A Shift from Hindukush to the Arabian Sea

The signing of the proposed bilateral security agreement between the US led coalition and the Afghan government is nowhere near sight, even though the declared deadline for the complete withdrawal of coalition-led forces by the end of 2014 is drawing closer everyday. This has led to a feeling of growing pessimism amongst the general public as well as those at the helm of public affairs; there is ample historic evidence to support this phenomenon. It took barely a few years for the South Vietnamese regime to fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese after the departure of US troops and drawing upon financial support, the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s pro-Soviet Kabul regime to the Taliban was no different a story. While the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was successfully thwarted when Soviet troops withdrew a decade later by an alliance whose three main partners were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States, it was the latter’s unceremonious and almost sudden withdrawal from this theatre of war, which sent this region into a socio-political mayhem, which continues to date with no immediate end in sight.


Though this uncertainty exists on both sides of the Durand line, the impact of the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be more profound in the latter, where the unprecedented crisis of terrorism and extremism is multiplying in its gravity with each passing day. Extremism along with its vicious byproduct, terrorism, is not only feeding on the opportunities created by the existing cultural, ethnic, political, religious, and sectarian fault lines, but is also creating ever-new pastures for militants to graze on.


The veteran “Mujahideen” in a war torn country should have been de-weaponized and re-civilized in the post-conflict scenario, but instead they were left on their own in a devastated economy and polity. Resultantly, what started as a movement against the Soviets subsequently went on to confront the so-called anti-Islamic Western powers and manifested itself in its most lethal dimension on 9/11. As the developed nations beefed up their internal security institutions and techniques, the muzzle of the extremist gun turned inwards towards Muslims in the region who belonged to brands of Islam other than their own. Now the menace of sectarianism, which had always existed in some form in South/West Asia, had a new lease of life. The militants went up against the non-Sunni Islamic sects like the Shias and the Ahmadis, a sect which disputes the status of Muhammad as the last prophet. Their latter target was the peace loving moderate Sufi/Barelvi sub-sect within the Sunni faith and now their latest victim is the nonviolent and nonpolitical group of preachers called the Tablighi Jama’at within their own Deobandi/Ahl e Hadith fold. A bomb blast on a Tablighi center in Peshawar killed eight and injured another 50 on January 16th, 2014.


It would not be out of place to mention here that about four fifths of Muslims throughout the world and South/West Asia belong to the mainstream Sunni sect which stresses following the Quran and traditions of Muhammad, the prophet, in spiritual and political affairs of life, while the remaining one fourth belong to the Shia sect in which spiritual and political leadership is the exclusive right of the lineage/house of the prophet. Within the Sunni sect almost three fourths belong to the tolerant Barelvi/Sufi branch while one fourth belongs to the more puritanical and aggressive Deobandi and Wahabi branches, with Wahabis making up only a small fraction of the last subgroup. Wahabi/Salafi/Ahl-e-Hadith is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, which got a great boost in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the Mujahideen movement against the Soviets because of the military, financial and, most importantly, ideological injection from the Saudis. The Middle East and South/West Asia have always been an intra-Islamic ideological battleground between the Saudis and Iranians for their Wahabi and Shia faiths respectively. Saudi backing for their brand during the anti-Soviet resistance period in the region provided a natural motivation for the Iranians to step in. Sectarianism in Afghanistan and Iran thus had and still has a substantial backing from the oil rich regional forces. Needless to say, sectarian conflicts have further complicated the “Politics of faith” and resultant crisis manifolds.


While this wave of fundamentalism has by and large affected the entire region, its leadership and the governing “Shura” remains physically located in Quetta and tribal areas on the Western Pushtun belt of Pakistan adjoining Afghanistan. The federally administered tribal areas (FATA) of Pakistan have provided a safe haven for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda since 2001 when their regimes in Afghanistan were toppled by the US and allied forces with full support from Pakistan. Pakistan’s dual strategy of collaborating with some of the militants while unleashing its forces against others has effectively failed, not only displeasing the US and its allies but also strengthening the militants who have taken full advantage of it by consolidating their position and merging it into a unified whole under the joint leadership of Mullah Omar and Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri. They have also strategically extended their sphere of influence to other parts of Pakistan. The most dangerous manifestation of this metastasis can be seen in Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan and the Islamic world, with a population of around 20 million.


Accounting for more than half of Pakistan’s economic activity (Pakistan is the sixth most populated country in the world), Karachi, which started with a population base of less than half a million at the time of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, has absorbed waves of migrants from India, other neighboring countries like Iran and Bangladesh, and from within Pakistan itself.  As the largest industrial center and the only commercially viable port in Pakistan and landlocked Afghanistan, Karachi had always been the favorite destination for Pushtuns who dominate Pakistan’s transport sector. Their rate of migration to Karachi increased manifolds after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.


At the time of the last census in 1998, the Urdu speaking “Mohajirs” of Indian origin accounted for almost half of Karachi’s population, while the Pushtuns made up only a little more than one tenth. The Talibanization and the resultant chaos in the tribal areas and the adjoining settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkwah, the North Western home province of most of the Pushtuns in Pakistan, has caused a problematic demographic dispersal of Pushtun tribesmen towards the South of the country, with the biggest percentage choosing Karachi as their favorite destination.


The latest wave of Pushtun migrants to Karachi started in 2009 and involves the internally displaced persons from Swat and South Wazirastan, the areas where Pakistan’s army had carried out anti-Taliban operations that year. Now the Pushtun population of Karachi is estimated to be more than four million and even up to five million according to some estimates, including about a million Afghan refugees, making it the city with the largest Pushtun/Afghan population in the world. The favorite destinations of Pushtuns are the slums or “Katchi abadis”, which are spread in all corners of the city where large Pushtun neighborhoods already exist.


Karachi had been a hotbed of ethnic and political conflicts since the 80s when the Pakistani military establishment supported the formation of a political entity for Mohajirs called the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) to counter nationalist Sindhi elite. The evolution of this party was fraught with troubles, as it had to create a place for itself by haggling against the dominant political forces of the city, the leftist Pakistan People’s Party and the fundamentalist, Jama’at e Islami. Its next battle was against the Awami National Party, the main representative of the Pushtun population of the city, for grabbing state land and political space.


But it is not all about demography. Much more important are the changes that have taken place on the religious landscape. The dominant population of Karachi (comprising more than two thirds), like in the rest of South Asia, is composed of the mild Barelvi or Sufi branch of Sunni Islam. The rest of the population is almost equally divided between Shias and the Deobandi/Ahl e Hadith/Wahabi/Salafi branches of Sunni Islam. The massive influx of petro-dollars from the Gulf, predominantly from Saudi Arabia to support the Afghan resistance in the name of Islamic Jihad against the Soviet Union, was also accompanied by a concomitant export of Saudi brand extremist Wahabi/Salafi Islam, which was also doctrinally very close to the Deobandi Sunni Islam, which is followed by the Pushtun/Afghan population of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This extremist pro-jihad brand of Islam is adhered to by less than one fifth of Pakistanis, but their representation in religious schools or madrassas is lopsided in their favor with almost two thirds of Pakistan’s more than 20 thousand madrassas in their fold. The internationally well-known madrassas like “Dar ul Aloom Haqqania”, located in Akora Khattack, Peshawar and Lal Masjid, Islamabad are amongst them. This doctrinal change in madrassa profile has adversely affected the sectarian dynamics of Karachi. The leading Deobandi madrassa of Karachi, “Jamia Uloom ul Islamia” has an enrollment of more than 12 thousand boarding facilities for students from more than 60 countries and has linkages to key Taliban leader. This is evident from the fact that it has given an honorary degree to Mullah Omar.


The return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979 and the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic regime was looked upon with great interest by the Pakistani Shias who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s population. The then military ruler of Pakistan, Gen. Zia ul Haq, promulgated the “Zakat & ushr ordinance” by virtue of which every citizen was bound to deposit the religiously determined 2.5 percent tax in state coffers. The Shias launched a countrywide protest against this and forced the dictator to exempt them from this injunction. However, this was the first formal step of the Shias towards having a politically active sectarian entity, which also brought them to the sectarian limelight.


The sectarian war on the regional front between Iran and Saudi Arabia had stepped into Pakistan and their petrodollars began to flow into sectarian outfits which has hitherto resulted in the loss of more than five thousand lives, mostly of the minority Shia sect. The tragedy continues and mostly professionals and important businessmen are targeted.


The provocative and aggressive conduct of radical Deobandi and Shia outfits in recent years have ultimately led to the organization and radicalization of the peace-loving majority, the Barelvis, into “Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at” in Karachi. So, yet another key actor has emerged on the sectarian scene.


In the post 9/11 situation within the Pushtun/Afghan population of Karachi, the liberal, secular and anti-Taliban Awami National Party has been slowly losing political ground to the ever-increasing numbers of pro-Taliban elements.


Osama Bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, Mullah Omar and their associates had already started the process of reaching out to Karachi and Faislabad, Pakistan’s third largest city, after the fall of their regime in Kabul, when the Pakistani forces had started getting hold of their key leaders in the tribal belt. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the key architect of 9/11 and the person who beheaded Daniel Pearl and his nephew along with many others, had taken refuge in Karachi. Being an internationally connected business and commercial hub, Karachi not only provided these renegade elements with unlimited opportunities in terms of provision of safe hideouts and the possibility of providing safe exit to their nominated leaders, but also acted as a safe conduit for the transfer of funds from their sympathetic donors in the Gulf. There is also ample evidence of outflow of funds to extremist organizations in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.


The traditional power troika of political parties, which ruled Karachi during the last three decades, was always known for its internecine clashes and conflicts. Now, however, the equation has changed.


The result of the 2013 general elections is clear proof of the ability of extremist outfits to determine the outcome of political processes in Pakistan. The Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the flagship organization of about 50 or so groups of jihadi outfits within Pakistan, had clearly warned the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), ANP, and MQM, the largest political parties of Pakistan, the North Western predominantly Pushtun province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Karachi respectively, not to hold public rallies and contest elections. They could not hold election rallies and their leaders could neither address public gatherings nor could they reach out to their voters in door-to-door campaigns. With the exception of MQM, which has a very organized and well regimented structure, the other two were almost wiped out from the political arena, giving in to the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI), which have formed governments in Islamabad and Peshawar respectively. Karachi will be facing the same predicament in time and there is a sense of panic anticipating this within political circles.


Provincial police in Karachi, with its rag tag strength of about 30 thousand, is no match for these forces. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police, the main organization responsible for anti-terrorist activities in Karachi, met a severe blow when its head of the investigation wing was killed in a roadside blast on January 9th, 2014 and the TTP claimed responsibility. Another key officer of the same organization was gunned down four days later in another incident. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have limited abilities. Even when they do manage to apprehend the culprits, the prosecution and the legal system simply lack the ability to punish them. Firstly, no one dares to step forward to give evidence in the court and secondly, the prosecutors and judges are under mortal threat by the organizations behind these crimes.


The government of Pakistan conducted three cleansing operations in Karachi during the 90s to rid the city of criminal gangs with limited success. Now a fourth operation is in the process with the support of “Rangers”, the paramilitary force. There are large townships within the city such as Liyari, Manghopir, Orangi, Sohrabgoth, Korangi and Azizabad often with populations exceeding a million each where gangs belonging to various ethnic and political identities have established “No go areas”. Armed gangsters move in the streets collecting taxes and maintaining their own brand of law and order. The Pushtun/Afghan tribesmen have established their strongholds in several areas, but mostly in the East and West districts. Their style of control thrives on spreading their own brand of Islam through madrassas and religious seminaries, collecting taxes in the name of Islam, and even providing speedy justice through mobile “Qazi courts”.


Governance by the state is almost nonexistent in several large swathes of Karachi. Even where it does exist the rogue elements seem to be systemically eroding it. Because of the assistance provided by Dr. Shakil Afridi to the CIA in identifying DNA of the family members of Osama Bin Laden by acting as leader of a vaccination team, the entire Taliban machinery now fully opposes provision of vaccination to children in their areas of influence. Resultantly, Peshawar has now been declared the biggest single hotbed of poliovirus in the world. Almost 30 polio vaccinators have been killed since then. The same is being replicated in Karachi where recently three members of a polio team were killed while performing their duty.


Practice of unabashed and systemic spread of influence by Taliban continues in ever-new dimensions each passing day. On January 18th, 2014 the media van of “Express TV” was attacked in Karachi and three of their staff were killed. TTP not only openly accepted responsibility for this act, but also warned all other media houses in the country not to indulge in anti-Taliban propaganda. The Prime Minister has created a team of two of his senior ministers to look into the media’s security issues in the current scenario.


The Taliban has the advantage of having an almost unified command structure. Forces belonging to Al-Qaeda as well as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban factions owe allegiance to the “Quetta shura” and their “Ameer ul Momineen”, Mullah Omar. As against that, the Pakistan establishment faces multiple challenges of dissent and difference of opinion within itself. Several major political entities like the PPP, MQM, and ANP favor outright military action against the militants, while religious parties and PTI strongly oppose this idea.


The prospect of Taliban taking over Kabul in the post 2014 withdrawal of US/ISAF troops from Afghanistan is a very scary proposition for Pakistan. Most of the Afghan Taliban has its tribal and seminary roots in Pakistan and it will be in a far more powerful capacity to influence events in Pakistan if they have a regime of their own on the other side of the border.


It is in this backdrop that Pakistan is looking at the menace of the Taliban. An outright action against the Taliban could unleash mayhem in terms of spreading violence in every corner of the country and could displace virtually millions of people from the tribal belt creating a humanitarian crisis.


It is the considered opinion of most security analysts that fighting the militants in the huge urban jungle of Karachi would be far more difficult than fighting them in the tribal belt.


What the Pakistani establishment needs is to come out of its current phase of indecisiveness by bringing the divergent views in its political circles to a consensus as quickly as possible and put forth a concerted, holistic effort to handle this crisis and then solicit international support in the second phase. And what the international community needs to do is to empathize with the difficulties faced by an impoverished ally in coping with a network of dedicated suicidal fundamentalist outfits which definitely have the capacity to regionalize and globalize their organization and destructive might.