The Historical Roots and Contemporary Dynamics of Extremism in Pakistan

Birds-eye view of Pakistan's Swat Valley; cc ResoluteSupportMedia, modified,

Over 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 devoted follower of Shah Abdul Aziz, declared jihad (war) against non-Muslim rulers, and 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 movement, 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.

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 had been struggling since 1947 to establish Islamic rule in Pakistan. At times they received state sponsorship against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and in Kashmir conflict. President Ziaul Haq harbored ambitions of utilizing the Mujahideen as a proxy force in South and Central Asia. Waziristan was a safe 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 present TTP originates in this Waziristan region. So, the present jihadist activities are not a new phenomenon for Pakistan.

During the Soviet-Afghan war, the foreign Arab Mujahideen found 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 tighten the resolution over the demand of a modern state and sovereignty, particularly regarding the withdrawal of government security forces from the claimed area.

Since the creation of Pakistan, the ruling system has stumbled numerous times. No democratic prime minister could complete their tenure due to military intervention. The military has remained powerful enough to dictate the political landscape in Pakistan. After 76 years of Pakistan’s independence, people are very frustrated and at present, economic and political challenges lead to further suffering. Thus, they come to seek alternatives, as evident in the 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 now they are deeply rooted in society. Day by day, they are growing stronger, and they have expanded their influence to other parts of Pakistan, especially Balochistan. The TTP’s guerrilla modus operandi reflects their popular support.  At present, they have changed their operational policy where they only target security forces.

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 Pashtuns to retaliate pose a significant threat. Secondly, there may be reason to believe that Imran Khan has a covert tie in with Islamist groups; thus, Imran’s PTI could form a government in provinces where jihadist groups are influential. Consequently, sidelining Imran inadvertently aids these jihadist groups in garnering popular support. This confluence of missteps contributes to the complex dynamics fueling the rise of jihadist influence in Pakistan.

Presently, the TTP has extended its influence into Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan, marking a concerning development. Reports indicate that the Balochistan Liberation Army has forged alliances with the TTP, collectively advocating for Shariah rule in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan, and Kashmir. The backdrop of atrocities faced by Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir at the hands of Indian security forces further intensifies the agenda of jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda’s strategic plan involves aiding persecuted Kashmiri Muslims once their objectives in Pakistan are achieved. This unfolding scenario raises the possibility of the Pakistani establishment to compromise with TTP, with consequences for the governing system. On the other hand, shifting the jihadist threat toward Kashmir ultimately aligns with the ambitions of the 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.’ Over the past two decades, the war has failed to achieve its political objectives and eradicate purported terrorist organizations globally. Nevertheless, it has yielded economic gains for the military-industrial complex. Regrettably, the aftermath of the War on Terror has witnessed the ascendance of authoritarian regimes in certain Asian countries, undermining democratic values. It is crucial for the Pakistani establishment to recognize that people tend to gravitate towards better alternatives, and countering an ideological movement necessitates the emergence of another ideological force. In this context, coercion and intimidation could risk pushing individuals toward alternative ideological solutions.

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