Pakistan Fighting its Own Demons and De-stabilizing the Iranian Cause

By Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya

Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow, in New Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management. She has been reseraching in the field of Political Islam, Terrorism and Socio-Economic aspects of Pakistan. She has extensively published in various national and international journals and have also contributed in various edited books. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

While discussing on the aspect of how Pakistan’s support to various terror grouping is in a way destabilising the Iranian cause, we also need to look into the internal terror scenario of Pakistan. An analysis of various aspects within the country, pertaining to the phenomenon of terrorism is required before we discuss the Iranian perspective. In this regard, the article shall examine the outlook of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, how effective the policy of Federal government is in this respect and the role played by madrasa in the context of terrorism and anti-establishment activities. The nexus between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and their covert support to militant organisation is also discussed.

Outlook of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan
Since its inception, Pakistan has been continually challenged by diverse groups on the basis of nationalism, regional separatism, religious doctrine and political dogma. This instability has been unfortunately reflected in domestic politics where pluralistic traditions have been regularly diluted by incompetent leadership or interrupted by periods of military rule. Causes like demographic alterations; economic disproportion; scarce and uneven distribution of resources; economic disparity, etc have more or less shaped the ethnic map of Pakistan in an ominous manner.
War on Terror launched way back in 2001, still has a global appeal to it. Pakistan has been ‘exporting’ various terror elements and non-state violent actors in its immediate neighbourhood. With the War on Terror, one can say that, “terror” for the first time entered into the domain of Pakistan and the establishment got the taste of the medicine it has been wrongly implementing on others. The state and society of Pakistan is itself entangled within the web of violence and terror. America’s War on Terror in many ways complicated certain aspect within Pakistan and the loss are irreparable, unless and until the government starts to initiate an anti-terror narrative within the state and not just in papers.
The increased radicalisation within the society and outside has resulted in increased violence. Culture of hate and violence has in many ways consumed the social structure of Pakistan resulting in persecution of the minority, be it woman, free-thinkers, rights’ activists, academics, liberal politicians, religious minorities etc. The dominance of exclusion is creating a negative domain for growth of diversification in the state.
The previous operations conducted in North Waziristan and Swat valley, namely Operation Rah-e-Nijat and Rah-e-Rast, caused influx of terror outfits in Pakistan.
The fatalities caused due to terror incidents surely is declining in Pakistan since 2014. Reasons being the involvement of armed forces in targeting the epicenters of violence and deciding to eliminate the terror cells within Pakistan.
Few instances of such joint armed operations are as follows:
The Karachi Operation was launched in September 2013, with the ulterior objective of wiping the militant outfits. Al Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) networks have been relentlessly targeted by the paramilitary Rangers, police, and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers—often in the city’s Pashtun enclaves.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb/ Strike of the Sword of the Prophet was launched by Pakistani armed forces in 2014 in North Waziristan to wipe out various militant hideouts of not only TTP, but, Haqqani Network, al qaeda, LeJ and others. Operation Radd-ul-Fassad/ Elimination of Strife, launched in 2017 to neutralize the sleeper cells of terror organisations across Pakistan.

Pakistani Government and counter terrorism
Pakistan has been in the business of fighting proxy wars since the early 1980s, both on its eastern and western borders. The years following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, witnessed the birth of Taliban. The militia, depending on madrasa students, swept over the war-battered country within a few years of their emergence. While the presence of anti-Soviet “mujahideen” on Pakistani soil caused the spread of illegal arms, religious extremism, the mushrooming of religious seminaries supported with funds from Gulf countries, and the establishment of religious groups, Pakistan’s sheltering of the Taliban helped endorse anarchism, weakened state authority, and pushed the society toward militarization. Enthralled with the Afghan Taliban, illiterate and jobless tribal youth, some of whom studied in the old-fashioned religious schools imparting knowledge only about Islamic theology, formed their own groups to fight the Jihad in Afghanistan, and also in Kashmir. For a while, all was going well, as long these jihadis were targeting the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan and fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir. But a sense of realisation started predominanting among the Pakistani policymakers when they saw the rise of splinters, and then splinters of the splinters including those who began targeting Pakistan itself.
Lately, Pakistan is confronted with two broad categories of terrorism: internal and external which can be further classified. It is facing the twin menaces of religious extremism and ethnic strife. The real threat to Pakistan’s security primarily comes from “within.” The internal terror is caused by banned organisations with strong ethnic and sectarian bias. Areas like, Para Chinar, Dera Ismail Khan, tribal belt, Southern Punjab and the metropolis of Karachiare affected by the internal dimension of terrorism. Suicide attacks and attacks on infrastructure, schools, banks, railway tracks and gas pipelines etc. are some other examples of home-grown terrorism.
Following the terror attack on the Peshawar school, it was expected that the government would stop its draconian policy of differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists. The then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared, the day after the Peshawar attack, "We announce that there will be no differentiation between 'good' and 'bad' Taliban and have resolved to continue the war against terrorism till the last terrorist is eliminated." Apparently in the Pakistani narrative, the militant outfits going against its own establishment are “bad”, in comparison to those “good” ones taking clandestine Pakistani support and operating primarily in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and India.
The approach against militant groups as Pakistan has suffered a lot since 9/11 due to this double standard. And due to this approach, it also alleged that Pakistan "harboured" such groups for some gains and, reportedly, to put pressure on the international communities, especially the US. The crackdown needs to be launched across the board this time. And the nation's armed forces should not target only select militant groups, as the others will always come back to haunt them as has been the case in the past.

Extremist religious schools in Pakistani and the Government’s neglect
The religious schools/ Madrasa or Madaris (plural for Madrasa) came into the focal point of international scrutiny as a by-product of 9/11. As put by the western media and intelligentsia, the Pakistani madaris have been termed as the ‘incubators of violent extremism’, which breed terrorism and supply motivated warriors. Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of Defence, is quoted in the 9/11 Commission Report, asking, “Is enough being done to fashion a broad integrated plan to stop the next generation of the terrorists?”  One of the major components of post 9/11 madrasa narrative is the role played by Dar-ul-Uloom, Haqqania of Akora Khattak, known to be the birth place of Taliban. Though Taliban militants were not directly involved in the horrific acts of 9/11, but the ideological and logistic alliance between Osam bin Laden and Taliban caused it the international glare.
At the very basic level, it can be stated that the madrasa students are being trained in theory, for service in the religious sector. Nonetheless, matters go downhill, as their constrained worldview, poverty and lack of modern civic education make them a destabilising factor in Pakistani society. For all these reasons, they are also prone to impractical notions of sectarian and international jihad, causing an upturn in violent incidents. The most infamous being the Lal Masjid incident. It is considered as a watershed event which occurred in 2007. Military operation took place in Jamia Hafsa Madrasa compound and the Lal Masjid. The students in way were demanding the overthrow of Pakistani Government and imposition of Pro-Taliban Sharia based law in the country. 18 months of arson, loot and other crimes were committed before the Government took action.
But, since 2002, the Musharraf Government promulgated “revisionist approach” towards the institutions. It pledged to reform the madrasa system as part of its anti-terrorism actions in fulfilment of UN Security Council Resolution 1373. The Deeni Madaris (Voluntary Registration and Regulation) Ordinance 2002, tried to give some sense of the lack of commitment to reform. It is difficult to assess the positive impact, if any, of Pakistan’s own reforms because the program implemented in 2002 called for voluntary submission to regulations, leaving countless Madaris that chose not to comply.  Few other steps were also taken by the government.  Like the Madrasa Reform Project, which also ended in failure. Post 7/7 London attacks, few other measures were taken by the Government: change in the madrasa curriculum, restrictions in the admission of foreign students in madrasa, the Ministry of Education to monitor administration and technical functions of the madrasa, accounts of the madrasa to be audited by the Provincial Audit Department etc.  
The government proposed a new education policy in September 2009, and a decision was made to establish a Madrassa Regulatory Authority under the Interior Ministry to control madrasas. However, the Ittehad Tanzeemat-e-Madaaris Pakistan (ITMP) rejected the proposal to work under the Interior Ministry, and suggested setting up the authority under Ministry of Religious Affairs or Education instead. In October 2010, the government succeeded inking an agreement with ITMP for the introduction of contemporary subjects in seminaries in their metric and intermediate courses. However, the issue of madrasa reforms has become more complex after the promulgation of 18th Amendment, under which the subject of Islamic education has been transferred to the provinces.  Also a 20-point action plan was released by the government in 2015, for regulation and registration of madrasa. Still, the government remains disagreed over how aggressively it should, and can, oppose and confront the powerful network of Islamic religious leaders and teachers.
As discussed earlier, Pakistan has been experiencing ‘a wave of madrasa reform’ post 9/11. But, unfortunately, most of these are a political ‘eyewash’, as the government has failed miserably to regulate and streamline the madrasa education. Although, the government has been encouraging to register the madrasa, but sense of curricular autonomy and superiority are the major impediments towards rational development of the institution.  
The problem with Madrasa modernization remains the same in these two decades because:
The government never envisaged real intervention in the madrasa system because of the opposition of clergy. Secondly, most madaris have resisted any attempts made by the government to secularise education. Thirdly, in spite of the ban imposed on various religious bodies, they still carry on with the publication of militant literature. Fourthly, there is an apparent state of mistrust between the government and the madrasa establishment.

Nexus between intelligence agencies, Army and militant groupings in Pakistan
The ISI, headquartered, in Islamabad, capital city of Pakistan and currently headed by its Director General has acquired increasing notoriety not only within Pakistan, but also in the neighbourhood. Several members of the Pakistani state, including top government officials are influenced by the ISI and maintain professional, yet covert, relationships with militant leaders engaged in terror activities. It is apparent that the ISI and Pakistan are willing to only cooperate with counterterrorism operations superficially, only to appease the international community. There have been a number of successful operations to capture terrorists within Pakistan, and with Pakistani assistance.
The ISI also has an intricate financial way of diverting finances and using it for terror activities. A number of investigative reports have suggested that the ISI diverted American money designated for fighting terrorism to the Taliban. According to a 2007 document released by WikiLeaks, US military interrogators at Guantánamo tacitly acknowledged this problem when they placed the ISI on an internal list of terrorist and terrorist-support entities.
The military-jihadi complex (MJC), working since decades in Pakistan is a dynamic web of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures following a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance. It has captured the 'commanding heights' of the Pakistani state and subordinated the Pakistani people to its ends. It exploits Pakistan's geopolitical position to promote its own interests, as Pakistan's national interests, thus becoming the main recipient of international assistance. Having total control over a nuclear arsenal has emboldened it to pursue ideological-territorial ambitions in the geographical neighbourhood.  Being a geopolitical actor, MJC’s external environment comprises of a large number of important external stakeholders. The extent of its activities means that it is dependent on the external environment for both, information needs and resource needs.

Pakistan’s terror connection with groups operating within Iran
The Government of Pakistan has always allowed terrorists to easily enter Pakistani territory after performing their operations inside Iran and the lack of serious intention by the government to confront these terrorists instead of frequent requests from Iran.
Since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, the relationship between Iran and Pakistan has altered significantly. At first, Iran was a friend and brother.  There was noteworthy bilateral cooperation in economic, cultural and security matters; for example, Iran provided support to Pakistan in its 1965 and 1971 wars against India. The relations saw a changing phase with Pakistan becoming a frontline U.S. ally during the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-88) and this affected Pakistan-Iran relations. During the 1980s, Pakistan’s nearness to Saudi Arabia, along with Islamization, triggered a sectarian divide within the country. The U S led War on Terror, which brought Pakistan and the United States together, added to the trust deficit between Islamabad and Tehran. Presently, the level of economic cooperation is far below its appraised potential, and there is no defense cooperation. Despite the often-publicised rhetoric on both sides referring to the other as a “brotherly state,” there have been scuffles in the border areas, along with allegations of cross-border terrorism. It can thus be argued that ideas and discernments of national identity have a direct bearing on how the two countries view each other and make sense of regional geopolitics.
The recent visit of Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan to Iran brought the issue of Pak-sponsored terror groups operating inside Iran to the forefront. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged Imran Khan to take action against the al-Qaeda linked Jaish ul-Adl terror outfit. This comes subsequently, as tensions between Iran and Pakistan intensified early this year (2019) following the fatal attack on a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) servicemen, which killed as many as 27 and left 13 others wounded. Two Pakistani nationals were suspected of connection in the attack. Jaish ul-Adl (JuA)- Army of Justice, had claimed responsibility for the ghastly attack which happened on a highway in eastern Iran near the Pakistani border. Rouhani further said that Iran and Pakistan should not consent decades of friendship and fraternity between the two countries to be affected by the actions of small terrorist groups, the source of whose financing and arms is mutually known by both countries.
JuA is seen as the incarnation of Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, which began a bloody rebellion against the Islamic Republic in 2000. For a decade, Jundallah waged a deadly insurgency on civilians and officials in the restive southeast of Iran. Jundallah has been weakened since Iran executed its leader Abdol Malek Rigi in 2010 after capturing him in an operation. Rigi had been on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan that year when Iranian fighter jets intercepted the airliner he was travelling on and forced it to land before arresting him. Like its predecessor, JuA operates from bases in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan and neighbouring Pakistan, where it gets support from ethnic Baluch tribes.
JuA was founded in 2012 by Salahuddin Farooqui, a militant known for his opposition to Iran's support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. Since then it has claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly bombings, ambushes and other attacks on Iranian security forces in the restive region, as well as abductions. Iran considers the organisation -- which it calls Jaish al-Zolm (Army of Injustice in Arabic) -- a terrorist group supported by the United States and Israel as well as regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The outfit has launched a number of attacks on Iranian security forces in the border areas since 2012, often resulting in the kidnapping and murder of members of the Iranian security forces. The group adheres to ultra-orthodox Sunni-Deobandi ideology. And, although relatively little information is available about the group’s ambitions, the aim of its parent organization was to fight for Sunni-Baluch rights inside Iran. The group is currently led by Farooqi and Mullah Omar. Little is known about Farooqi, but Mullah Omar is the brother of Maula Bux Darakhshan, the leader of another Sunni sectarian outfit named Sipah-e-Rasoolallah that is also active in Sistan-Baluchistan province.
As is well known, Jundallah and its successor JuA oppose the Islamic Republic’s Shia leaders, and Tehran regards them as terrorist organisations. The Iranian government is of the opinion that fighters associated with Jaish-al-Adl use the western reaches of Pakistan’s poorly administered and policed Balochistan region as a hideout to plan attacks across a porous border. It is considered the largest Sunni outfit operating to undermine the Iranian government.

There are two important sectors where bilateral relations could attain tactical collaboration. The first theme of discussion is the security sector, which requires improved border management. The second is the economic sector. The ongoing trade volume remains much below the desired level. Besides, there is the area of energy security. China, Pakistan and India are three energy-starved states, which can profit from natural gas pipeline networks initiating from Iran. While discussing the destabilized situation within Pakistan and it’s changing equation with Iran one also needs to analyze that the country is an energy-dependent country of South Asia, and is dependent upon other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to meet its requirements. Pakistan has to diversify its options, and not merely depend on a single source and take a dictation in return. Iran has also agreed to provide 74 MW of electricity to Pakistan’s border region. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline holds a vanguard position in this regard, and can be instrumental to meet Pakistan’s gas requirements and provide ample economic opportunities.
There is no denying the fact that issue of terrorism has spread to every part of the world. Both Pakistan and Iran share a border with Afghanistan, having provided shelter to millions of refugees. The element of terror is constant in the neighbourhood with various militant outfits operating with impunity, not only in Pakistan, but also in Iran and Afghanistan. In such scenario, Pakistan is expected since over two decades if not earlier, to act with honesty and force against these groups.
One of the major issues causing distress between Iran and Pakistan is that of the border management. It is actually threatening the bilateral relations. The case of terror incidents in Iran’s Sistan Baluchestan and the ongoing Baluch insurgency in the adjoining area of Balochistan, within Pakistan require understanding on the part of both country’s leadership.
The ever more sectarian nature of Syrian and Iraqi conflicts and their implications on the fragile sectarian balance within Pakistan have contributed to complicating matters between the two neighbours. The solution towards creating a possible future understanding between them is to engage in political dialogue.