Thursday, July 30, 2015

Beheading the Behemoth

By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
July 30, 2015
Even radical pacifists would have trouble not rejoicing at the death of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Sahaba founder Malik Ishaq, who along with the reported 13 other terrorists, was killed in an encounter early Wednesday morning. That the BBC quoted Afghan officials as claiming yesterday that the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been dead for over a couple of years – a claim that is being investigated – will give everyone more cause to rejoice. That’s two massive heads of the South Asian Islamist monster beheaded on the same day, along with senior LeJ leader Ghulam Rasul Shah who was among the 13 that were killed yesterday as well.
The extreme absolutists might condemn the ‘staged encounter’ and the extra-judicial killing. But those that have a sprinkling of realist topping to their principled rigidity, would accept the impossibility of mustering testimonies against Ishaq. Let’s not forget that this is a man who has been acquitted over 100 times after charges of terrorism and homicide.
The claim that the judiciary was helpless amidst lack of witnesses, while overstating the institution’s intent (or clout) with regards to terrorism cases, does depict the ground realities. However, the extrajudicial killings of leading sectarian terrorists, despite being condemnable on principle, do suggest that Pakistan is well on the way to targeting the monsters that it has fed and bred for the past three decades.
Considering the establishment’s role in brewing militants as strategic assets over the years, there will always be scepticism vis-à-vis the state going after Islamist militancy, despite Operation Zarb-e-Azb being over a year old and the Karachi drive in full swing. After all, the army went after the Taliban only after they were identified as the military institution’s enemy, despite being an existential threat to Pakistan for over the past decade at least. And the political undertones of the Karachi operation have been reverberating over the past couple of months, manifested impeccably by PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s epic rant last month.
Optimists might argue that Ishaq’s killing could finally signal the state’s no-nonsense approach to religious terrorism in the country, while the cynics might claim that the LeJ chief was no longer beneficial for the establishment as a militant asset, and hence was disposed of. After all, Abdul Aziz and his ISIS supporting goons in Lal Masjid have yet to be touched, despite being a few kilometres away from both the GHQ and Prime Minister House. Not to mention self-confessed murderer Mumtaz Quadri safely residing inside Adiala Jail after being sent to the gallows, with the terrorism charge being dropped by the Islamabad High Court.
In fact one of the major ‘pro-establishment’ arguments over lack of action against Ishaq has been that the state wanted to keep him imprisoned, where his actions can be monitored, and that executing him – judicially or otherwise – would result in a massive backlash on the streets. A similar argument is used to justify Abdul Aziz’s apparent impunity from law or to vindicate the resistance to the Quadri case reaching its logical conclusion.
But does Ishaq’s killing mean that the establishment is willing to accept that it has the wherewithal to counter, if not forestall, the expected backlash? Are things finally falling into place for the state to revise all those positions? Both a quixotic case and a melancholy one can be scribed, but the limited space would allow one to present the ‘delusional’ hypothesis only.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb coincided with the Sino-Pak signatures on the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project of immense economic and geopolitical importance for both the countries. Before pen was put to the CPEC MoUs, China had conspicuously voiced concerns about its Uighur militants being linked with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, in meetings with both the military personnel and government officials.
CPEC cannot reap benefits for either country should any form of militancy exist in any part of Pakistan. That the ante was upped in the Balochistan military operation was a corollary of the state’s clampdown on militants. However, with multiple CPEC routes traversing all four provinces, the state can no longer pretend that Punjab is any less volatile, especially considering that an imperialistic Islamist ideology has flourished in South Punjab, the separatism of Baloch militants pales in front of which.
Furthermore, the Iran nuclear deal has made Tehran a lucrative prospect for commerce, energy sharing and strategic partnership. In addition to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline and potential oil barrels, Tehran can join Islamabad in a collective security and trade mechanism swathed by the CPEC. For Iran, Pakistan’s anti-Shia militant organisations, and cross border terrorism through Balochistan has been a major concern – one that might have been resoundingly addressed through Ishaq’s execution.
Pakistan hosting the Afghan government’s talks with the Afghan Taliban also epitomises amelioration in Pak-Afghan ties and Kabul’s role in the aforementioned mechanism. For all this to materialise though, the volatile troika of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan needs to counter their respective insurgencies. And Pakistan might just have started doing precisely that, even if under Chinese supervision.
With the Supreme Court suspending Asia Bibi’s death penalty over the blasphemy allegation, and the law and interior ministries mulling reform for the blasphemy law, the right signals are being sent as far as countering religious fanaticism is concerned. While it would be beyond delusional to assume that all state institutions are seamlessly working in tandem with a common goal in sight, it would be contemptuous to claim that the state is displaying no positive intent at all.
Even so, what needs to be understood is that while chopping off the tip of the iceberg – the sectarian militants – is the logical place to start, the sectarian behemoth can’t be killed through decapitation alone. Anti-Shia sentiments persist among the so-called moderate citizens of Pakistan as well, and that’s where the roots for sectarianism can be found. It’s important to behead the monster when it’s about to eat you alive, but chopping off Takfiri roots is imperative lest the behemoth grow new heads.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a member of staff.

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