Most independent analysts and world leaders have concluded that Pakistan’s successive military chiefs, including the current General Qamar Javed Bajwa, have neither ever walked the talk on reigning in terror groups, nor intended to. This perception has hardened after the horrific Pulwama attack, especially as it came after repeated promises to ban and crackdown on outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). In their condemnation, most countries explicitly named Pakistan this time and avoided the use of the term ‘non-state actors’.
Exactly a year ago in February 2018, General Bajwa had said: “In Pakistan, the notion of caliphate has not found any traction, but jihad has definitely been used to radicalise fairly large tracts of population.” And “(Jihadi terrorists) cannot be wished away, just because we don’t like them any more. We are harvesting what we sowed 40 years back. So, it will be a while before this scourge is eliminated in totality – but first, let’s stop calling it Jihadism as it is nothing else but terrorism.”
But with each successive terror attack carried out by Pakistan-backed groups in Afghanistan, India, or Iran, Gen. Bajwa’s public commitments to disavow terrorism as a tool of policy have carried less and less weight with the world. And the militant groups normally held responsible for these terror attacks continue to freely live, work, and openly gather funds on Pakistani soil. It is also an admitted fact that the terror groups Gen Bajwa was referring to in his Munich address are trained and nurtured by the Pakistan military itself, and remain under its own umbrella of protection. And defence analysts, who represent the military’s thinking, continue to defend Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar in the media.
These conclusions naturally gained strength when Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi gave ghastly interviews first to CNN and then to the BBC demanding actionable evidence in the face of the JeM’s claim of the Pulwama attack through its official channel to the media in Pakistan. Qureshi’s dreadful attempt to deny JeM’s role to Secunder Kermani of the BBC probably served to solder guilt squarely on Pakistan.
Yet, Bajwa has repeatedly (and confusingly) made covert and overt overtures to India to end Pakistan’s isolation. “A key objective for Pakistan in reaching out to India is to open barriers to trade between the countries, which would give Pakistan more access to regional markets. Any eventual peace talks over Kashmir are likely to involve an increase in bilateral trade as a confidence-building measure,” wrote the New York Times of General Bajwa’s attempts behind the scenes several months prior to general elections in Pakistan in July last year. “Increasingly, Pakistan’s military sees the country’s battered economy as a security threat, because it aggravates the insurgencies that plague the country. Pakistan is expected to ask the International Monetary Fund for $9 billion in the coming weeks, after receiving several billions of dollars in loans from China this year to pay its bills,” asserted the New York Times to explain his earnestness.
The idea that the current army chief genuinely wants peace between India and Pakistan was subsequently and repeatedly buttressed by the actions and overtures by both Prime Minister Imran Khan, who, frankly, cannot take any foreign policy decisions without permission from his benefactor and ultimate boss, and General Bajwa himself. These have included the announcement by Bajwa to unilaterally open the Kartarpur corridor for India’s Sikh pilgrims.
After Pulwama, both Khan and the military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor attempted to absolve any role of Pakistan in the attack, by saying the timing could actually harm Pakistan more than India. This was actually a very logical plea.
There is also zero logic for Bajwa to have sanctioned an attack by an organisation (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) about which there is consensus in all Pakistan military watchers and scholars: that the JeM cannot and will not act without approval from the military.
So, if there is enough ‘evidence’ of official patronage of the Pulwama attack but also of Gen. Bajwa not having any hand in this, what is going on? What is the mystery?
If Bajwa isn’t responsible for Pulwama, the powerful jihadi elements within the armed forces could be. The attacks on Pervez Musharraf’s life and the attack on the Mehran naval base were both jihadi inside jobs.
This hypothesis is reinforced by a recent interview of Pervez Musharraf in which he said that he couldn’t act against the JeM when he was army chief because the intelligence agencies harboured the outfit.
Given the ingress of the jihadi mindset into all — and I mean all — institutions and organisations in Pakistan, there is a real possibility that this spectacular attack may actually have taken place to sabotage the peace legacy Bajwa wanted to achieve for himself. If true, this is a far more dangerous situation for Pakistan and the rest of the world, than if the Pulwama attack were officially sanctioned. It suggests that South Asia was brought to the brink of possible nuclear war not by the leader of a nuclear-armed country, but by powerful elements within his organisation who are not under control of the perceived strongman.
On Tuesday, 5 March, Pakistan finally announced a crackdown on militant groups, insisting this was long planned and not in response to India’s anger or global pressure. Forty-four members of banned organisations were detained. But just a day later Maj. Gen. Gafoor made a stupefying statement to CNN saying the JeM does not exist in Pakistan.
If Pulwama was indeed an act of pulling the carpet from under Bajwa’s feet, the world will need to watch not for bans, seizures, arrests or the initiation of cases against militants for signs of real change on the ground. We have seen all of that before.
The world will need to watch for purges: from the military, the air force, the navy, the civil bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary, the schools and universities, and even from the media. Because without targeting the handlers, sympathisers, or enablers in these institutions, even the Pakistan military will not be able to dismantle Jihad. School syllabi will need to change. Madrasas will need to be wound down. If you don’t see this happening, don’t expect any real change. Because this is what it takes, not just the detention of 40-odd men.
The author is a Pakistani columnist and human rights defender.