top of page
  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Militants: Pakistan's Catch-22

This article was originally published on UCL Pi Media in December 2019:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been quite a rough year for Pakistan. On February 14th, a suicide bomber attacked Indian security forces in the Pulwama district of contested Kashmir, killing forty. Even though the assailant was from India’s portion of Kashmir, the attack was claimed by a militant group based in Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The ensuing military escalation pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Pakistan’s failure to rein in groups such as JeM has also put it at risk of falling into the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international group that monitors terrorism financing. Should it fail to take convincing steps before February 2020, it would join the ranks of Iran and North Korea in the FATF’s blacklist and risk losing international economic support. This would not bode well at a time when Pakistan’s surging inflation and budget deficits forced it to take a thirteenth bailout loan from the IMF in July.

Then on August 5th, the Indian government decided to revoke the special autonomous status of Kashmir, to which Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan responded by warning that “incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again”, “[India] will attempt to place the blame on us again. They may strike us again, and we will strike back”.

And if war seemed more likely to Pakistan’s east, things weren’t going much better to its west. In September, peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the US government were put on hold after a Taliban attack killed a US soldier. Thus, we see no end in sight for a war that has already sent millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan.

What these seemingly disparate events have in common is that they are all symptomatic of Pakistan’s core strategic dilemma: the activity of militant groups on Pakistani soil comes with serious costs. We have already seen what these costs may be; risk of war with India, risk of international economic sanctions, risk of US pressure to crack down on the Taliban, and so on. But if these are the costs, then why has it traditionally been so difficult for Pakistan to crack down on groups such as JeM and the Afghan Taliban?

The reasons appear to be structural. One is that, in the words of scholar S. Paul Kapur, “Pakistan has long used militants as strategic tools to compensate for its severe political and material weaknesses”. Indeed, Pakistan has always suffered under military and economic weakness relative to India. At birth, Pakistan received less than 18% of British India’s financial resources and less than 30% of its military assets. Indeed in 2018, India had seven times the GDP and five times the military budget of Pakistan. The decision of Pakistan to employ both nuclear weapons and militant groups is a consequence of its inability to challenge India militarily – shown by its disastrous performance in the war of 1971.

Pakistan’s military weakness is a prominent factor in the struggle with India over the contested region of Kashmir. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistan instigated and supported an ongoing insurgency in Kashmir, carried out by a variety of militant groups against Indian rule. In The Jihad Paradox, Kapur describes how Pakistan cynically switched support from group to group depending on their loyalty and effectiveness, finally settling on groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), notorious for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

Reliance on militant proxy forces also dictated Pakistani strategy in Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviet Red Army invaded Afghanistan to prop up a collapsing communist regime, effectively turning it into a satellite state. Pakistan’s military regime, worrying that their country would be next, entered into a marriage of convenience with the United States and Saudi Arabia to push the Soviets out. Pakistan would be the conduit for American arms and money – matched by the Saudis dollar-for-dollar – to be funnelled to anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan (commonly referred to as the mujahideen). Hence, they were able to circumvent their immense military inferiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

Hence this decade, ending with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, represented the apex of US assistance for jihadi militancy in South and Central Asia. As Steve Coll reports in his fascinating history of the Afghan jihad, Ghost Wars, the CIA even had Korans translated into Uzbek to incite unrest in Soviet Central Asia. However, although the Americans and Saudis footed the bill, it was Pakistan that handed out the cash, and that allowed Pakistan to fight the Soviets its own way.

One manifestation of this was the rather selective support given to groups favoured by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. The mujahideen were composed of a dizzying melange of groups, reflecting Afghanistan’s ethnolinguistic and political diversity. By backing the right horse, Pakistan could ensure that it would have a friendly partner in neighbouring Afghanistan, opening the way to the resources of Central Asia and lending the military a fall-back position in the event of war with India. This became of far greater importance after the Communist regime finally collapsed in April 1992, plunging Afghanistan into civil war.

Here again, we see the old cynicism in play. In order to dislodge the post-Communist government of Afghanistan – elements of which were suspicious of Pakistan – the ISI began to back the forces of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. However, by 1994 it was clear that Hekmatyar would never be able to take Kabul, so the ISI switched tack. Its new chosen horse was the Afghan Taliban, which it helped create and support until they rode victoriously into Kabul in September 1996.

So, Pakistan’s recent history seems to vindicate the idea that the use of militant groups such as the Taliban and Jaish-e-Mohammed can be effective at compensating for Pakistan’s material weakness. Yet, as Kapur writes, “despite its historical benefits, the strategy has outlived its utility”. Indeed, from economic sanctions to the United States waging war next door, it would seem that playing host to militants only invites trouble. However, military strategy is not the only reason they continue to survive.

The second reason is that they have been difficult to control. Ironically, the material weakness that makes militants so attractive in the first place also precludes the state from exercising effective control over them. In many cases this is because militant groups have taken advantage of gaps that Pakistan’s weak state fails to cover.

Sometimes these gaps are found in government services. For instance, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a front organisation for LeT, has earned a reputation for carrying out relief operations following natural disasters, as well as running numerous schools and hospitals around the country. Animesh Roul, who calls JuD a “socio-religious behemoth”, notes that “free education and free medical treatments … fuels growing support for JuD’s presence and facilitate its legitimacy substantially within the [sic] Pakistan”.

These gaps can also be geographical, and they represent the inability of the state to exercise sufficient control over the entire country. After 2001, US pressure drove Pakistan to send forces to attack Taliban fighters living among tribes whose reputation for armed resistance had long kept the Pakistani army – and the British before it – at bay. The resulting backlash from tribal chiefs contributed to the creation of the Pakistani Taliban, a collection of groups that has waged a bloody and costly insurgency in Pakistan ever since. The United States had essentially opened a civil war in Pakistan.

That touches on what is perhaps the most serious limitation: the understandable lack of willingness on the part of many Pakistanis to kill each other for the sake of the United States. Reviewing the army’s performance in the tribal areas, Christine Fair and Seth Jones note that “public-opinion polls indicate that many Pakistanis have been wary of army operations against fellow citizens, and some have accused the government of conducting them at Washington’s behest” – which can be poison in domestic politics, especially after repeated US drone strikes in the tribal areas and the highly unpopular invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, for these reasons and more, it has been difficult or even undesirable for the Pakistani state to take drastic action against militant groups operating in the country. The picture of these groups is not only as “strategic tools”, but as entities tightly woven into the fabric of Pakistani society. They are an inconvenience, but tackling them might simply be too costly. However, it appears that we may be turning a new leaf with the leadership of Imran Khan, who became prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018.

In March 2019, soon after the confrontation over Kashmir, the government seized more than a hundred schools belonging to banned Islamist groups. Then in April, Khan announced “we have decided … we will not allow armed militias to operate anymore”. And in September, he put down a marker: “Anyone making any such attempt [to cross over into Kashmir to fight] would be an enemy of Pakistan as well as an enemy of Kashmiris”.

Only time will tell if Khan is fully able to translate his words into facts on the ground, but things are looking hopeful. On the one hand, as he stated in a recent interview, he seems to have the support of Pakistan’s most powerful institution, the army. Yet, sometimes political will is not enough to overcome problems that are essentially structural. Pakistan has far to go before it can break out of its Catch-22.



bottom of page