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Monday, December 12, 2011

Attacks on Afghan Shiites Highlight Pakistan's Policy Failure

BY ARIF RAFIQ | 12 DEC 2011
BRIEFING

Last Tuesday’s deadly attacks on Shiite processions in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan are further evidence of dangerous instability in neighboring Pakistan and of the Pakistani state’s failure to act coherently to counteract it. A clear understanding of the group responsible is important to understanding the crossborder ramifications of the attacks.

Contrary to reports in prominent news outlets, the Pakistani Sunni sectarian terrorist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) was not responsible for the attacks. Rather, an LeJ splinter group known as Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-A) -- not the original LeJ organization -- has claimed responsibility for them. A person claiming to be an LeJ-A spokesman made the announcement in communication with a number of news outlets, including BBC Urdu and Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

LeJ-A has claimed responsibility for a small number of very deadly attacks in Pakistan since 2009. These include attacks on Shiite Muslims in Kohat in 2009 and 2010: a September 2009 attack on a market in a predominantly Shiite area that killed 33 people, and an April 2010 attack on internally displaced Shiites that killed 44 and injured 70. In addition, multiple attacks on a Shiite procession in Lahore in September 2010 killed 29 civilians and injured 243.

The original LeJ was founded in 1996 by dissident members of a third group, Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), who felt that the SSP was not militant enough. Prior to being banned in 2003, the SSP was a registered political party, though in practice it was an anti-Shiite terrorist group. The SSP continues to maintain an unofficial though highly visible role in politics, actively using its swing voters to tilt hotly contested races, while at the same time feeding Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas with non-Pashtun militants.

LeJ, on the other hand, rejects involvement in formal politics. It has a long record of terrorist violence against Pakistani Shiites and even the Pakistani government. In recent years, the group has also been involved in attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team. But LeJ-A split from LeJ -- mirroring the LeJ’s previous split from SSP -- on the grounds that LeJ was insufficiently extremist. Despite their common history, LeJ and LeJ-A are now two distinct organizations. In fact, LeJ-A is only one of many LeJ splinter groups -- all of which are more rapacious and less controllable than the original group, and all of which also have short half-lives.

The trend toward fragmentation reflects an increasingly messy jihadist landscape in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Pakistani Taliban, the major umbrella organization for Pashtun jihadist groups in the tribal areas and the nearby settled areas, is splintering, due in part to efforts by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to stoke divisions within the fragile network.

The ISI is applying a policy of divide and rule toward both LeJ and the Pakistani Taliban, a strategy the spy agency has applied in the past to its political opponents, such as the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The outcome of such an approach in Pakistan tends to be more divisions and greater instability, with quite considerable negative externalities: While splintering reduces militant groups' coherence and unity of command and purpose, the end result is often more deadly violence or the emergence of increasingly nihilistic groups.

Now, LeJ-A has apparently reared its ugly head in Afghanistan for the first time. Though the brutal attacks on Shiite civilians were shocking, it is not clear that they are a harbinger of things to come. The LeJ-A attack could prove to be an isolated phenomenon in Afghanistan. After all, the group is small and lacks the capacity to conduct a sustained campaign even at home in Pakistan.

What’s more, there is no indication of an emerging sectarian war in Afghanistan. After the attack, enraged Afghan Shiites in Kabul chanted slogans denouncing Pakistan and the United States, not their fellow Afghan Sunnis -- that is, they expressed their anger in the form of Afghan nationalism, not sectarianism. Even the Afghan Taliban, which mercilessly killed Hazara Shiites in the 1990s, unequivocally condemned Tuesday’s attacks, although LeJ-A, if its claims of responsibility are true, might have received support from insubordinate or rogue elements of the Afghan Taliban.

Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan does face a clear and present danger from sectarian violence. LeJ and its offshoots are engaged in a systematic campaign of slaughtering Shiites -- particularly ethnic Hazaras -- and other religious minorities in Pakistan. This year, 179 people have been killed in sectarian violence in the country.

Pakistan has no coherent national-level counterradicalization program. Its military-intelligence establishment spearheaded a bold counterradicalization program in the Swat area, home to a bloody but successful counterinsurgency operation launched in 2009. But elsewhere in the country, the Pakistani establishment supports militants who fight in Afghanistan and India, and there remains a risk that these groups will set their sights on Pakistani targets in the future, just as former jihadist assets of the ISI are now doing.

To make matters worse, the Pakistani state lacks the judicial muscle to prosecute terrorists. In 2010, 75 percent of those prosecuted in Pakistani anti-terrorism courts were acquitted. Earlier this fall, Pakistan’s so-called troika -- the prime minister, president and army chief -- resolved to bolster the courts.

But until Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership produce a comprehensive national security policy that provides for a coherent transition away from the use of jihadists as proxies, no number of additional judicial agents will be able to halt the wave of instability and violence that Pakistan’s military has been intent on pushing outward for at least the past four years.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog and tweets at @pakistanpolicy.

World Politics Review

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