by Dish Staff


Before Tuesday’s horrific attack on an army school, Carl Bialik grimly notes, Pakistan’s terrorism problem was on a downward trend, from utterly horrifying to just god-awful:

More than 3,000 Pakistani civilians died in terrorist attacks in both 2012 and 2013, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which monitors violence in the region. This year, through Sunday, 1,595 civilians had died, including 26 this month. Twenty-six is a horrific total for most countries in a year — 20 more than the number killed in all of 2013 in the U.S., which has roughly 75 percent more residents than Pakistan. But it’s also a monthly rate of about 58 civilians, the fewest killed in a month in Pakistan since 56 civilians died in August 2007. Tuesday’s attack reversed that modest progress; December now is the deadliest month since February.

So how did Pakistan become so unmanageably violent? In part, Matthew Green blames the government’s longstanding policy of cultivating ties with some militants in order to fight others:

First, and most important, Pakistan’s security establishment has to make a permanent break with its decades-long romance with jihadi proxies. The distinction that some in the nation’s security apparatus draw between “good Taliban” — shorthand for groups who serve their regional interests — and “bad Taliban” — militants at war with the state — must end. … The upshot is that religious extremists and allied Kalashnikov-toting thugs now wield a far greater degree of influence over Pakistani society than their small constituencies might otherwise project. As long as nobody is quite sure where the military and its feared intelligence agencies stand in relation to jihadis, liberal politicians, community leaders and moderate religious voices rightly assume they will live longer by keeping quiet.

“When a government coddles and finances terrorist groups for this long,” Omer Aziz argues, ” it is only a matter of time before the jihadists start attacking their masters and eventually their fellow citizens”:

It was not always so. In the 1970s, Pakistan was a fairly liberal society. When Paul McCartney landed in Pakistan in 1964, he was swarmed. That there was once a vibrant Jewish community in Karachi has all been forgotten. The same Peshawar where militants roam freely was even once part of the famous ‘Hippie Trail’ that brought adventurous Westerners to South Asia. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a barrister trained in England who founded what was then named the Dominion of Pakistan, told his newly independent nation: “You are free to go to your temples. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed.” This imagined community of liberal Muslims has been extirpated in favor of a conservatively Islamic state.

While successive Pakistani governments supported terrorist groups, so they also embarked on the politically expedient but morally criminal mission of Islamizing the country, transforming Pakistan from a state for Muslims into a Muslim state. … An entire generation was born into a society coarsened by years of religious fundamentalism where it remains a widely-held opinion that Malala Yousefzai is a CIA spy.

It’s also high time, in Juan Cole’s opinion, for Pakistan to take real responsibility for governing and developing its dirt-poor, lawless northwest:

[T]he Federally Administered Tribal areas or FATA need to be made a province and integrated into the Pakistani state. The standard of living of people in Waziristan is extremely low. Maybe some of the investment of China in Pakistan could be slotted for FATA. This is an area where some 800,000 people have been displaced by the Pakistani military campaign against militants in North Waziristan. There are torture facilities and bomb-making workshops. These need to be rolled up and FATA needs to be developed.

In response to the massacre, Pakistan will step up its anti-terror operations:

“We cannot take a step back from this war against terrorism,” Nawaz Sharif said, addressing a hastily called meeting of political parties in Peshawar, where Tuesday’s horrific school attack occurred. The fight would spill over “on the Afghan side of the border,” he added, after speaking with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It was not clear what actions that might entail. But such a cross-border offensive would mark a significant shift in Pakistan’s tactics against Taliban militants, whose strongholds and supply lines straddle the frontier.

Rogin and Lake expect the US to deepen its involvement:

Inside the Obama administration, officials have been divided between those who believe that the TTP represents primarily a threat to Pakistan and those who believe the U.S. has a real national-security interest in helping the Pakistani military destroy the group. But due to the seriousness of this attack, the Obama administration will now feel compelled to more heavily support the Pakistani military as the war against the TTP escalates and the implications for the entire country’s future become more pronounced.

That may be especially true now that the TTP, as Sami Yousafzai and Christopher Dickey report, claims to be coming for us next:

In fact, the terror networks to which the TTP is linked have grown more complex and treacherous than ever, with some factions connecting not only to al Qaeda but to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) that now controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq. And while analysts think it is unlikely the TTP can mount an attack against American targets inside America again soon, the TTP said it butchered the children in Peshawar specifically because of the U.S.-backed campaign against it.

Amanda Taub, meanwhile, offers another possible explanation for Tuesday’s carnage, namely internal power struggles within the Taliban:

The TTP has split into multiple factions in recent months. A number of moderate factions have made peace with the government, Staniland explained, so that what is left behind is an increasingly radical core that is splintering into different groups. That process was accelerated when Maulana Fazlullah, an outsider who formerly headed a group of militants in Pakistan’s Swat district, took command last year. He has been a divisive leader, causing the powerful Messud family to leave and form its own organization. Competition for power within an armed group or between different splintering factions often leads to increased violence, as leaders jockey to prove their authority and improve their reputations by carrying out ever more audacious or brutal attacks.

But Saim Saeed can’t imagine how the TTP will score PR points by butchering innocent kids:

the Taliban have just taken on the unenviable task of explaining how murdering scores of innocent children is a good thing for Islam. No one, no one, will support the Taliban after this. The attack was even condemned by Hafiz Saeed, whose Jama’at-ud-Da’wah  is the subject of United Nation’s sanctions. Hardline mullahs may have twisted and contorted Islam to endorse blasphemy laws, child marriages and jihad against America and India, but even they will have a tough time arguing that this attack somehow fulfills their purpose. They could perhaps argue this was an Indian or American conspiracy, but that argument is also slowly losing credibility, not least by the Taliban’s own desperate attempts to claim this attack.

The depressing situation leaves Pankaj Mishra at a loss:

Something more than just economic and political distress must explain the worldwide proliferation of men who espouse spine-chilling convictions and fantasies of mass murder. We cannot afford to renounce the possibility of achieving a more democratic, free and just society through political change. Yet we can no longer believe that the enabling conditions of nihilistic violence or the apocalyptic mind-set can be removed by reform or modification of public policy alone, let alone by military retaliation.

The blood of innocent children rouses us to drastic action. But it is not cowardly to acknowledge problems to which there are no stock sociopolitical remedies, and to grasp the unprecedented nature of the threats in our time to human life, freedom and dignity. Certainly, however deep our revulsion to atrocities perpetrated by all sides — sectarian or secular, governments or terrorists — it won’t help to blame religion for a phenomenon that is so clearly rooted in a catastrophic loss of the religious sense.

What The Hell Just Happened In Pakistan?

by Dish Staff


Nine Taliban gunmen disguised as soldiers attacked an army-run school in Peshawar this morning, killing at least 145 people, mostly children, and holding hundreds more hostage before dying in an eight-hour gun battle with security forces:

The militants’ assault on the school started at about 10 a.m., when the gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Local news reports said the gunmen were disguised as paramilitary Frontier Corps soldiers and gained entry by scaling a wall at the rear of the main building. The attackers then opened fire on students with guns and grenades and, in a chilling echo of the Beslan school siege in Russia in 2004, took dozens of people hostage in the school’s main auditorium, according to news reports. … By late afternoon, the army said it had cleared three sections of the school compound and that troops were pushing through the remaining sections. After the last of the militants was killed, officials said, soldiers were sweeping the compound for explosives.

In taking credit for the attack, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) said it was in retaliation for a recent military offensive against the group in the lawless region of North Waziristan. Sami Yousafzai rang up a TTP commander to ask why exactly his comrades believed that the mass murder of children was an appropriate act of revenge:

[Jihad] Yar Wazir justified the killings as fitting retribution. “The parents of the army school are army soldiers and they are behind the massive killing of our kids and indiscriminate bombing in North and South Waziristan,” which are the TTP strongholds. “To hurt them at their safe haven and homes—such an attack is perfect revenge.” But the children are innocents, I said. What about them, I asked?

“What about our kids and children,” he said. “These are the kids of the U.S.-backed Pakistani army and they should stop their parents from bombing our families and children.” Yar Wazir went on: “Those kids are innocent because they are wearing a suit and tie and western shirts? But our kids wearing Islamic shalwar kamiz do not come before the eyes of the media and the west.”

To Juan Cole, the attack is indicative of the TTP’s desperation:

North Waziristan had always been protected by military intelligence and so had become a haven for al-Qaeda offshoots. But in the past 6 months Pakistani army troops have killed nearly 2000 fighters and deeply disrupted what is left of the Pakistani Taliban. The group that took over the school complains of the perfidy of the government’s bombing. So this school attack was the Pakistani Taliban taking revenge for the government’s disruption of their terrorist activities. This is not a sign of strength but of weakness, and they lashed out at a soft target. They are facing a major defeat. That is its significance.

And Samira Shackle expects that “the sheer brutality of the event will answer some of the internal political debates about how best to tackle the terrorist threat”:

As recently as spring, the Pakistani government was pursuing talks with the Taliban, even as violent attacks across the country surged. Many in the mainstream political right wing still agitate for appeasement and negotiations rather than a military operation. And amongst the wider population, there is a fault-line of people who explicitly or tacitly support the actions of the TTP and associated groups, even as they suffer the effects of this campaign of terror. Some commentators have suggested that the sheer brutality of this assault will undermine the arguments of those who would like to see negotiations with the TTP, and will perhaps reduce that element of support amongst the wider populace. The group is seeking the destruction of the Pakistani state as its minimum, and speaks only the language of violence. That is no starting point for a meaningful settlement.

(Photo: A view of the coffins at Lady Reading Hospital where the casualties of a Taliban attack on a school were carried in the northwestern city of Peshawar, Pakistan, on December 16, 2014. By Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Al-Qaeda’s Newest Franchise, Ctd

Tunku Varadarajan underlines the link between ISIS and al-Qaeda’s new South Asian branch:

What should we make of this call by Zawahiri, of this loveless jihad? Why has he made this declaration, and why now? After all, al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for years; and therefore in Pakistan; and therefore available, already, for anti-India jihad. Counterterrorism experts I spoke to were as one in pointing to the rise of ISIS in the Syria-Iraq theater as the main propulsion. ISIS has not merely stolen al Qaeda’s thunder; it is siphoning recruits away from the older organization, which has yet to recover from the catastrophic loss (in terms of charisma, and as a species of jihadi Lord Kitchener) of bin Laden. “Zawahiri wants you” doesn’t have quite the same impact on potential recruits as “Osama wants you.”

Gen. Ata Hasnain, a former Kashmir Corps commander in the Indian army, told me that before ISIS emerged as a jihadi force, al Qaeda “never felt the need to expand its ambit into South Asia. The anti-India terrorist groups in Pakistan were considered adequately motivated and organized, and al Qaeda preferred to remain only an inspiration for them, instead of overextending itself. Its prime battle was with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.” With the rise of ISIS, he said, al Qaeda has effectively been dwarfed. The avowal of jihad against India is its attempt to aggrandize itself anew.

The dwindling numbers of the Pakistani Taliban, partly thanks to the Syrian jihad drawing them away, could be another factor in the announcement of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent:

Just a few years ago, the Taliban was one of the two prime Islamist militant groups—the other being Al Qaida-aligned insurgents in Iraq—for foreign fighters around the world to enlist with. But with the self-proclaimed Islamic State on the warpath and new conflicts in North Africa, the Taliban has become less attractive. Specifically, the Pakistani Taliban. That’s the subject of a new report in CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terrorism newsletter. As of July 2008, the Pakistani Taliban included around 8,000 foreign fighters, notes Raza Khan, a political analyst who authored the report. These fighters came from western Europe, the Middle East, China, Russia, India, and central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan. But today, only a few hundred remain.

But Arif Rafiq counsels against overstating the connection between ISIS and AQIS:

For the past few years, Al Qaeda has stepped up its outreach to Pakistanis. Its Urdu-language service is among its most active. Al-Zawahiri has also made a handful of statements addressing the plight of Muslims in Burma and India, and Islamic activists targeted by the state in Bangladesh. It’s been laying the groundwork for AQIS for some time. Indeed, more than beating out competition from IS, Al Qaeda is trying to fill a void in the South Asian jihadist communitythe absence of a grand patron. While Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to support militant groups in the region, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, its support for militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir has remained low for much of the past decade. That’s why Umar, the AQIS chief, in another video released this summer, asked Kashmiri Muslims to join Al Qaeda’s ranks and accused Pakistan of selling them out.

“The success or failure of Zawahiri’s new initiative,” Nisid Hajari writes, “may rest on one man: India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi”:

The fastest way to increase Al Qaeda’s limited appeal in India would be for the authorities to overreact, as China has done with Uighurs in its restive Xinjiang province. This would not only alienate the best source of intelligence on homegrown radicals — the local Muslim community — it would rapidly burnish the appeal of radicals over more moderate voices. Any government scapegoating of Indian Muslims would be equally damaging. Modi’s association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat and the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make him a lightning rod for many Muslims. He bears a special responsibility to endorse the loyalty of Indian Muslims and assure them they will not be targeted unfairly.

Probably the best way to ensure Zawahiri’s grand designs never come to fruition would be for Modi to push forward the stalled India-Pakistan peace process. As long as the wounds that divide the South Asian nations continue to fester, leaders on both sides will remain hostage to the actions of a few radicals: Any post-Mumbai terrorist plot in India that is traced back to Pakistan bears a high risk of setting off a wider conflagration.

Al-Qaeda’s Newest Franchise

by Dish Staff

In a video released today, Al-Qaeda international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the organization was establishing a branch in South Asia to wage jihad in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Ishaan Tharoor examines the logic behind the decision:

Al-Qaeda’s desire for operational expansion eastward makes sense: There are roughly as many Muslims in South Asia as there are in the Arab world; there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than inside it. The history of the Mughal Empire allows al-Qaeda ideologues to invoke a narrative of lost Muslim preeminence, waiting for redemption, even though some Mughal emperors would have abhorred the terrorist organization’s brand of Islam. … But it’s hard to see how al-Qaeda can capitalize in South Asia if it hasn’t already. For all the tensions and enmities that exist in this diverse, overcrowded region, it’s a part of the world steeped in traditions of pluralism and tolerance. Al-Qaeda’s puritanical zeal, incubated in places such as Saudi Arabia, is wholly alien to the Indian subcontinent. And South Asian governments, particularly in India and Bangladesh, have stepped up cooperation on issues of counterterrorism.

One interpretation is that Zawahiri is trying to recapture al-Qaeda’s relevance as it loses ground in the Islamic heartland to even more radical outfits like ISIS, but Dan Murphy doubts it will work:

Can Zawahiri turn the tide against the upstart jihadis? For now, it seems unlikely. The small percentage of Muslims that support such movements seem elated by Baghdadi’s caliphate declaration, and imagine they’re living in epoch-defining times that will see their dream of converting the whole world at the point of a sword realized. The old Al Qaeda approach – that world domination wasn’t possible until “far enemies” like the US were somehow destroyed – is being upended by the arguably more conventional ISIS approach of seizing territory. For the small group of misfits and loners and true-believers who view the chopping of heads and gunning down captives in their hundreds as heroic, rather than revolting, ISIS is the emerging brand name. When was the last time Joe Biden vowed to chase Al Qaeda to the gates of hell?

Andrew North observes that al-Qaeda has even been losing support in its traditional Af-Pak stronghold. He suggests the decision has something to do with that as well:

Several Pakistani-based militant groups previously allied to al-Qaeda have recently pledged allegiance to IS and its goal of an Islamic caliphate. The group has now reportedly launched a support and recruitment drive in border areas like Peshawar. Booklets in the name of the Dawlat-e-Islamia (Islamic State) have been circulating among the many Afghan refugees living there. Graffiti, or wall-talk, another guide to sentiments, is also going the group’s way, with pro-IS slogans now regularly appearing on Peshawar buildings. And while Zawahiri’s announcement seems primarily aimed at India, the man he named as the new leader of al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing, Asim Umar, is reportedly a Pakistani.

Katherine Zimmerman, on the other hand, argues that the video proves al-Qaeda is still alive and dangerous:

The split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is very real, as is the contest for the global jihadist movement. The Islamic State’s unprecedented success in Iraq and Syria has energized the movement as a whole, which is why al Qaeda leaders have supported Sunni victories in Iraq. The Islamic State, and then al Qaeda, must both be defeated. Going after one and dismissing the other is short-sighted and leaves American interests vulnerable to attacks. Allying with so-called lesser enemies like Iran, or Syria, as Senator Rand Paul (and others) have suggested, to go after the Sunni threat is just as short-sighted. Just because the Islamic State and al Qaeda want to kill Americans doesn’t mean Assad and Khamenei don’t. Al Qaeda’s newest affiliate is proof of life for those who were questioning. There are still groups seeking to affiliate with al Qaeda, and some of them, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group in the Sahel, have killed Americans. Al Qaeda is not dead. It is still a threat to the United States, and Ayman al Zawahiri wants us to know it.

Inconsolable In Islamabad, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 1.34.37 PM

Tim Craig doubts the long-running anti-government protests in Pakistan will achieve their goal of ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who’s actually pretty popular:

The annual Pew Research Center survey of Pakistan finds that 64 percent of residents have a favorable view of Sharif, a solid rating that has essentially remained constant since Sharif’s returned to power last year. Perhaps even more important in Sharif’s bid to hold off the demonstrators, led by former cricket star Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahirul Qadri, Pakistanis’ positive views about the economy have risen dramatically over the past year.

About four in ten residents now have confidence in Pakistan’s economy, compared to just 17 percent who felt that way last year. Moreover, Pew notes that 36 percent of residents are optimistic that the economy will improve over the next year, twice as many who felt that way compared to last year.

But as Shuja Nawaz points out, the outcome also depends on whether and how the military decides to get involved:

A senior general, communicating with me directly, summed up the situation succinctly: “This is a small-time riot against a small-time government. The army is neutral and not in a position to confront a crowd, nor intends to do so. The government has gradually conceded on every point as the pressure continued to build up, except on the matter of the PM’s [prime minister’s] resignation. The stand-off now is about the PM holding on. All arguments about democracy or constitution are irrelevant since the sitting government is there in spite of the law and not because of the law.”

If enough generals in the high command share these views, the portents are not good for Sharif.

Mosharraf Zaidi, on the other hand, highly doubts the military would ever pin its hopes on Khan:

[T]he best thing Sharif has going for him is the quality of his competition. Pakistan with Khan at the helm would be a disaster of epic proportions — and that’s even with the country’s extremely high tolerance for shambolic leadership. Khan may be the world’s oldest teenager, with a captive national audience. He thumbs his nose at political niceties and employs an invective that dumbs down the discourse. Like Justin Bieber, Khan focuses on electrifying the urban youth who genuinely believe him to be a messianic solution to the disenchantment they feel about their country. And Khan’s understanding of Pakistan’s problems is probably only slightly more sophisticated than Bieber’s. Khan does not have the policy chops to fix what ails Pakistan: The crux of his efforts during these few weeks has been that he, not Sharif, should be prime minister.

Inconsolable In Islamabad

by Dish Staff

Pakistan may be on the brink of a political crisis after opposition leader Imran Khan suspended talks with the government in response to the appointment of a new police chief in Islamabad:

Khan, a famed cricketer-turned-politician, and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led massive protests from the eastern city of Lahore to the gates of parliament in Islamabad to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accusing him of rigging the vote that brought him to power last year. The protests have raised fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed US ally with a history of political turmoil, and after a request from the country’s powerful military the government convened talks with Khan and Qadri’s representatives early Thursday. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a senior leader of Khan’s party, told reporters that the opposition presented six demands, including Sharif’s resignation. …

Later on Thursday, Khan told his supporters that the government had removed the Islamabad police chief for not using force against him, and warned that the new police chief, Khalid Khattak, would follow orders to disperse the protests, which have thus far been peaceful.

The army’s growing role in containing this crisis makes Michael Kugelman very nervous:

With Islamabad increasingly on the defensive, the military is gaining an upper hand. Consider Sharif’s decision last week to make the armed forces responsible for security of sensitive facilities in Islamabad during the protests. This can be interpreted either as a sop to the military or as an acknowledgment that the government can’t protect its own people — or itself. Additionally, Sharif’s Independence Day speech on Aug. 14, the first official day of the protests, was rife with praise for Pakistan’s military. That such praise came from a civilian leader as combative as Sharif is quite telling. Most significantly, on Aug. 19, as marchers entered the Red Zone, the government ceded full security of the area to the military. The government gave the military carte blanche to do what it so relishes: serve as the nation’s protector and savior.

Furthermore, with many Pakistanis cheering on a countermilitancy offensive underway in North Waziristan, the military’s star could continue to rise in the coming weeks. Possible retaliatory terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities could prompt more calls for the military to provide security, which would further embolden Pakistan’s most powerful institution.