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Back from the brink

By Tom Hussain

November 15 2015


In 1990, three colonels were inducted into the Pakistani army’s planning cell for Kashmir, the Himalayan territory at the heart of its conflicts with neighbouring India. Tasked with assessing the ramifications of the withdrawal the year before of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the three men recommended the mujahideen, or holy warriors, returning home after inflicting defeat on the Red Army should be disarmed. They also recommended the militants be prevented from getting involved in – and radicalising – Pakistan’s Kashmir campaign. Their recommendations went ignored and the consequences were catastrophic.


General Pervez Musharraf was confronted with the US’ ‘you’re either with us or against us’ ultimatum after the 9/11 attacks – a threat backed up by four aircraft carrier groups gathered in the Arabian Sea, a few hundred kilometres off Pakistan’s coast. He called a meeting of his junta to seek their opinion: should Pakistan accept or reject the US demand to abandon the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies? He asked the Pakistan Air Force chief of staff, Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, to join the meeting. The air chief’s response was: “In three hours, there won’t be a Pakistan Air Force anymore”. Despite General Musharraf’s abandonment of the Taliban, he did not discontinue the state’s relationship with the militants until 2002, when the US intervened to prevent India launching a war in retaliation for Pakistani militant attacks on its parliament and a military camp in Kashmir that housed army officers’ families.

Bin Laden

The Pakistani state’s history of complicity with militant Islamists came home to roost on May 2, 2011, when US Navy SEALs in stealth helicopters swooped on the garrison town of Abbottabad, a two-hour drive north from Islamabad, and killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The day after, the three task-force colonels gathered to confer. The group’s leader, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, was now the army’s chief of staff and, without doubt, the most powerful man in Pakistan. Another in attendance was General Tariq Majid, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the 36 hours that had elapsed since Bin Laden was killed, the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI[ directorate had discovered Bin Laden’s presence had been hidden from them by Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed, two Kashmir-focused militant groups who had operated training camps near Abbottabad since the 1990s. But after much argument, General Kayani decided against cracking down on the groups.

Rigged elections

During the campaign for the May 2013 general election, the Pakistani Taliban [TTP] warned it would target President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the regional parties that made up his left-of-centre coalition administration. As Mr. Zardari’s relationship with the military was anything but cordial, the threat effectively ended the PPP’s campaign before it could begin. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League promised to engage the TTP in peace talks if elected to power. The TTP approved and guaranteed it would not target their election campaigns, and Mr. Sharif’s party won by a big majority and he was appointed prime minister. Despite the urging of army chief of staff General Kayani, Mr. Sharif pressed ahead with his political agenda, appointing intelligence operatives and extremist clerics from the jihadi heydays of the 1990s as interlocutors. As they had in 2009, when the government surrendered in Swat, the TTP saw this as a sign of weakness and sought to increase its leverage by staging a series of high profile attacks, mostly against military targets.

Fait accompli

The decision to move against the TTP and its al-Qaeda allies was taken in June 2014, after TTP and al-Qaeda militants attacked Karachi’s international airport. Immediately, army chief of staff General Raheel Sharif ordered the air force to unleash the opening barrage of a massive offensive on North Waziristan. The decision was taken without the prior approval of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He was informed the day after the first air strikes and did not announce a formal government decision until the day after that.

School massacre

It was not until December 16, 2014 that Pakistan finally united against the TTP. Pushed out of its FATA strongholds, the TTP had relocated to the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and from there plotted the single-worst atrocity of the insurgency: an assault on the Army Public School in nearby Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in which more than 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, were executed.  In the days that followed, the heads of Pakistani political parties gathered under the stern gaze of General Sharif and were browbeaten into accepting the military’s demand for two years of sweeping powers to end the insurgent threat to the country. The key phrases of the emergent policy were: “zero tolerance” and “no good or bad Taliban”. And with that, the Pakistani state’s 25-year affair with militant proxies officially drew to a close.

The full feature was originally published in

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