Pakistan’s war against Islamist extremism does not seem to be ending anytime soon. While the country somewhat completed a military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, which was directed mostly toward the Pakistani Taliban, Islamabad is engaged in a new battle against the emerging threat of the Islamic State (IS). Although Pakistani authorities have consistently been denying the presence of the Islamic State inside their frontiers, they’re now furtively admitting its existence only to flaunt over some recent actions they have taken against the militants affiliated with the terrorist outfit.
For the general public and the local media, the presence of the Islamic State is now an open secret because it has already claimed responsibility for several high-profile terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, targeting innocent civilians, lawyers, and law enforcement officers. With the Islamic State tightening its grip in Pakistan, the Taliban seem to have elevated to the level of ‘good guys, ’ and the former is feared as much as once the Pakistani Taliban were.
On June 4, 2017, the Pakistani army, without naming the Islamic State, confirmed carrying out a two-day military operation in the volatile Balochistan province that “ successfully foiled major terrorist activities in Baluchistan.” The army said, “Terrorists were hiding inside a cave for planning, coordination, and execution of terrorist activities in Baluchistan.” At least 12 “hardcore” terrorists were killed in the battle while five security officials and two officers were injured.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province area wise, shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan and it has become the hub of robust Chinese investment under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Although the smallest in terms of population, Balochistan, according to the Pakistan Security Report 2016 by the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), accounted for the highest number of terrorist attacks (34 percent) in Pakistan in 2016. At least 412 people were killed, and 702 were injured in 151 terrorist attacks in Balochistan last year as compared to 441 similar incidents nationwide that killed 908 and wounded 1,627 people. While there was a 12 percent national decrease in deaths caused by terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2016 as compared to 2015, Balochistan, on the contrary, witnessed a 63 percent increase in the number of terrorism-related killings and 116 percent increase in injuries in 2016.
Besides an active presence of Islamist extremists, Balochistan is also home to a decade-long secessionist insurgency that has involved attacks on Pakistani security forces and government installations. However, the PIPS report argues, “while the nationalist insurgency is easy to tackle, provided the government shows a political resolve, Islamist militant groups including violent sectarian will be tough to eliminate in a province with sparse populations and a huge area with less governed spaces.”
Pakistan’s latest military operation against the Islamic State is significant, and it highlights a major policy shift because Islamabad does not have a history of moving against Islamists in Balochistan without pressure from foreign governments. Pakistan’s neighbors, mainly Afghanistan and India, criticize Islamabad for supporting Islamist groups for a host of reasons. For example, it is accused of backing radical Islamists in Balochistan to counter the separatist Baloch nationalists while it is also criticized for using Islamists as a proxy inside Afghanistan to contain India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Some speculate that Islamabad is moving aggressively against Islamists in the wake of growing pressure from the Chinese. On May 24, at least two Chinese nationalists were kidnapped in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Previously, Baloch nationalists were mainly behind attacks on the Chinese because they resent China’s investment at the Port of Gwadar, a project they fear would convert them into a minority on their ancestral land and cause demographic imbalance.
The kidnapping of the Chinese nationals, however, seems to be masterminded by Islamist groups that have claimed responsibility for some recent deadly attacks in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan. Last week, the Islamic State claimed to have killed both the Chinese nationals abducted in Balochistan. Pakistani officials say they cannot confirm the claims by the Islamic State until they discover the dead bodies of the victims.
Even if Pakistan is acting against extremists on Chinese instructions, this is a positive policy shift and ending support and tolerance for all kinds of Jihadist activity on the Pakistani soil will provide relief to the nation and its people.
The ongoing cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is further going to define Pakistan’s war against religious extremists. Even if Pakistan decides to remain neutral in the Saudi-Iran and Saudi-Qatar rivalry, it will have significant work to do to prevent Pakistan from becoming a hub for anti-Shia propaganda, recruitment, and activities. On June 4, two members of the Hazara community, including a woman, were killed in Quetta apparently by the operatives of the same sectarian groups that have previously accepted responsibility for killing thousands of Hazaras and Shias in Pakistan. Lack of action on the part of the government has continuously emboldened these groups to thrive.
Anti-Shia feelings are a popular driving force for Jihadist groups in Pakistan to recruit Sunni militants. Regardless of the opinion in Washington and Riyadh about Tehran, sections of the media, polity and the intelligentsia in Pakistan insist Islamabad must maintain good relations with Iran and stay out of the ongoing infighting among the Arab nations. Although Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, currently serves as the commander-in-chief of the Saudi-Arabia-led 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), the alliance isn’t very popular among Pakistanis as they predominantly view it as an unnecessary sectarian alliance led by the Saudis to punish Iran.
It is important to discourage, disarm and defeat sectarian groups to successfully fight the Islamic State. Pakistan must deny space to all sectarian groups that target Shias inside Pakistan or in its neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s fight against the Islamic State is going to be different from its war against the Taliban as the United States does not currently seem to be interested in fighting the war against the IS in the Af-Pak region until it directly attacks American interests. Pakistan will primarily have to fight this war alone without much support from being promised by the United States. This is an important war for Pakistan’s survival and peace in its neighborhood.