Saving Pakistan

The country is at war with itself
February 20, 2013

The aftermath of an explosion in Quetta, Pakistan, on 10th January © Demotix/PPIimages

The evening of 10th January began like any other. A group of men gathered in a large snooker hall in Alamdar Road, a Shia area in the city of Quetta, western Pakistan. And then, in an instant, chaos descended. Two huge bomb blasts, detonated within 10 minutes of each other, left 85 people dead and a further 120 injured. “It was like the end of the world,” says Mohammed, who was left permanently disabled by the attack. “But I am lucky. I did not die. God willing, it was not my time.”

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group with ties to the Taliban and a hatred for Shias, the Muslim minority that makes up 20 per cent of Pakistan’s population. An apparently unrelated attack the same day in the northern province of Swat killed at least 20 Sunnis attending a religious gathering. The scale of the day’s bloodshed shocked the nation. Quetta’s grieving Shia community held a vigil on the streets, surrounded by coffins. They refused to bury their dead until something was done; a powerful way of shaming the government into giving them basic protection. After several days, with protests erupting all over the country, the surrounding province of Balochistan was placed under federal control to restore order.

As Pakistan gears up for elections, expected to take place in May or June, terrorism is high on the agenda. This is a pivotal moment for Pakistan’s democracy: it is the first time in its 66-year history that a civilian government has lasted a full term and transferred power to another through elections. Lasting a full term is a significant achievement in itself, since Pakistan has spent a total of 32 years under military rule. The relationships between state institutions are dysfunctional and civilian governments are inherently weak given the threat of overthrow by the army, the “state within a state.” The vulnerability of democratic institutions goes some way towards explaining why this parliament has done little to tackle extremist threat.

Politicians from all the leading coalition partners condemn militancy, but the rhetoric is not matched by action. Terrorism is getting worse, not better, and the lack of protection against this menace is a growing source of anger among the public. While it is unlikely that extremists would actually gain control of the state—religious parties usually don’t gain more than 5 per cent of the vote—militant groups have already had a serious chilling effect on Pakistan’s fragile democracy. As bomb attacks and assassinations continue unabated, the very fabric of the state and its ability to function is under threat. Successive governments have given a disproportionate amount of space to extremists. The effect has been a proliferation of violence and intimidation that goes from attacks on polio workers—nine were assassinated in December by terrorists, claiming a western plot—to politicians at the very top of the system who live under the threat of attack. Certain areas of policy, particularly those relating to religion or morality, are out of bounds. So is serious action against militants, for which none of the major political parties appears to have a strategy.

The attacks in January were not unique. In 2012 more than 2000 civilians died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and around 4000 were injured. People are so inured to daily news of shootings and bombs that they are barely a talking point. Yet mothers are tense from the moment their children go to school until they arrive home. No one can be trusted. At a recent dinner party in Karachi, the host urged an activist friend railing against the Taliban to be quiet, fearful that her servants might hear. Society is under stress and most people live in fear but carry on regardless. In this strained atmosphere, conspiracy theories thrive and the question of how to purge the extremist threat is never far away.

The answer to how this might be done is complicated. Militant groups operate in every province of Pakistan and have footholds in all the major cities. The majority of the population does not hold extremist views, but religious fundamentalism, social conservatism and even violence do find support among different echelons of society, from the poor to the middle classes. In January 2011, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard for speaking out against the country’s regressive blasphemy laws. In court, the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was showered with rose petals by supporters, a group primarily made up of lawyers, not uneducated militants. Soon after the shooting, the government shelved reform of the blasphemy laws—just one example of how extremist intimidation skews the national conversation and threatens the very functioning of democracy.

“Militancy and extremism is a fault line that runs through Pakistani society,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. “Any idea that it is localised, that it is limited to a certain area or ethnicity, is simply incorrect. This is Pakistani society at war with itself. And there is a high level of denial about this ideological civil war.”

The militant threat in Pakistan is many-headed. With Taliban insurgents spilling over from Afghanistan, an array of well-established sectarian groups across the country and a security apparatus that is ambivalent towards these actors, the state is struggling to contain the violence. It is estimated that 35,000 people have died here in terrorist attacks since 2001. As Pakistanis live in a constant state of high alert and the world watches this nuclear-armed nation flailing, it is clear that something has to be done. But what? Despite a military operation against the Taliban in the northern region of Swat in 2009, terrorist violence is growing and the targets are becoming increasingly audacious. The US continues its controversial drone war in the federally administered tribal area of Waziristan, and public opinion remains split between anti-Americanism and anti-extremism. A 2012 Pew survey found that 74 per cent of the public view America as the enemy. It also showed that 66 per cent had a negative view of the Taliban, while 13 per cent had a favourable view. (The other 20 per cent said “don’t know”). A majority opposes extremism, but the minority that doesn’t is significant. Unless serious action is taken, the extremist threat will continue to grow and democracy will become ever weaker.

Extremist ideology has infested Pakistan. The reasons for this are deep-rooted, and attempts to fight it would have to be at a profound cultural and social level. Poverty and a flawed education system mean that swathes of the population are vulnerable to radicalisation, while dysfunctional policing and law allows criminal elements to run riot. Militant groups raise funds through bank robberies and kidnappings, acting with near impunity. In moments of crisis, such as with the bombing in Quetta, people call for military intervention. But it is impossible for the army to fight a war against an enemy hidden in every city.

It is popular in Pakistan to argue that extremism is a foreign import, spilling over the Afghan border and inculcated in cities by Saudi Arabian funding. “The Pakistani state likes to argue that the current situation is down to foreign militants,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, security expert and author of Military Inc., a book analysing the Pakistani army’s involvement in the economy. “This is to divert attention from the fact that these guys have been operating within the country for a very long time.”

Groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (which preceded Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) have been operational since the 1980s. Part of a network of Deobandi Sunni groups, which believe in a harsh version of Islam and reach across Pakistan, they believe that Shias are non-Muslims. The military and successive governments have allowed these groups to grow, even actively encouraging them, to serve state interests and fight proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan. With the onset of the war on terror in 2001, in which Pakistan pledged to stand with America, ties between terrorist organisations and the security establishment officially ended—but in practice, the ambivalence remains, largely due to paranoia about India. As late as 2008, the US concluded that the Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence service, was behind an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. It has also worked closely with groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Yet such co-operation is short-sighted in the extreme. Increasingly, these militant groups are operating under the umbrella of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorist group (TTP) and al Qaeda, a lethal collaboration that goes some way to explaining the upsurge in violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the largest online database of extremist violence in the area, Pakistan saw 76 suicide attacks— al Qaeda’s preferred method—in 2009, compared with just two in 2003. As these groups continue to expand their reach, unimpeded by the authorities, it seems there are legions of young men ready to commit atrocities and lose their lives. Why? And can they be pulled back from the brink?

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Sadiq grew up in a mud house in Dara, a small town in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, with his parents and his four younger brothers. Situated in Pakistan’s north west, the province borders Waziristan, and in 2009 it was home to a battle between Taliban insurgents and the Pakistan army. Sadiq—whose name has been changed for safety reasons—was just 15, an impressionable boy barely attending school. Beguiled by talk of guns, power and heaven, a friend of a friend persuaded him to join the TTP. He agreed to leave his family and attend a training camp where he was taught to use a rocket launcher, an AK-47 and hand grenades. Commanders lectured him about the evils of Shias and the Pakistani army, and the ideal of martyrdom. In July 2009, Sadiq took part in an attack on an army camp in which five people were killed and 11 kidnapped, and an assault on a meeting of tribal elders which left 100 people dead. Distressed by the reality of this violence, the teenager was questioning his decision to abandon his home and join the militants.

Sadiq’s father, a low ranking government employee, was frantic at his son’s disappearance, and travelled to the training camp to retrieve him. The commanders denied any knowledge of Sadiq.

Time was running out. Sadiq’s commanders told him that in two days’ time, he would don a suicide jacket and blow himself up in an imambara, a Shia place of worship. His choice: exploding himself or execution by his commanders. The 15 year old entered the imambara, with instructions to throw a grenade before running into the crowd and detonating the bomb. Sadiq had learnt of his father’s attempt to see him and was distressed that he had been unable to say goodbye. Exhausted and terrified, he made it past the guards but hesitated before entering the crowd. A policeman spotted him, snatching the grenade and suicide vest. The crowd rounded on Sadiq, beating him to near unconsciousness. But he was alive.

He was held by the intelligence service for eight months, before spending a year in prison. During interrogations, he shared information about his activities. Still a child, he suffered from anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. And then, suddenly, he was given a second chance.

Sabaoon is a school and “deradicalisation centre” on an army base in Swat, in Sadiq’s home province. A partnership between the military and psychologists who oversee the programme, it caters for boys under the age of 18 apprehended carrying out acts of militancy. The school—and Heela, a deradicalisation centre for adult men—has pioneered a method of tackling extremist ideology head on. Both centres take a holistic approach, providing psychological treatment and religious education alongside regular school lessons at Sabaoon and technical professional skills at Heela.

Feriha Peracha is the director and supervising psychologist at Sabaoon. “Imagine a young teenager who doesn’t have much hope for success in life,” she tells me. “He has dropped out of school, his family is not doing well, and somebody offers him heaven. Heaven is easily achievable. It’s attractive to a young teenager who can’t see a future. What we are doing here is giving them hope in their own ability to achieve their goals in this life.”

This is no small task. At Sabaoon, boys are told they can do whatever they want to do. But most cannot continue their education without financial support. Currently, this is provided—an investment to keep them on the straight and narrow.

“I get very upset when people say terrorism has nothing to do with poverty,” says Peracha, her voice rising. “The top commanders may be educated, or come from well-placed families. But those commanders need soldiers. The recruitment of those soldiers has everything to do with poverty.”

The philosophy underpinning Sabaoon and Heela is that most extremist recruitment depends primarily on lack of education, job opportunities, and religious understanding. Since attending Sabaoon, Sadiq’s teachers and psychologists report that he has become more outgoing and concerned with personal grooming. He has also regained an interest in his studies, particularly religious teaching. Peracha explains that although most boys are suspicious on arrival, believing they are in a prison, their hostility recedes when they realise what is on offer. Of the 135 boys who have passed through Sabaoon since it was opened in 2009, not one has returned to militancy. Heela opened in 2012, and its first intake of 38 former militants graduated late last year.

At both centres, religious re-education is central, with an emphasis on critical engagement and questioning. “The Koran is written in Arabic, not the language they understand,” explains Peracha. “So if somebody like Maulana Fazlullah [a leader of the TTP in Swat] picks up the Koran and says ‘it is written here that you must attack the Pakistan army,’ they believe that.”

There is a crisis of education in Pakistan. The country has one of the world’s largest proportions of young people—35 per cent of the population of 180m is under 15, yet 5.1m of these children do not attend school. Chronic under-financing and corruption have left state schools practically non-existent. In Peer Mehfooz, a village on the outskirts of Karachi, I visited a government school that stands empty because there is no money to pay the teachers’ fees. This story is repeated across the country. Many low-fee private schools have sprung up, but for the most impoverished families, madrasas are the sole accessible form of education. These unregulated religious schools are, if nothing else, a safe place for their children to learn and to receive a hot meal.

In 2005, the US National Commission on Terrorist Attacks suggested that madrasas were “incubators for violent extremism.” The charge has been picked up with gusto by Pakistan’s media and politicians, particularly as some of the schools are funded by Saudi Arabia and teach Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam. However, many security experts, including those at the Brookings Institution, the US public policy think tank, advise caution. “There is no evidence that these children are being deployed in the war,” says Ayesha Siddiqa.

A 2012 Unicef report suggested that the real security threat is not the religious teaching itself, but the poor skills offered by an education that hinges on rote learning of the Koran. “Those who are in school are not taught critical thinking or citizenship skills, leaving students vulnerable to radical influences outside the school environment.” This is just as true for below-par mainstream schools as it is for madrasas.

Mossarat Qadeem is the director of Paiman Trust, a counter-extremism NGO based in Islamabad. One of their programmes involves working with vulnerable youths and their mothers. “We build their analytical thinking,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. “Women are the first to notice behaviour changes in their families but have not been brought up to ask questions. We develop their critical faculties: ‘where did you get this mobile phone? How did you get this money?’ It is important these women understand where, why, and how.”

Young men identified as vulnerable to extremism are also taught different ways of thinking, alongside technical skills to help them find employment. Like Sabaoon, Paiman’s work is on a small scale, with counter-extremism programmes tailored to individual boys and their families. Mirroring Sabaoon’s success, Qadeem says she knows of 79 boys who have rejected militancy as a result. Yet there is no effort to introduce such schemes on a wider scale.

Both projects hinge on counteracting the state’s failure to provide adequate education or job opportunities. The most obvious way to replicate their success would be drastic, long-term reform of the education system and economic development to increase employment.

If social deprivation has provided cannon fodder for militant groups, official inconsistency has allowed them to organise and recruit. “The state deals with militants by appeasing and accommodating rather than saying: this runs against the basic contract on which our state is structured,” says Ali Dayan Hasan from Human Rights Watch. Although the major partners in the leading political coalition, the PPP, the ANP, and the MQM, all take a staunchly anti-terrorist position, their tough words are rarely followed by action.

“The control of political parties over the state, even if they are in government, is limited at best,” says Hasan. Even when it is not seeking to seize power, the dominance of the military has a knock-on effect on other policy areas, given how much of the budget it eats up. Spending on the army is 10 times greater than on education. This budgetary disparity makes the long-term educational reforms even more difficult to enact.

Another result of these dysfunctional relationships between government, army, judiciary and the intelligence service is that the state never speaks with one voice and the perpetrators of atrocities are rarely held accountable. Malik Ishaq, the head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, spent 14 years in jail but still managed to mastermind several high profile attacks including that on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. He was adorned with flower garlands upon his release last year and now lives openly in a guarded complex in south Punjab, free to continue his activities—including the huge attack in Quetta. The intelligence service is reluctant to clamp down too hard on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in case it needs help once more against India.

Nowhere is the impact of this poor enforcement of law and order more acutely felt than in Karachi, the sprawling mega-city on Pakistan’s southern coast. With a population of 21m, it is the economic heart of the country and home to many shifting ethnic groups. Continued conflict between the army and militants in the north west has created a large community of Pashtuns, the ethnicity from which the TTP draws most members. “Previously people who committed a crime in Karachi would hide in Waziristan, but it’s the other way around now,” says Ali Chishti, journalist and author of a forthcoming book on Karachi. “They hide among the Pashtun people. Parts of the city have become no-go areas.”

Over dinner one balmy Karachi evening, a businessman describes being kidnapped by the TTP in 2010. He was on his way to an afternoon meeting when a group of armed men surrounded his car. He was tied up, forced onto the floor of their Jeep and driven for 30 hours to Waziristan, where the Pakistan government has no jurisdiction. He was held for two months in near total isolation before his family gathered the ransom money for his release. Despite his captivity, he retains liberal views that are in line with those of Sabaoon and Paiman. “The economic situation means people are easily led astray,” he says, describing conversations with his guards about how they ended up joining the TTP. Since his release, some of his captors have been killed in US drone strikes. But that does not mean he supports the controversial policy. “As long as you have drones, you’re going to continue to have a problem with extremism. Many innocent people die, so it pushes more people towards that misguided ideology.”

Militants have made serious efforts to silence dissent, assassinating activists and politicians who dare to speak out. The schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head in October 2012, while Mohammed Farooq Khan, Sabaoon’s religious teacher, was murdered by militants in October 2010.

It is unsurprising that people are afraid. But the outlook is not entirely bleak. In January, people took to the streets in their thousands to demand state action against terrorism. The consensus is that this election—if it goes ahead—will strengthen democracy and civilian institutions. In an ideal world, this would give the winner a strong mandate to confront militancy and start the process of recalibrating the relationship between government, military and the intelligence service. Whether this happens or not, in the absence of a coherent policy on extremism, brave individuals are taking up the battle for the soul of Pakistan, one person at a time.