Militancy in Pakistan How to Combat the Monster?

Islam and the state has always been a debatable issue in Pakistan. Cultural Islam continually dominates the lives of the Pakistanis. There was no main dissent among different sects, and people actively participated in each other’s religious affairs. The radical strain proliferated by Zia’s Islamization resulted in the worst sectarian strife ever.


Militancy in Pakistan has deep roots in history. The country has witnessed various trends of militancy from intolerance to extremism, from radicalization to violence, etc. The al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus and the induction of sectarian groups into this deadly mix have complicated the militancy issue. In the absence of a sustainable long-term counter-militant strategy, domestic and foreign policy settings have been affected in particular since 2001. The main reasons which explain the genesis and growth of militancy in Pakistan are as follows:

1979: A Tumultuous Year

The year 1979 brought enormous changes in the Muslim world and Pakistan was no exception. Following formative events took place during 1979:

1. The Iranian revolution, that gave a new dimension to Middle East politics, and its effects rippled across to Pakistan as well. This also brought the Saudi-Iran proxy war to Pakistan.

2. The Grand Mosque Seizure on November 20, 1979, that severely shocked the nation. The rumours that US forces would enter the holy city to help Saudis whipped up strong anti-American feelings in Pakistan. The American Embassy in Islamabad was stormed and parts of it were set on fire by the protesters.

3. The Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan, that created a grave situation for Pakistan because not only country’s foreign policy was affected but it also gave a new lease of life to the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Pakistan’s Geostrategic Location

Owing to Pakistan’s crucial geostrategic location, the Soviet invasion posed major geostrategic and political implications for Pakistan. This invasion brought the two superpowers face to face in this regional arena. Becoming a frontline state, by aligning with the US, Pakistan supported the Afghan jihad and acted as a channel for the influx of Mujahideen from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states. The US had no hesitation in owning the creation of the Mujahideen.

Influx of Refugees

The Soviet invasion resulted in the exodus of more than two million Afghan refugees towards Pakistan. Most of these refugees settled down in camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where they were welcomed due to ethnic affinity. Since the tribal belt comprising FATA has been governed by a different set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) inherited from the British, and the administration there is run by a political agent (PA) with the coordination of local Maliks and Sardars, it was easy for militant tendencies to nurture in these areas.

Zia’s Islamization

The 1977 coup d’état by General Ziaul Haq marked the beginning of his 11-year-long rule. His process of ‘Islamization’ promoted sectarianism ergo the militant culture in Pakistan. Zia combined three main interest groups, the military, the mullahs and the business elite to bolster his rule. The Islamization policy politicized religious groups in Pakistan. It is commonly believed that the “Afghan jihad” started the destabilization10 and radicalization of Pakistan.
Zia’s Islamization and reforms not only strengthened the religious establishment but also promoted a certain set of Islamic jurisprudence which eventually imbalanced the multi-denominational society of Pakistan.

Seminaries (Madaris)

Analysts have linked the role of madaris, which proliferated during Zia regime, in promoting the culture of violence, militancy and extremism. This was tragic indeed as the institution of madaris known for research and learning became an engine of extremism. Their number grew rapidly during the 1980s. Punjab and Khyber Paktuhnkhwa are still the main tributaries of madaris. These institutes house an increasing number of foreign people, particularly from the Central Asia, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

Sectarian Militancy in Pakistan

Islam and the state has always been a debatable issue in Pakistan. Cultural Islam continually dominates the lives of the Pakistanis. There was no main dissent among different sects, and people actively participated in each other’s religious affairs. The radical strain proliferated by Zia’s Islamization resulted in the worst sectarian strife ever.

The Politico-religious Discourse

Zia’s policies played a crucial role in the growth of militancy in Pakistan. While the seminaries that were organised on sectarian lines served as hatcheries for sectarian strife, the growing role of religious parties in country’s politics also greatly strengthened the forces of extremism in the country. These parties have also played a key role in providing legitimacy to military rules during which militancy expanded its domain.

Use of Print and Electronic Media

The structure and the modus operandi of the Islamist enterprise are highly organized and systematic. The use of print and electronic media since 1980s — and social media in today’s world — by militant outfits to expand their set of agenda has been quite effective. They have gained access to large audiences.

Anti-American Sentiments in Society

The US-led War against Terrorism has stirred a new wave of militancy in Pakistan. Due to ethnic affinity of the people of Khyber Pakhunkhwa (KPK) with the Pashtun population of Afghanistan, the tribal belt showed strong sentiments against the US. Due to Pakistan’s alignment with the US in this war, they also developed anti-government sentiments. The offensive strategy of using drone attacks to target the militants in Pakistani territory also aggravated the sentiments against the US. This anti-Americanism acts as a reactionary force and strengthens the agenda of the militants.

Socioeconomic Factors

Besides the abovementioned factors, poor socioeconomic conditions in the country also drive the desperately-wretched into the arms of the militant outfits. Socioeconomic issues such as poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, unemployment etc., have had a disastrous impact on the social fabric of Pakistan. It is a well-known narrative that to contain militancy and insurgency, it is important to win the battle of hearts and minds by addressing the socioeconomic issues. Let’s have a brief dissection of these socioeconomic factors:

1. Poverty

Poverty has been a major socioeconomic issue in Pakistan since long. Nearly two-thirds of the population and 80 per cent of the country’s poor people live in rural parts of the country. Most of them do not have access to adequate basic amenities. In Pakistan, the most vulnerable and poor parts of Pakistan — FATA, South Punjab and Balochistan — are considered breeding grounds of terrorism mainly due to abject poverty. According to a white paper of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, it is Pakistan’s poorest province with an overall incidence of poverty at 44 per cent. Moreover almost 60 per cent of the people of FATA live below the poverty line making it the most backward region of Pakistan. Similar conditions also prevail in Balochistan.

2. Poor Education Facilities

Literacy rate in Pakistan also reflects society’s vulnerability to militancy. Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Economic Survey of Pakistan puts the literacy rate (10 years and above) at 60 per cent, which is far lower than other developing countries in South Asian region. Some analysts opine that at least 79 per cent have an educational level of matriculation or below. This reflects the role of illiteracy in furthering militancy.

3. Unemployment

Unemployment is also adding fuel to the fire of this menace. The estimated rate of unemployment in 2013-14 was 6.2 per cent. Pakistan also suffers from underemployment and cyclical unemployment mainly due to lack of opportunities.

4. Energy Crisis

The energy crisis in Pakistan has forced the layoff of thousands of poor workers. Fear of hunger and social injustice leads them to extremist tendencies hence they are exploited by the militants who recruit them for the fulfilment of their nefarious designs. The militant outfits create their dependency on the organization as recruits are provided food, shelter and a handsome amount of money.

5. Corruption

Corruption is also cited as a factor in the growth of militancy in Pakistan. The Chairman of Transparency International, Pakistan, Syed Adil Gilani, ascribes terrorism directly to poverty resulting from corruption which not only weakens governance but undermines the economy. Pakistan was ranked 127 on the scale of 1–175 of Corruption Perceptions Index 2013. The survey conducted revealed that land services followed by police department and the judiciary were Pakistan’s most corrupt departments. This adverse situation allows militants to spread mayhem without fear of retribution.

Combating the Monster

In an APC, the political parties advised the government to adopt the course of dialogue, which the government did. But, unfortunately, this sincerity was taken as its cowardliness and the dialogue eventually failed. So, on June 15, 2014, Pak Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb [Azb is a sword of the Prophet (PBUH)] against militant groups. This operation has gained commendable success as terrorist outfits seem in shambles. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has broken into various factions. Moreover, Punjabi Taliban have also announced to quit all militant activities in Pakistan. Asmatullah Muaweya, the chief of the Punjabi Taliban, said:

“We have decided to give up militancy in Pakistan. I’ve taken the decision in the best interests of Islam and the nation. I also appeal to all other armed groups to stop violent activities in Pakistan.”

Way Forward

To counter terrorism there are political, social, educational, economic, military, intelligence, judicial and media measures, the first including political reconciliation, accommodation, empowerment, tolerance and coexistence. In case of social measures, one way to deal with extremism and radicalisation in society is to promote social harmony, mobility and interaction among different social groups. By promoting literacy and better education, one can defeat the elements that take advantage of ignorance and illiteracy and promote extremism, militancy and terrorism.

Furthermore, intelligence measures can help counter the planning and operations of terrorist groups while judicial measures can ensure prompt hearings and the award of punishment to those found guilty of acts of terror. Finally, media measures include raising awareness levels in terms of threats of militancy and terrorism. Media’s role in de-radicalisation could also be crucial.

Pakistan may have to live with the phenomenon of terrorism for a long period, it is high time that a plausible and pragmatic counter-terrorism strategy was formulated and implemented.

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