Bringing Some Cheer Back to Pakistan

There seems to be a resolve within the Pakistan Army, to take on serious security threats head on.

EARLIER this year when Saudi Arabia started its airstrikes in Ye-men in its attempt to push back the Houthis, it also planned a ground offensive. Without blinking an eyelid, the Monarchy asked the Pakistan Govt to send its troops to fight the Saudi war in Ye-men. Knowing well that the country enjoyed substantial influence over Pakistan, given it had often helped the country financially, it expected its wish to be fulfilled without much fuss. The current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif owes his second coming to Pakistan politics to the Saudi Monarchy, after they not facilitated his safe exit after Gen Musharraf toppled him an Army coup in 1998, but also played a pivotal role in his return to the country in 2008. What seemed a foregone conclusion was stymied by a resolution passed by the Pakistan Parliament to maintain its neutrality in the conflict.  But it seemed clear that the Pakistan Army had prevailed over the political leadership, especially the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to not become a part of this conflict. Raiwind was overshadowed by the Pakistan GHQ. In a different era and perhaps under a different Army Chief, Pakistan Army would have been fighting the Saudi War in Yemen.

This has been one among the many positive developments on the Pakistani political and security landscape in the last 15-18 months. Over the years, Pakistan Army has become notorious for staging a military coup at the slightest pretext. For almost half of its existence, the country has been ruled by the army. During the previous PPP Govt, there were many instances when an army intervention or a coup seemed inevitable. But the Army under Gen Ashfaq Kayani resisted any idea of interfering in the political sphere. But that was as far as the previous army leadership in Pakistan was willing to go. It maintained a status quo in dealing with the sectarian and religious militancy that was tearing Pakistan apart. It did not take, head on, this threat that was increasingly posing a serious danger to the very existence of Pakistan as a State. The political leadership was more than happy to evade the serious business of dealing with such a threat.

Even till the beginning of the last year, when the new Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharief had already assumed office, Pakistan was in a state of denial about the terrorist threat that it was facing. Both the major political parties, PML-N and PTI had an ambiguous stance about dealing with this threat, which resulted in the Pakistan Govt announcing ‘’peace talks’’ with the dreaded TTP. These were open ended talks, with no conditions put on the TTP before coming to the negotiating table. Not used to the language of peace and diplomacy, the TTP could not, for long, keep itself away from carrying out its attacks. This gave the Pakistan Army the much needed chance to take over from the dithering politicians and launch a full blooded attack, Zarb e Azab, on the TTP.

Pakistan Army’s operation and its success needs to be seen in the backdrop of the gloomy situation that the country found itself in, just a year back. The militants carried out attacks and suicide bombings against their targets, both civilian and army targets, with complete impunity. The country seemed on the precipice and had every chance of slipping into an abyss, perhaps like Egypt or some other Middle East country. There was a feeling of dread and hopelessness. Emboldened by the Pakistani States’ inaction, the militants had spread their terror network even within the major cities and were no more restricted to the tribal areas of Pakistan. But the Army operation that began last year has become the turning point in Pakistan’s war against its biggest enemies. It has clearly put the militants on the defensive as much of their fire power has been neutralized. Not that the militant attacks have completely stopped, but there is a visible drop in the number of militant attacks. The last major attack by the TTP militants was carried out in Dec 2014 when they killed 145 students in the Peshawar Army School. This attack turned the public opinion completely against the TTP, which also helped the Army carry on its operation without any hindrance, given that it is not only a war of firepower, but also that of narratives.

Not only has the Army shown its resolve in fighting religious militancy, but in Karachi, the Rangers have also taken on the might of the secular extortionists, the MQM. For long the party headed and operated by Altaf Husain from London, has remained unaccountable for the violence that it has unleashed on Pakistan’s commercial capital and has run extortion rackets with impunity in the city. With the recent operation by the Rangers in the city, much of their terror has been diluted. What has also been worrying for MQM are the mounting legal troubles against its party chief in London.

The scourge of sectarian militancy has caused much trouble and anguish for Pakistan over the years. Often the State’s own crea-tions, these organizations, which have a strong presence in Punjab, have been treated with kid gloves by successive Pakistani Governments. Over the past few decades, their violence has been responsible for thousands of deaths in Pakistan. Given how closely they were seen with the establishment and also how they enjoyed a sympathetic narrative within the Pakistani middle class, it was al-most impossible to expect the Pakistani State to take them head on. But not only did the general and the political analysts fail to read the writing on the wall, but even the sectarian militants failed to read the shifting landscape and mindset in Pakistan. Last week, the most dreaded of them all, the self confessed murderer of more than hundred Shias in Pakistan, Malik Ishaq, along with his two sons was killed by the Punjab Police.  Not only was he a dreaded figure in Southern Punjab, but he was also mentoring many anti Shia militants in Baluchistan. In fact he was the head pontiff, the father figure of anti Shia militants in Pakistan. With his killing the Pakistani State has sent a clear signal that it is not only the religious militancy of TTP and its affiliates and the secular warlords of MQM, but also the sectarian monsters of Punjab that it is increasingly going to target in its fight to bring back normalcy to Pakistan.

The optimism may seem a little too early and even far-fetched, knowing well Pakistan’s history of continued instability and violence all through its existence since 1947. But now there seems to be a resolve within the Pakistan Army, to take on these serious security threats head on. Even the common Pakistanis, some of whom till recently had a soft corner for these militants, have grown tired of the daily cycle of death and destruction. There is a palpable shift in the public mood and it seems clearly behind the Army operations against the militants. Fear hasn’t completely vanished from Pakistan, neither has the gloom completely lifted itself, but there is a growing feeling that Pakistan’s battle for its own survival is going in the right direction and the situation is not irredeemable. It will take not only Pakistan’s military might but a firm political resolve to undo the decades of misadventures that successive Pakistani establishments have indulged in. The bigger question though, is whether the Pakistani political leadership is really willing and capable of taking this fight ahead, once the present Army Chief retires? That will take unusual resolve and out of box thinking by the Pakistani political establishment and will decide whether Pakistan heads positively into the future or slips back into obscurity.

The scourge of sectarian militancy has caused much trouble and anguish for Pakistan over the years. Often the State’s own crea-tions, these organisations have been treated with kid gloves by successive Pakistani Governments. Given how closely they were seen with the establishment and also how they enjoyed a sympa-thetic narrative within the Pakistani middle class, it was almost im-possible to expect the Pakistani State to take them head on. But not only did the general and the political analysts fail to read the writing on the wall, but even the sectarian militants failed to read the shifting landscape and mindset in Pakistan. Last week, the most dreaded of them all was killed by the Punjab Police. 

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