The Pakistani army’s Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad is its latest push against militants operating in the country. On the ideological front however, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif government appears reluctant to press madrassa reform for fear of alienating conservative constituencies. According to Stratfor, the new military Ops has the potential to invite high-profile retaliatory attacks by the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar as the South Asian militant groups launch their annual spring offensives in April in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The on-going Pakistan Army’s operation, Radd-ul-Fasaad, is its 11th counter-terrorism campaign since 2007. It is a sequel to a series of terrorist attacks notably, the Feb. 16 bombing of a Sufi shrine that killed more than 80 people. Unlike the earlier Ops, the present one, launched by army Chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, is focusing on Punjab, the country’s heartland and home to a number of militant groups and madrasas. Significantly, neither the LeT/JuD of Hafeez Saeed nor JeM of Maulana Masood Azhar are on the wanted list. Both are dear to the Pakistani Army, particularly its intelligence wing, ISI, which has been using them against Afghanistan and India.
The Ops has led to at least 1,300 arrests and the seizure of caches of ammunition, weapons, and computers and improvised explosive devices. The early successes, according to Stratfor, have been accompanied by accusations that some ethnic groups have been indiscriminately targeted.
Pitfalls of the Military Plan
Says Stratfor: “Though the operations seem to have minimally disrupted civilian life, Pashtuns living in Punjab have complained that they have been unfairly singled out. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah acknowledged that the raids have focused on Pashtuns and unregistered Afghan refugees in Punjab since attacks in the state have been traced to militants operating out of the Pashtun-majority Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.
In addition to raising ethnic groups’ concerns, the new military operation will likely exacerbate another emerging trend in Pakistan’s militant landscape: high-profile attacks by the Islamic State’s Afghanistan-based Khorasan chapter working with local groups, including the al-Alami faction of the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban.
Khorasan has designs on expanding into South Asia, and since August, the group has claimed at least three big attacks in Pakistan — one in Balochistan, one in Sindh and one in Punjab. The challenge for the Pakistani army, then, is to prosecute counter-terrorism operations while minimizing militant blowback.
In fact, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar named its string of February attacks Operation Ghazi after a slain cleric and claimed they were staged in retaliation for the army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the FATA. Yet because April marks the traditional start of the annual spring offensive, this development — coupled with the desire to retaliate against the army for Radd-ul-Fasaad — means it’s likely that Pakistan (as well as Afghanistan) will experience more Khorasan-linked attacks in the next few months, observes Stratfor in its latest commentary on Af-Pak scene.
In a country like Pakistan, military operation can at best be one, of course, more visible, aspect of counterterrorism strategy. Since the country has been in the grip of Islamisation undertaken by military ruler Gen Zia-ul -Haq in the eighties, real breakthrough can come only when the government targets Madrasas which provide militancy’s ideological underpinnings. As of now, madrasa reform has received no more than lip service though United States had provided special funds as a part of its war against terrorism.
True a comprehensive National Action Plan launched after the dastardly Taliban attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in December 2014 (more than 140 school children were killed), had provisions for regulating madrassas. Turn of events show that the authorities entrusted with the NAP did not pay much attention to the provision on Madrasas. Otherwise there would have been so many unregistered Madrasas dotting the capital, Islamabad’s landscape, as recent media reports show. Generally, these schools teach extremist interpretations of Islam. The first generation of Taliban fighters graduated from Pakistani madrassas.
In 2001, the government established the Pakistan Madrasah Education Board with the aim of building “model” madrassas. But 16 years later, the board has established only three madrassas in the country. As Stratfor puts, Madrassa reform is not popular among the conservative and politically powerful religious groups that make up key support for the governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Since the party needs that bloc to retain power, it has been reluctant to tackle the issue. Especially as the PML-N is beginning its campaign for 2018 national and state elections, the party has no incentive to prioritize madrassa reform this year, either.
The political calculation becomes apparent in Punjab, which has the most madrassas of any Pakistani province. Since the National Action Plan was introduced in 2015, only two of the almost 14,000 madrassas in the province have been shuttered, compared with at least 2,300 madrassa closures in Sindh, a province governed by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party.
The message is clear. Militancy in Pakistan will diminish only when Islamabad accrues the political capital to pursue Madrasa reform and thus addresses the root cause of extremist Islam, and Rawalpindi gives up its penchant to use Islamist groups for its strategic and security games.
– — m rama rao