Jihadi groups in Pakistan pose grave threats to the stability of the country and the surrounding region. Their operations and influence have extended from beyond the tribal areas to Pakistan’s cities. Along with countries such as Syria and Iraq, Pakistan has become a theater of doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, signifying that rifts between local groups have become linked to the wider violent sectarianism in the Middle East. This evolving composition of the “Jihadi problem” in Pakistan demonstrates that while jihadi groups may be based locally, their outlook is becoming increasingly transnational, and directly linked with the Middle East and the various conflicts raging within the region.
The jihadi groups, mainly Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have become powerful enough to extend influence from beyond the tribal areas to major urban centers. Not only have they been operating in Quetta and Peshawar for some time, they are disbursing justice and instilling a reign of fear in Karachi, a city which contributes a quarter of Pakistan’s GDP. At the political level, this ease of functioning in Karachi is important as it means that they are in the process of displacing political parties such as Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and Awami National Party (ANP), thereby constricting political space for Pakistanis. In an open letter to Pakistanis, the TTP called upon them to boycott the elections as it would only mean a continuation of Western-style corrupt governance, but if they had to attend any political gatherings, to avoid those held by MQM, ANP, and PPP. The threats have worked to the effect that the secular ANP, which to date has represented Pashtuns in Pakistan, has been forced to go door-to-door for political canvassing, instead of holding political rallies. In Punjab, the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) has secured a political alliance with the ruling party of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction (PML-N), highlighting that it not only has a constituency that will vote for it, but also has political sway to forge a partnership with the ruling party.
These developments point out that jihadi and sectarian groups have begun to command popular respect, and cannot be considered merely as foot soldiers of jihad that can be controlled by the state machinery. Slowly but surely, they are carving constituencies of support, instilling fear, or both, among the people of Pakistan.
Adding to the conundrum, the ongoing Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East has spilled over into Pakistan. The trend of wreaking revenge on Pakistan’s Shia minority for ideological reasons as well as for the tactical purpose of avenging the suffering of Sunnis at the hands of the Alawite regime in Syria and the slights suffered under the Shia government in Iraq is disturbing. It manifests the fact that religious motivations of local sectarian groups are aligning with the interests of transnational entities such as Al Qaeda that believe in creating unrest in the already turbulent Syria and Iraq.
Since the1980s, doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shias have become a full-blown conflict in Pakistan. The country also has become a theater of competing ideologies of Sunni and Shia Islam, especially after the revolution in neighboring Iran. As a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks noted, an estimated $100 million a year from donors from the Gulf was supporting some of the hardline religious seminaries that have been responsible in creation of an extremist recruitment network in Punjab province. Vali Nasr traces the genesis of this problem in his book, The Shia Revival (p.160–162), pointing out that,
‘In the 1980s and the1990s, South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular served as the main battleground of the Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia conflict. India and Pakistan were far more vulnerable to Shia assertiveness than the Arab countries...Pakistan was where Iran focused its attention first. There, as contrasted with the situation along the Iran-Iraq border, it would not be conventional war but rather ideological campaigns and sectarian inspired civil violence that would decide the outcome…The more aggressively Iran tried to influence the Shias of India and Pakistan, the more the Sunni ulama in those countries became determined to respond. After Iran organized Shia youth into student associations and supported the formation of a Pakistani Shia party modeled after Lebanon’s Amal, the Sunnis began to form sectarian militias recruited from madrassas across the country, including those that had been set up in the Pashtun region along the Afghan border to train fighters for the war against the Soviet Union. These militias enjoyed the backing not only of Islamabad but also of Riyadh and even for a time of Baghdad, as all three regimes saw Iranian influence in Pakistan as a strategic threat.”
From the days of foreign governments supporting various factions to the use of the jihadi groups in India and Afghanistan, the situation has become even more complex. Different jihadi groups have not only become interlinked with each other for operational ease, they also share the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan and beyond.
In that respect, the dream of making Pakistan a truly Islamic state has become even more elusive. It can be argued that what these groups aspire for, in its distorted version, is striking at the heart of the ideological confusion that surrounded Pakistan and the possible role of Islam in its polity and society. Over the years, successive governments dabbled with the idea of finding a place for Islam in the new republic, but none did this more systematically than General Zia-ul-Haq. Not only was the use of Islam a useful tool to dilute the impact of populist appeal of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it also provided a newborn constituency of Islamists and ulama to the Zia government. The new constituency of Islamists in Pakistan was further strengthened by support during the Afghan jihad days.
The historical genesis of the jihadi groups is useful to understand, as it paints them as more than miscreants contributing to chaos in Pakistan, but more so, as people whose thinking and operations have been in the making for years. These groups, by their very actions, question the role of Islam ― and what version of Islam at that ― in the state of Pakistan. Furthermore, in their conception of Pakistan as an Islamic caliphate, and their worldview of not tolerating Shia interpretations of Islam, their actions are synchronizing with the current plight of Sunni brethren in the Middle East.
In conclusion, the jihadi problem poses an existential problem not only in terms of the future of, and the role of Islam (and dominant interpretation of religion) in Pakistan, but is also connected to the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, as demonstrated in Iraq and Syria, and which threatens to affect other countries in the region as well.
For policy makers in Pakistan and elsewhere, it is important to understand the nature of the “jihadi problem” as beyond the debate of terrorism and counterterrorism, and law and the absence of the rule of law. Hypothetically, neither can all Shias leave Pakistan, nor all extremist groups tried in courts of law. Instead, it is necessary to understand the multidimensional “jihadi problem” confronting Pakistan and the region. The links between national and transnational issues need to be recognized, in order to collaborate with Middle Eastern countries in preventing a Shia-Sunni conflagration that spans the length and breadth of the Muslim world.
Lastly, policy makers should take into account the Pakistani people, who, if their loyalties are transferred to actors other than the state, can be the country’ undoing, or if their energies are harnessed, can provide the opportunity to turn things around. Pakistan needs to spend more on social sectors, as well as improve governance throughout the country. If the government will not cater to the needs of the people, they will have no option but to seek sustenance from actors who will. That could prove tragic for Pakistan and dangerous for its immediate neighbors and the international community.