The monster of extremism and terrorism has domestic roots but it is equally fed and sustained by transnational and trans-border networks of individuals, groups and movements in Pakistan. It is not just private persons and entities within the broader Middle Eastern region giving support to religious and secular organisations, but the secret and not-so-secret involvement of states in support of their objectives and interest that makes the challenge of terrorism so messy and complex. Another very important dimension of this challenge is the scale and the long time over which it has grown with the usual apathy of our ruling groups. No political leader has ever stood firmly with a resolve to take the extremism challenge as one of the key priorities; it was as if his challenge was for others to address. In times of intense political rivalry between the two major political parties in a decade-long confrontation, each one of them showed no hesitation in courting the support of groups and individuals with ties to extremist organisations.
The challenge of extremism that has transformed itself into sectarian terrorism is a national problem first, but at the same time, it is a regional problem. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in parts of strife-stricken Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen and its chronicles of atrocities against anyone branded or even suspected as ‘enemy’ has shocked the whole world, but most importantly, it has pushed a number of regional states to cooperate and coordinate their intelligence and military operations against the IS. A good number of regional countries have very courageously opted to be part of an international coalition to defeat the IS. The groups associated with the IS in the Middle East may also find support in Afghanistan and Pakistanamong similar groups and movements that might share their world view and the ‘ideal’ state they are trying to establish. There are indications that some groups have already aligned with the IS in this region as well. Not doing so, will run counter to logic and the history of transnational links between the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Middle East.
For decades, Afghanistan and Pakistan have witnessed a big informal flow of funds, militants and dangerous ideas from the extended Middle East. The problem is that rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is secular in its ends but essentially sectarian in its means, within the Middle East has always found its expression through similar instruments and organisations in our region. Focusing overly on the cycles of the Afghan wars and weakening of the state there and the nominal presence of the Pakistani state in the frontier regions, we tend to look at the pull factors and the vacuum that militant organisations have filled. No less important is the Middle Eastern push factor that comes with the funds, ideas and organisational support in many forms.
While Pakistan and its society struggles to face the challenge of extremism through its fresh resolve and under a consensual, multi-pronged National Action Plan, we need to think of broader response with essential regional and international ingredients. Regionally, close relations with Afghanistan hold the key to our success against extremism and terrorism. Employing of proxies by either side for decades in troubled times of the other has not worked and will never work. Hopefully, we are moving towards that realisation — this holds the key to cultivating a climate of a strong relationship between the two.
It is equally important, though difficult, to plug the holes through which Middle Eastern money and the sectarian divide enter our society. The traditional state apathy towards this issue has greatly contributed to the strength of sectarian forces. A multipronged counterterrorism strategy at home and cooperation with Afghanistan and other regional states will give Pakistan a better handle on the extremism challenge.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2015.