groups are joined at the hip. Ali Gilani had been kidnapped in 2013 from Multan in central Pakistan and apparently was handed over by one terror group to another and in all likelihood ended up in Waziristan where the mother load of jihadists operated right under the Pakistani military’s nose. When, after dragging its feet for years, the army finally acted against the “bad” jihadists, it opted to give a free pass to the “good” jihadists such as the HQN who were enabled to slip out of North Waziristan. The discovery and rescue of Ali Gilani in Gyan, which is a hotbed of HQN activity across the border from Pakistan, reinforces concerns about the Pakistan army’s continued adherence to its deadly policy of siring the jihadists and then turning against only the ones that bite it directly. It won’t be the first time, or the last, when the “good” jihadists did something terrible or embarrassing for the Pakistani brass.
Recently, scholar and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani has drawn flak from compatriots for noting in his new book the remarks from the former director general of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, about the 2008 Mumbai carnage: “Log hamaray thay, operation hamara nahin tha (attackers were our men but the operation wasn’t ours)”. While Haqqani drew the Pakistani security establishment’s ire, it was the former CIA chief General Michael Hayden who had already attributed the same comment to Pasha. In his book Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, Hayden had noted: “His [Pasha’s] investigation had revealed that some former ISI members were involved with Lashkar-e-Taiba (no surprise there). Pasha admitted that these unspecified (and still uncaptured) retirees may have engaged in some broad training of the attackers, but he was characteristically vague about any detailed direction the attackers had gotten during the attack via cellphone from Pakistan.”
The problem, however, has been that despite knowing full well that comments like Pasha’s reek of a plausible deniability ploy, the US had done little to curb such activity. In fact, the US actions had been tantamount to rewarding Pakistan’s bad behaviour with aid and military goodies, thus reinforcing the recklessness. For the first time in more than a decade, the US Congress is now finally holding Pakistan’s feet to the fire over issues like the F-16 aircraft sales. The jihadist house of cards that the Pakistani army has built over several decades is neither viable nor tolerable in the 21st century. The problem is that while it is unravelling, it continues to cause a tremendous blowback both within Pakistan and for its neighbours, particularly Afghanistan. Critics are being silenced, physically if needed, in Pakistan, and the space for dissent is shrinking. Stoked by Pakistan’s Taliban and HQN proxies, the war in Afghanistan rages on. The world powers, especially the US, will have to take cognisance of the gravity of the situation and do more diplomatically than merely administering a rap on the knuckles.