What is Pakistan's militancy issue all about?

Who's fighting whom in Pakistan? Why does the country's powerful army continue to support some militant groups? DW examines the protracted conflict in the nuclear-armed nation and its possible effects on the region.

Time and again, western experts and Pakistan's progressive analysts have pointed to a "failing state" – a nuclear-armed country grappling with an acute economic crisis, where home-grown Islamic extremists target civilians and security forces on a regular basis. But for a common European citizen, whose main reference points on the conflict happen to be Taliban militants, Afghanistan and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, it is difficult to understand the complexity of the Pakistan problem.

Who is fighting whom in the country? What is the objective of a myriad of extremist groups? Do they want to overthrow the government and impose Shariah in the country? Is the army supporting some militant outfits? What is India's role in the conflict? And does the civilian government have any say in security affairs?

Repeated militant attacks raise some serious questions about the future of the Pakistani state, its stability (or a lack of it), and its ability to cope with the security threats that can have repercussions and consequences that go beyond Pakistan's national boundaries.

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2007 - Twin blasts rock Karachi on former PM’s return

Two bomb blasts struck former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade on October 18, 2007 in the southern port city of Karachi. Bhutto was returning to Pakistan after almost eight years. The attack left 139 people dead. Bhutto, the first democratically elected female head of an Islamic country, died in an attack two months later, on December 27 in the northern city of Rawalpindi.

2008 - Wah bombing

The Wah bombing was a double suicide attack on the Pakistan Ordinance Factories (POF) in Wah on August 21, 2008. At least 64 people died in the attack, which remains to date the deadliest on a military site in Pakistan's history. A spokesman from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

2008 - Insurgents target luxury hotel in the capital

At least 60 people died and over 200 were injured when a truck filled with explosives detonated in front of the Marriot Hotel on September 20, 2008, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Five foreign nationals were among the casualties, while another 15 were injured.

2009 - Peshawar bombing

A car bomb was detonated in Mina Bazar (a market for women and children) in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The bomb killed 125 people and injured more than 200 others. The Pakistani government put the blame on the Taliban, but both Taliban and Al-Qaeda denied involvement in the attack.

2009 - Market in Lahore targeted

The December 2009 Lahore attacks were a series of two bomb blasts and a shooting which occurred in a crowded market in the country’s second largest city of Lahore on December 7. At least 66 people were killed. Most of the victims were women.

2010 - Suicide bomber targets volleyball match

A suicide car bomb killed 101 people at a village volleyball game in the northwestern district of Bannu.

2010 - Lahore Massacre

The May 2010 Lahore attacks also referred to as the Lahore Massacre occurred on May 28, 2010, during Friday prayers. 82 people were killed in simultaneous attacks against two mosques of the Ahmadi minority. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

2010 – Bomber targets market in tribal area

A suicide bomber killed 105 people in a busy market in the northwestern tribal district of Mohmand. The suicide bombing occurred on July 9 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The target of the attack was believed to be a meeting of tribal elders. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

2011 - Police training center in Charsadda attacked

A double bombing occurred on May 13, 2011, in Shabqadar Fort in the Charsadda District of northwestern Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Two suicide bombers killed at least 98 people outside the police training center. At least 140 people were injured. The explosions occurred while cadets were getting into buses for a ten day leave after their training course.

2013 - Peshawar church bombing

On September 22, 2013, a twin suicide attack took place at All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in the country, killing 82 people. The TTP-linked Islamist group, Jundalah, claimed responsibility for the attack.

2014 - Peshawar school massacre

On December 16, 2014, seven gunmen affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conducted a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The militants opened fire on school staff and children, killing 154 people, including 132 school children. This was the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur in the country.

2015 – Gunmen target bus in Karachi

Eight gunmen attacked a bus on May 13, 2015, in Safoora Goth, in Karachi, Pakistan. The shooting left at least 46 people dead. All of the victims were from the Ismaili Shia Muslim minority. Banned militant group Jundallah claimed responsibility for the shooting. Also, pamphlets supporting the Islamic State terrorist group, with whom Jundallah claims allegiance, were found at the crime scene.

2016 – Lahore park bombing

On March 27, 2016, at least 75 people were killed in a suicide bombing that hit one of the largest parks in Lahore. The attack targeted Christians who were celebrating Easter. Fourteen of the dead were identified as Christians, while the rest were Muslims. The majority of victims were women and children. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a group affiliated with the TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack.

2016 – Quetta hospital bombing

On August 8, 2016, terrorists targeted the Government Hospital of Quetta in Pakistan with a suicide bombing and shooting that resulted in the death of over 70 People. The fatalities were mainly lawyers who had assembled at the hospital where the body of fellow attorney, Bilal Anwar Kasi, president of the Balochistan Bar Association, was brought after he was shot dead by an unknown gunman.

What Islamists want

During the 1980s Afghan war, Islamabad, with the help of Washington and other Western governments, supported the mujahideen (Islamic warriors) against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Pakistani army not only trained the warriors militarily, then Pakistani military dictator General Ziaul Haq also embarked on a nationwide Islamist revival with aid from Saudi Arabia.

Read more: The godfather of the Taliban: Hamid Gul and his legacy

But September 11 attacks in the US turned the entire Islamists-Islamabad camaraderie upside down. In 2001, then Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf decided to side with the US to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. That entailed that Pakistan had to relinquish support for a number of Islamist groups and had to launch a military operation against them. Detailed studies on Musharraf's crackdown on Islamists suggest that he targeted the militants selectively – not acting against Islamists whom Pakistan considered "strategic assets" to be used as proxies to wage a war in India-administered Kashmir. Also, some groups were needed to keep the pressure on the Afghan government for a future political bargain.

Nevertheless, the somewhat absolute control of the Pakistani state over the Taliban and other Islamists weakened after Pakistan's support for the US. A number of groups turned against Islamabad and started attacking the army facilities and civilians. The problem continues to pose a serious challenge for Pakistani authorities.

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The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for example, is allied with the Afghan Taliban but also act independently. The TTP's aim is to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in Pakistan, but it is unclear how the group wants to achieve it. There is tangible support for the Shariah ideology in Pakistan, with Islamic clerics belonging to the Saudi-Wahhabi brand of Islam - from mosques in small and big towns to mainstream Islamic political parties - demanding the same.

The TTP is seen by many in the country as an organization resisting the "Western influence" on the Pakistani state. Many people believe that the West, particularly the US, determines Pakistan's economic and security policies and that Islamabad needs to align itself with the "Muslim ummah" (the Muslim world) instead.

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The TTP has carried out hundreds of attacks in Pakistan over the past few years. It has targeted religious and sectarian minorities, the general public and security forces. But due to the fact that Pakistan has a strong national army, and as some experts say that the military generals continue to enjoy a certain degree of influence on the TTP commanders, the organization hasn't been able to overrun the security forces.

"The TTP wants to build a Taliban state in Pakistan. They are against the state and the army, because the army has been working closely with the US for a very long time. In this sense, the group already has similar goals as the Afghan Taliban," Christian Wagner, a South Asia expert at the Germany-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), told DW.

"The TTP is different from groups like Lashkar-e Janghvi, which has repeatedly carried out attacks against the Shiite minority in Pakistan. Here, the fight against the state and the army is less important than the fight against other religious communities," Wagner added.

The Wahhabi/Deobandi militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been involved in targeting the Shiites and Pakistan's religious minorities.

"Islamic State" (IS) has limited presence in Pakistan, but with al Qaeda not as potent as it once was in the South Asian country, and the Taliban splitting into various factions due to a leadership conflict, it is rapidly making inroads into the country. Scores of Taliban defectors have joined the group in the past few years.

The Haqqani Network, another militant organization allied with the Taliban, is considered closer to Islamabad than any other insurgent group. The US has declared it a terrorist outfit and has demanded Pakistani authorities to act against the Haqqanis a number of times. But the officials have so far been reluctant to target the outfit. The Haqqani Network, which is based in Pakistan's tribal northwest along the Afghan border, is usually involved in attacks inside Afghanistan, hence it does not pose a challenge to Pakistani authorities.


Remnants of the Afghan war against Soviets

The Haqqani Network was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At the time, the mujahideen (Islamic fighters) enjoyed US backing. In 1995, the Haqqani Network allied with the Taliban and the two groups captured the Afghan capital Kabul in 1996. In 2012, the US designated the group a terrorist organization.


An Islamist ideologue

Jalaluddin Haqqani was born in 1939 in the Afghan province Paktia. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, which was founded in 1947 by the father of one of Pakistan's most prominent religious leaders, Maulana Sami ul Haq. Darul Uloom Haqqania is known for its alleged ties with the Taliban and other extremist groups.


Jalaluddin Haqqani as Taliban minister

Jalaluddin was made minister for Afghan tribal affairs under the Taliban rule. He remained in the post until the US toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. After the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin was considered the most influential militant figure in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin also had close links with the former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.


Where is the Haqqani Network based?

Security experts say the command center of the group is based in Miranshah city of Pakistan's North Waziristan region along the Afghan border. US and Afghan officials claim the Haqqani Network is backed by the Pakistani military, a charge denied by Pakistani authorities. Washington says the group's fighters launch attacks on foreign and local troops and civilians inside Afghanistan.


The Haqqani heir

It is believed that Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2015, but his group denied those reports at the time. The network is now headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin's son. Sirajuddin is also the deputy chief of the Taliban.


Who is Sirajuddin Haqqani?

Although there isn't much credible information available about Sirajuddin Haqqani, security experts say he spent his childhood in the Pakistani city of Miranshah. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, situated in Peshawar's suburbs. Sirajuddin is believed to be an expert on military affairs. Some analysts say Sirajuddin's views are more hard line than his father's.


Anas Haqqani's death sentence

One of Jalaluddin's sons is Anas Haqqani, whose mother hailed from the United Arab Emirates. He is currently in the custody of the Afghan government and is facing the death penalty. The Haqqani Network has warned Kabul of dire consequences if Afghan authorities hang Anas Haqqani.


How big is the Haqqani Network?

Research institutes and Afghan affairs experts say the group has between three and ten thousand fighters. The network allegedly receives most of its funding from the Gulf countries. The Haqqani Network is also involved in kidnappings and extortion through which it funds its operations.


Ties with other militant groups

The Haqqanis have close relations with other regional and international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Central Asian Islamist groups. Jalauddin Haqqani was not only close to bin Laden, but also had ties with al Qaeda's current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Kashmir narrative

The Islamic militancy issue in Pakistan is as old as the Kashmir conflict. Historians say that the first batch of Islamist rebels was sent into Kashmir after the partition of India in 1947 to overthrow the Kashmir monarch. As a result, Indian troops entered the valley and occupied a large part of it, whereas Pakistan took over a smaller portion, which it now administers. But Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir persists, as the state has endorsed an "India enemy" narrative ever since. Most Islamist groups thrive on the "occupied Kashmir" discourse, just like the Middle Eastern Islamic groups want to liberate "occupied Palestine."

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

"The secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir is fueled by Pakistan," said Varad Sharma, an Indian expert on Kashmir. "Pakistan uses terror as a strategic policy despite facing several terror attacks itself and losing thousands of its people. The jihadist infrastructure continues to operate from Pakistani soil. History tells us that the militants who operate in Kashmir are, mostly, either local Kashmiri Muslims or Pakistanis," Sharma added.

Pakistan claims that its support to Kashmiri separatist groups is only political, but New Delhi claims Islamabad is training the militants and providing arms to them. India and the international community are particularly perturbed by the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has a civilian front called Jamatud Dawa, and Hizbul Mujiahideen, whom India accuses of orchestrating terrorist attacks inside Kashmir.

"Along with armed struggle, we will also start a civil disobedience movement in 'occupied' Kashmir,'" said Hizbul Mujahideen chief Sayed Salahuddin in July, referring to India-administered Kashmir.

"People on both sides will have to march and trample that bloody line that divides them," Salahuddin said after the killing of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, by Indian troops.


Massive military operation

The Indian military has launched a fresh offensive against armed rebels in Kashmir, surrounding at least 20 villages in Shopian district. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of backing the militants, who cross over the Pakistani-Indian "Line of Control" and launch attacks on India's paramilitary forces.


Soldiers 'killed and mutilated'

India said Wednesday it would retaliate to the killings of its troops by Pakistani military. Islamabad denies allegations that its border forces killed and mutilated the bodies of Indian soldiers on Monday. "The government demands that Pakistan take immediate action against its soldiers and commanders responsible for this heinous act," said Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.


A bitter conflict

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.


The new wave of violence

The security situation in the Indian part of Kashmir has been volatile since the killing of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July last year. Protests against Indian rule and clashes between separatists and soldiers have claimed hundreds of lives since then.


The Uri attack

In September, Islamist militants killed at least 17 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in India-administered Kashmir. The Indian army said the rebels had infiltrated the Indian part of Kashmir from Pakistan, with initial investigations suggesting that the militants belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which has been active in Kashmir for over a decade.


No military solution

Some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the valley. A number of rights organizations demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate.


Rights violations

Indian authorities banned a number of social media websites in Kashmir after video clips showing troops committing grave human rights violations went viral on the Internet. One such video that showed a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep - apparently as a human shield - generated outrage on social media.


Turkey's mediation offer

Ahead of his official visit to New Delhi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan advocated a "multilateral" solution to the Kashmir dispute. During an interview, Erdogan expressed his concern at the continuing stand-off between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir region. India dismissed his remarks and said the Kashmir dispute could only be resolved bilaterally between New Delhi and Islamabad.


Demilitarization of Kashmir

Those in favor of an independent Kashmir want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future. "It is time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally supervised referendum," Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistani Kashmir, told DW.


No chance for secession

But most Kashmir observers don't see it happening in the near future. They say that while the Indian strategy to deal strictly with militants and separatists in Kashmir has partly worked out, sooner or later New Delhi will have to find a political solution to the crisis. Secession, they say, does not stand a chance.

Baloch separatism

While New Delhi accuses Islamabad of aiding militants in Kashmir, Islamabad says New Delhi is backing a separatist movement in its western Balochistan province.

Read more: Indian PM Modi's Balochistan comments upset Pakistan

Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005.

Read more: Gwadar – Pakistan's impoverished colony or an economic hub?

The Baloch rebels are largely secular and their supporters are against the Islamization of the country. They are not interested in overthrowing the government; they demand separation from Islamabad.

"Balochistan was never a part of Pakistan," Naobat Mari, a young Baloch activist, told DW. "First, our land was invaded by the British, who divided it into three parts. After the partition of India in 1947, the eastern part of Balochistan remained an independent state, which was later forcibly annexed by Pakistan," he added.

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The nuclear dilemma

Despite Pakistan's alleged support for some Islamist groups, the US and Europe have avoided placing sanctions on the country – thus far. Washington and Brussels have regularly engaged with the civilian and military leadership to keep a balance. The international community is interested in a stable Pakistan because of its nukes and the risk of the nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

Though Pakistan's civilian and military establishments claim their nuclear weapons are under strict state control, many defense experts fear that they could fall into the hands of terrorists in the event of an Islamist takeover of Islamabad or if things get out of control for the government and the military.

"Nuclear programs are never safe. On the one hand there is perhaps a hype about Pakistani bombs in the Western media, on the other there is genuine concern," London-based Pakistani journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW. "The Talibanization of the Pakistani military is something we can't overlook. What if there is an internal Taliban takeover of the nuclear assets?" Sulehria speculated.

While South Asia expert Christian Wagner downplays the risk of an Islamist infiltration of the Pakistani army, other analysts such as Jonas Schneider from Zurich-based Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) see potential dangers stemming from the combination of extremism und nuclear weapons.

Read more: Why Pakistan's nuclear obsession is reason for concern

Is Pakistan a 'failed state'?

Despite all the challenges and problems, SWP analyst Wagner does not consider Pakistan a "failed state."

He, however, sees the country's inadequate fight against terrorism the biggest impediment to its progress. "The state's distinction between 'good and bad terrorists' has proven to be counterproductive. It is not possible to permanently control the militant networks that were built and supported by the Pakistani army and its intelligence services," argued Wagner.

"This policy has failed, as is shown by the fact that Pakistan has the largest number of victims in terrorist attacks."

While Pakistan's liberals demand an overhaul of the security policies, many believe it is unlikely the Pakistani military establishment will change course in the near future.

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