Trying to Make Sense of the Wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan

It’s Sunni vs Shia vs commies vs yanks vs. India vs. Brits vs. minorities vs. the government vs. the spy agencies vs drones, etc…

Who’s Killing Pakistan’s Shia and Why? – War on the Rocks

In 1974, under Zulfiqar ali Bhutto, Pakistan set up a cell within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to undertake covert operations.  Mohammed Daoud Khan had just ousted King Zahir Shah in Afghanistan and begun a liberalization program under Soviet patronage.  Afghan Islamists opposed this, and Daoud violently repressed them.  Many of these Islamists fled to Pakistan, where the ISI developed them for covert operations in Afghanistan.  Once Zia ul Haq seized the Pakistani government in a coup in 1977, he began to shape Pakistan into a Sunni Islamist state.  Some of his efforts, such as imposing the payment of zakat, were specifically antagonistic to Pakistan’s Shia who do not accept Sunni interpretations of zakat.  As Shia came under pressure, they began to mobilize.

Next door, Iran was convulsing into its Shia Islamic Revolution. Not only did Iran seek to export its revolution, it also saw itself as the key protector of Shia across the world.  Iran began supporting Shia militant groups fighting Zia’s efforts to render Pakistan a Sunni Islamic state.  When Iran and Iraq fell into war, Iraq involved itself in Pakistan’s emerging sectarian conflict.  As rival Sunni militant groups—most of which were Deobandi—began to mobilize against Shia in Pakistan, Iraq began resourcing anti-Shia militant organizations.  Soon the Arab Gulf states joined in to help marginalize Pakistan’s Shia, who were seen as Iran’s pawn in the region.  Thus Pakistan soon became the site of an elaborate sectarian proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni strategic competitors…

…The largest cluster of militant groups was Deobandi in orientation. Deobandi groups included the Afghan Taliban, anti-Shia groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)/Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP) (which now go by the name of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ)), and several that were ostensibly fighting the Indians (e.g. Jaish-e-Mohammad). These Deobandi groups share a vast infrastructure of madrassahs and mosques and have overlapping membership with each other and with the Deobandi Islamist political groups, most notably the factions of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI).

Throughout the 1990s, sectarian attacks continued. However, by the 1990s, the Pakistani state crushed the anti-Sunni militias, leaving the anti-Shia Sunni militants intact. During the mid-1990s, groups such as LeJ/SSP also fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, illustrating their utility to the state…

…Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders have yet to come to any consensus on a political strategy to contend with these militants who have claimed tens of thousands of Pakistani lives since 2001.  The military, for its part, is reluctant to take them on for several reasons. First, parts of the military still see Islamist militants as important tools of foreign policy in India and Afghanistan.  In fact, for some, the loyal Islamist militants will become even more important as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and as Pakistan needs militants that are loyal to the Pakistani project.  Second, because these Deobandi militant groups share overlapping membership with each other and with the JUI, the JUI provide their militant allies with political cover. Third, the military is unwilling to eliminate them in entirety because it believes that some of them can be rehabilitated and persuaded to aim their guns, suicide vests, and vehicle-born IEDS away from the Pakistani state and towards Afghanistan or India. (Yes. This does mean the Pakistan army—which has received some $27 billion from Washington for being a “partner in the Global War on Terrorism”—is encouraging its militants to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan.)  Fourth, the army’s will is no doubt conditioned by its ability.  While the army could certainly do more, its record at combating Pakistan’s domestic enemies is mixed at best and has come at a high human cost in terms of civilian casualties and massive internal displacement.  This is why Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies rely upon the U.S. drone program to take out the terrorists it cannot.  Finally, for national counter-terrorism efforts, Pakistan’s police should take the lead.  But it is well-known that Pakistan’s police are not up to that task

…Iran and Pakistan share a sensitive border in Balochistan.  In Iran’s Sistan-o-Balochistan province, many residents are Sunni Baloch.  Iran has suffered ethno-sectarian violence there because the residents believe they are second-class citizens owing to their ethnicity and their sectarian beliefs. Iran has often looked apprehensively towards Pakistan, suspecting that it is a source of support for these Sunni Baloch militants. Pakistan, for its part, has problems with its own Baloch, some of whom have waged an ethnic separatist struggle against the Pakistan state.  The Baloch nationalist insurgents have enjoyed support from India and Afghanistan.  This brings to the fore the most vulnerable of all Shia in Pakistan right now: the Hazaras of Quetta.

The Hazaras, who live in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are easily recognized by their “Mongolian” facial features.  Hazaras of Balochistan are in danger due to a toxic mix of domestic developments, which have resulted in rising ethnic and sectarian intolerance, as well as regional political factors pertaining to fraught Iran-Pakistan relations.  While Pakistanis tend to view Shia generally with suspicion because of their presumed ties with Iran, Hazaras are viewed with even greater dubiety.  Unlike other Shia in Pakistan who speak Urdu and other vernacular languages, Hazaras speak Farsi and its variants.  This fosters suspicion that they are Iranian spies or even that they are trying to fulminate a Shia revolution in Pakistan.  (The Hazaras in Afghanistan receive support from Iran, and they were frequently the victims of violence in Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled uncontested.)  The Hazaras draw the ire of Deobandis and Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies because they oppose the Afghan Taliban, whose allies include the sectarian killers of the SSP/LeJ/ASWJ, and because they refuse to fight the ethnic Baloch separatists in the province.  The Hazaras and ethnic Baloch separatists may indeed be allies of sorts because both reject the multi-pronged efforts of the state and militants to make Pakistan a Sunni Islamist state.

Sadly, at some point it becomes difficult to discern whether persons are killed by the state or by the terrorists, because in some cases the state outsources its domestic violence to terrorists such as LeJ/SSP/ASWJ.

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About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
This entry was posted in Politics/Foreign correspondents. Bookmark the permalink.

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