Al-Qaeda's strategic plan involves aiding "persecuted" Kashmiri Muslims once their objectives in Pakistan are achieved. Shifting the jihadist threat toward Kashmir will also align with the ambitions of the Pakistani military.
In 2023 Pakistan found itself grappling with an unprecedented surge in terrorist incidents. The Taliban's triumph in Afghanistan has catalyzed the surge, which in turn emboldened and strengthened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Over the past two years, the TTP underwent a transformative series of mergers, centralizing its organizational framework and recalibrating its operational strategy, exclusively focusing on a war against Pakistan. The ideological and tribal nexus cultivated between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP has conferred an unprecedented level of 'strategic depth' in its history. This has amplified the complexity of Pakistan's struggle against terrorism amidst concurrent political and economic challenges. Interestingly, the genesis of this contemporary terrorism is rooted in a protracted historical perspective that necessitates scrutiny to unearth its foundational causes.
The historical narrative unfolds during the Anglo-Indian era when Islam as an institution faced persistent assaults from British rulers and Hindu revivalists. Islamic scholars emerged as stalwart defenders of their faith, preventing Islam from succumbing to the fate of other creeds in Asia. In 1806, Shah Abdul Aziz Mohaddith Dehlavi declared India under British dominion as Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war), asserting the obligation for Muslims to wage revolt for freedom, equality, justice, and revolution against the British government. In his fatwa, he articulated that expelling the British was the primary objective; thereafter, it was legitimate for Muslims to hold the reins of power. That's why, Shah Abdul Aziz has been viewed as a precursor of the Indian Independence movement.
The legacy continued with Sayed Ahmad Barelvi, a follower of Shah Abdul Aziz, declaring jihad (holy war) against non-Muslim rulers, which culminated in his death in the Battle of Balakot in 1831. Islamic clerics and religious educational institutes played a pivotal role in nurturing socio-political consciousness among Muslims, advocating for equality, justice, and Muslim rights within the British Indian context.
The Deoband madrasa, established in 1866, and its scholars actively contributed to the Indian independence movement. While a majority of Barelvis and select influential Deobandi clerics supported the creation of Pakistan, the Kabaliya region (presently Waziristan), was an autonomous zone throughout the British Raj, adhering to Shah Abdul Aziz's fatwa. During the Partition process, Deobandi Ulema, including Mufti Muhammad Shafi and Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Uthmani, persuaded Kabali chieftains to align with Pakistan, promising the implementation of Sharia rule. Conversely, most Deobandi Ulema, led by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani, opposed the creation of Pakistan and the two-nation theory.
Post-independence delusions :
After Pakistan's inception, Islamic scholars and jihadist groups found themselves disillusioned and betrayed by the ruling system, as the country remained bereft of governance under Sharia Law. The separation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, exacerbated the frustration, as its leaders opted for a democratic system.
Jihadist groups have been struggling since 1947 to establish Islamic rule in Pakistan. At times they received state sponsorship against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in the Kashmir conflict. Pakistan President Ziaul Haq harbored ambitions of utilizing the Mujahideen as a proxy force in South and Central Asia. Waziristan was a haven for local and foreign mujahideen. The people of this region, entrenched in orthodox Islam and staunch traditionalism, laid the groundwork for jihadist activities. Mullah Powinda was the pioneer of jihad in Waziristan. The fundamentalist Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) emanates from the Waziristan region. So, the present jihadist activities are not a new phenomenon for Pakistan.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, foreign Arab Mujahideen got shelter in Pakistan and utilized the land as a launching pad against Soviet invaders. Al-Qaeda capitalized on this opportunity, merging with local groups and fortifying jihadist networks. Even before Al-Qaeda, sporadic jihadist groups in Pakistan aspired to establish a Sharia-ruled nation. The intermittent negotiations between Mujahideen groups and the Pakistani government were deadlocked over the demand for Sharia rule over a modern state with its concepts of territorial sovereignty, particularly regarding the withdrawal of government security forces from their claimed area.
Since the creation of Pakistan, the ruling system has stumbled numerous times. No democratic prime minister could complete his or her tenure due to military intervention. The military remains powerful enough to control the political landscape in Pakistan. After 76 years of Pakistan's independence, common people are extremely frustrated and the prevailing economic and political challenges make them the worst sufferers. So they have sought some political and ideological alternatives, which became evident during fervent protests by Islamist groups in 2022.
Following the Lal Masjid incident in June 2007, Al-Qaeda and its local offshoots in Pakistan, particularly TTP, openly declared war against the Pakistani government system. After the Taliban-US truce in 2021, more than 40 local jihadist groups merged with the TTP and are deeply rooted in Pakistani society. Day by day they are growing stronger, and have expanded their influence to most parts of Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, the country's largest and most volatile province. At present, they have changed their operational policy where they only target security forces and their activities have a measure of popular support.
In my opinion, the government of Pakistan and its establishment have committed strategic blunders. Firstly, the strategic misstep of expelling undocumented Pashtuns into Afghanistan, ostensibly for security reasons, has backfired. The Pashtun community, historically divided along the Durand Line, vehemently rejects this colonial-era border. The resultant insult and determination among the sensitive Pashtuns to retaliate pose a significant threat.
Secondly, there may be reasons to believe that former prime minister Imran Khan has covert ties with Islamist groups. Imran's PTI could form a government in provinces only where jihadist groups are influential. Consequently, sidelining Imran Khan helps these jihadist groups to whip up popular support. This confluence of missteps contributes to the complex dynamics fuelling the rise of jihadist influence in Pakistan.
Spreading influence of TTP
Presently, TTP has extended its influence into Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan. Reports indicate that the Balochistan Liberation Army has forged alliances with the TTP, advocating Shariah rule in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan, and even Kashmir.
Al-Qaeda's strategic plan involves aiding "persecuted" Kashmiri Muslims in India once their objectives in Pakistan are achieved. This unfolding scenario raises the possibility of the Pakistani establishment compromising with TTP for a governing system that incorporates Shariah rule with reduced sovereignty. Shifting the jihadist threat toward Kashmir will also align with the ambitions of the Pakistani military.
The geopolitical landscape of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East has undergone a profound transformation due to the United States-led 'War on Terror.' In the last two decades, this mission has encountered relative failure in achieving political objectives and eradicating purported terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, it has yielded economic gains for the military-industrial complex.
The Pakistani establishment must recognize that people tend to gravitate towards better alternatives, and countering an ideological movement necessitates the emergence of an alternative ideological force. And, coercion and intimidation could risk pushing the common people of Pakistan towards alternative ideological blocs.
(The author is a political and defense analyst based in Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)