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Dec 17, 2008 | 12:03 GMT

16 mins read

Part 1: The Perils of Using Islamism to Protect the Core

Summary
The fundamental challenge to Pakistan’s survival is twofold. First, the only route of expansion that makes any sense is along the Indus River Valley, the country’s fertile heartland, but that path takes Pakistan into India’s front yard. Second, Pakistan also has an insurmountable internal problem: In its efforts to secure buffers, it is forced to include various ethnic groups that, because of mountainous terrain, are impossible to assimilate. When the government used religion as a tool to unify the buffer regions with the Indus Valley core, it did not anticipate that the strategy would threaten the state's survival.
Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a series on Pakistan. While Pakistan’s boundaries encompass a large swath of land stretching from the peaks of the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, the writ of the Pakistani state stops short of the country’s mountainous northwestern frontier. The strip of arable land that hugs the Indus River in Punjab province is the Pakistani heartland, where the bulk of the country’s population, industry and resources are concentrated. For Pakistan to survive as a modern nation-state, it must protect this core at all costs. But even in the best of circumstances, defending the Pakistani core and maintaining the integrity of the state are extraordinarily difficult tasks, mainly because of geography. The headwaters of the Indus River system are not even in Pakistan — the system actually begins in Indian-administered Kashmir. While Kashmir has been the focus of Indo-Pakistani military action in modern times, the area where Pakistan faces its most severe security challenge is the saddle of land between the Indus and the broader, more fertile and more populated Ganges River basin. The one direction in which it makes sense to extend Pakistani civilization as geography would allow takes Pakistan into direct and daily conflict with a much larger civilization: India. Put simply, geography dictates that Pakistan either be absorbed into India or fight a losing battle against Indian influence.

Controlling the Buffers

Pakistan must protect its core by imposing some semblance of control over its hinterlands, mainly in the north and west, where the landscape is more conducive to fragmenting the population than defending the country. The arid, broken highlands of the Baluchistan plateau eventually leak into Iran to the southwest. To the north, in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), the Federally Administered Northern Area (FANA) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), the terrain becomes more and more mountainous. But terrain in these regions still does not create a firm enough barrier to completely block invasion. To the southwest, a veritable Baluch thoroughfare parallels the Arabian Sea coast and crosses the Iranian-Pakistani border. To the northwest, the Pashtun-populated mountains are not so rugged that armies cannot march through them, as Alexander the Great, the Aryans and the Turks historically proved. To control all these buffer regions, the Pakistani state must absorb masses of other peoples who do not conform to the norms of the Indus core. Russia faces a similar challenge; its lack of geographic insulation from its neighbors forces it to expand to establish a buffer. But in Pakistan, the complications are far worse. Russia’s buffers are primarily flat, which facilitates the assimilation of conquered peoples. Pakistan’s buffers are broken and mountainous, which reinforces ethnic divisions among the regions’ inhabitants — core Punjabis and Sindhis in the Indus Valley, Baluch to the west and Pashtuns to the north. And the Baluch and Pashtuns are spread out over far more territory than what comprises the Punjab-Sindh core. Thus, while Pakistan has relatively definable boundaries, it lacks the ethnic and social cohesion of a strong nation-state. Three of the four major Pakistani ethnic groups — Punjabis, Pashtuns and Baluch — are not entirely in Pakistan. India has an entire state called Punjab, 42 percent of Afghanistan is Pashtun, and Iran has a significant Baluch minority in its Sistan-Baluchistan province. Thus, the challenge to Pakistan's survival is twofold. First, the only route of expansion that makes any sense is along the fertile Indus River Valley, but that takes Pakistan into India’s front yard. The converse is also true: India’s logical route of expansion through Punjab takes it directly into Pakistan’s core. Second, Pakistan faces an insurmountable internal problem. In its efforts to secure buffers, it is forced to include groups that, because of mountainous terrain, are impossible to assimilate. The first challenge is one that has received little media attention of late but remains the issue for long-term Pakistani survival. The second challenge is the core of Pakistan’s “current” problems: The central government in Islamabad simply cannot assert its writ into the outer regions, particularly in the Pashtun northwest, as well as it can at its core. The Indus core could be ruled by a democracy — it is geographically, economically and culturally cohesive — but Pakistan as a whole cannot be democratically ruled from the Indus core and remain a stable nation-state. The only type of government that can realistically attempt to subjugate the minorities in the outer regions, who make up more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s population, is a harsh one (i.e., a military government). It is no wonder, then, that the parliamentary system Pakistan inherited from its days of British rule broke down within four years of independence, which was gained in 1947 when Great Britain split British India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. After the 1948 death of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, British-trained civilian bureaucrats ran the country with the help of the army until 1958, when the army booted out the bureaucrats and took over. Since then there have been four military coups, and the army has ruled the country for 33 of its 61 years in existence. While Pakistani politics is rarely if ever discussed in this context, the country's military leadership implicitly understands the dilemma of holding onto the buffer regions to the north and west. Long before military leader Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) began Islamizing the state, the army’s central command sought to counter the secular, left-wing, ethno-nationalist tendencies of the minority provinces by promoting an Islamic identity, particularly in the Pashtun belt. At first, the idea was to strengthen the religious underpinning of the republic in order to meld the outlands more closely with the core. Later, in the wake of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan (1978-1989), Pakistan's army began using radical Islamism as an arm of foreign policy. Islamist militant groups, trained or otherwise aided by the government, were formed to push Islamabad’s influence into both Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. As Pakistan would eventually realize, however, the strategy of promoting an Islamic identity to maintain domestic cohesion while using radical Islamism as an instrument of foreign policy would do far more harm than good.

Militant Proxies

Pakistan’s Islamization policy culminated in the 1980s, when Pakistani, U.S. and Saudi intelligence services collaborated to drive Soviet troops out of Afghanistan by arming, funding and training mostly Pashtun Afghan fighters. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Pakistan was eager to forge a post-communist Islamist republic in Afghanistan — one that would be loyal to Islamabad and hostile to New Delhi. To that end, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency threw most of its support behind Islamist rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb i-Islami. But things did not quite go as planned. When the Marxist regime in Kabul finally fell in 1992, a major intra-Islamist power struggle ensued, and Hekmatyar lost much of his influence. Amid the chaos, a small group of madrassah teachers and students who had fought against the Soviets rose above the factions and consolidated control over Afghanistan’s Kandahar region in 1994. The ISI became so impressed by this Taliban movement that it dropped Hekmatyar and joined with the Saudis in ensuring that the Taliban would emerge as the vanguard of the Pashtuns and the rulers of Kabul. The ISI was not the only one competing for the Taliban’s attention. A small group of Arabs led by Osama bin Laden reopened shop in Afghanistan in 1996, looking to use a Taliban-run government in Afghanistan as a launchpad for reviving the caliphate. Ultimately, this would involve overthrowing all secular governments in the Muslim world (including the one sitting in Islamabad.) The secular, military-run government in Pakistan, on the other hand, was looking to use its influence on the Taliban government to wrest control of Kashmir from India. While Pakistan’s ISI occasionally collaborated with al Qaeda in Afghanistan on matters of convenience, its goals were still ultimately incompatible with those of bin Laden. Pakistan was growing weary of al Qaeda’s presence on its western border, but soon became preoccupied with an opportunity developing to the east. The Pakistani military saw an indigenous Muslim uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989 as a way to revive its claims over Muslim-majority Kashmir. It did not take long before the military began developing small guerrilla armies of Kashmiri Islamist irregulars for operations against India. When he was a two-star general and the army’s director-general of military operations, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf played a leading role in refining the plan, which became fully operational in the 1999 Kargil War. Pakistan’s war strategy was to infiltrate Kashmiri Islamist guerrillas across the Line of Control (LoC) while Pakistani forces occupied high-altitude positions on Kargil Mountain. When India became aware of the infiltration, it sought to dislodge the guerrillas, at which point Pakistani artillery opened up on Indian troops positioned at lower-altitude base camps. While the Pakistani plan was initially successful, Indian forces soon regained the upper hand and U.S. pressure helped force a Pakistani retreat. But the defeat at Kargil did not stop Pakistan from pursuing its Islamist militant proxy project in Kashmir. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Al Badr spread their offices and training camps throughout Pakistani-occupied Kashmir under the guidance of the ISI. Whenever Islamabad felt compelled to turn up the heat on New Delhi, these militants would carry out operations against Indian targets, mostly in the Kashmir region. India, meanwhile, would return the pressure on Islamabad by supporting Baluchi rebels in western Pakistan and providing covert support to the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s main rival in Afghanistan. While Pakistan grew more and more distracted by supporting its Islamist proxies in Kashmir, the Taliban grew more attached to al Qaeda, which provided fighters to help the Taliban against the Northern Alliance as well as funding when the Taliban were crippled by an international embargo. As a result, al Qaeda extended its influence over the Taliban government, which gave al Qaeda free rein to plan and stage the deadliest terrorist attack to date against the West.

The Post 9/11 Environment

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked, the United States put Pakistan in a chokehold: Cooperate immediately in toppling the Taliban regime, which Pakistan had nurtured for years, or face destruction. Musharraf tried to buy some time by reaching out to Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar to give up bin Laden, but the Taliban chief refused, making it clear that Pakistan had lost against al Qaeda in the battle for influence over the Taliban. Just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, in December 2001, Kashmiri Islamist militants launched a major attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. Still reeling from the pressure it was receiving from the United States, Islamabad was now faced with the wrath of India. Both dealing with an Islamist militant threat, New Delhi and Washington tag-teamed Islamabad and tried to get it to cut its losses and dismantle its Islamist militant proxies. To fend off some of the pressure, the Musharraf government banned LeT and JeM, two key Kashmiri Islamist groups fostered by the ISI and with close ties to al Qaeda. India was unsatisfied with the ban, which was mostly for show, and proceeded to mass a large military force along the LoC in Kashmir. The Pakistanis responded with their own deployment, and the two countries stood at the brink of nuclear war. U.S. intervention allowed India and Pakistan to step back from the precipice. In the process, Washington extracted concessions from Islamabad on the counterterrorism front, and official Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban withered within days.

The Devolution of the ISI

The post 9/11 shake-up ignited a major crisis in the Pakistani military establishment. On one hand, the military was under extreme pressure to stamp out the jihadists along its western border. On the other hand, the military was fearful of U.S. and Indian interests aligning against Pakistan. Islamabad’s primary means of keeping Washington as an ally was its connection to the jihadist insurgency in Afghanistan. So Islamabad played a double game, offering piecemeal cooperation to the United States while maintaining ties with its Islamist militant proxies in Afghanistan. But the ISI’s grip over these proxies was already loosening. In the run-up to 9/11, al Qaeda not only had close ties to the Taliban regime, but also had reached out to ISI handlers whose job it was to maintain links with the array of Islamist militant proxies supported by Islamabad. Many of the intelligence operatives who had embraced the Islamist ideology were working to sabotage Islamabad’s new alliance with Washington, which threatened to destroy the Islamist militant universe they had created. While the ISI leadership was busy trying to adjust to the post-9/11 operating environment, others within the middle and junior ranks of the agency started to engage in activities not necessarily sanctioned by their leadership. As the influence of the Pakistani state declined, al Qaeda’s influence rose. By the end of 2003, Musharraf had become the target of at least three al Qaeda assassination attempts. In the spring of 2004, Musharraf — again under pressure from the United States — was forced to send troops into the tribal badlands for the first time in the history of the country. Pakistani military operations to root out foreign fighters ended up killing thousands in the Pashtun areas, creating massive resentment against the central government. In October 2006, when a deadly U.S. Predator strike hit a madrassah in Bajaur agency, killing 82 people, the stage was set for a jihadist insurgency to move into Pakistan proper. The Pakistani Taliban linked up with al Qaeda to carry out scores of suicide attacks, most against military targets and all aiming to break Islamabad’s resolve to combat the insurgency. A major political debacle threw Islamabad off course in March 2007, when Musharraf's government was hit by a pro-democracy movement after he dismissed the country’s chief justice. Four months later, a raid on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, which Islamist militants had occupied, threw more fuel onto the insurgent fires, igniting suicide attacks in major Pakistani cities like Karachi and Islamabad, while the writ of the state continued to erode in the NWFP and FATA. Musharraf was forced to step down as army chief in November 2007 and as president in August 2008, ushering in an incoherent civilian government. In December 2007, the world got a good glimpse of just how dangerous the murky ISI-jihadist nexus had become when the political chaos in Islamabad was exploited with a bold suicide attack that killed Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Historically, the Pakistani military had been relied on to step in and restore order in such a crisis, but the military itself was coming undone as the split widened between those willing and those unwilling to work with the jihadists. Now, in the final days of 2008, the jihadist insurgency is raging on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, with the country’s only guarantor against collapse — the military — in disarray.

Kashmiri Groups Cut Loose

India has watched warily as Pakistan’s jihadist problems have intensified over the past several years. Of utmost concern to New Delhi have been the scores of Kashmiri Islamist militants who had been operating on the ISI’s payroll — and who had a score to settle with India. As Pakistan became more and more distracted with battling jihadists within its own borders, the Kashmiri Islamist militant groups began loosening their bonds with the Pakistani state. Groups such as LeT and JeM, who had been banned and forced underground following the 2001 Indian parliament attack, started spreading their tentacles into major Indian cities. These groups retained links to the ISI, but the Pakistani military had bigger issues to deal with and needed to distance itself from the Kashmiri Islamists. If these groups were to continue to carry out operations, Pakistan needed some plausible deniability. Over the past several years, Kashmiri Islamist militant groups have carried out sporadic attacks throughout India. The attacks have involved commercial-grade explosives rather than the military-grade RDX that is traditionally used in Pakistani-sponsored attacks, another sign that the groups are distancing themselves from Pakistan. The attacks, mostly against crowded transportation hubs, religious sites (both Hindu and Muslim) and marketplaces, were designed to ignite riots between Hindus and Muslims that would compel the Indian government to crack down and revive the Kashmir cause. However, India’s Hindu nationalist and largely moderate Muslim communities failed to take the bait. It was only a matter of time before these militant groups began seeking out more strategic targets that would affect India’s economic lifelines and ignite a crisis between India and Pakistan. As these groups became increasingly autonomous, they also started linking up with members of al Qaeda’s transnational jihadist movement, who had a keen interest in stirring up conflict between India and Pakistan to divert the attention of Pakistani forces to the east. By November 2008, this confluence of forces — Pakistan’s raging jihadist insurgency, the devolution of the ISI and the increasing autonomy of the Kashmiri groups — created the conditions for one of the largest militant attacks in history to hit Mumbai, highlighting the extent to which Pakistan has lost control over its Islamist militant proxy project.

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