Recent events in Pakistan have brought to the surface grave concerns regarding the activities of extremist militant groups. In the past two months nearly 200 Hazaras, an ethnic minority group that follows the Shia branch of Islam, have been massacred by the sectarian terrorist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ). Other groups, such as the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, are also extremely active. Extremism and terrorist violence appears to be increasing overall, rather than decreasing. This begs the question, is Pakistan going to be the next terror state? The problem is not just that these extremist groups are gaining more power and freedom to operate. Many argue that the government is unwilling to make a concerted effort to clamp down on these militant groups, particularly the government in Punjab, the province in which many of the sectarian militant groups are based. All major political parties in central and southern Punjab are dependent on the voting bloc of sectarian extremists, making a crackdown on such groups against the interests of the politicians. Complicity is not limited to Punjab. There are reports that elements of the government and security forces, particularly the paramilitary Frontier Corps, are complicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Hazaras. No one is suggesting that the government or military as a whole support these extremist and terrorist groups, but even a few cooperative officials can make prosecution nearly impossible, while providing havens within Pakistan from which such groups can act with impunity.
The lack of political commitment in prosecuting terrorists within Pakistan is not a new problem, nor is it limited to sectarian groups. Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), the terrorist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, has continued to operate in Pakistan, despite pledges from the Pakistan government to dismantle such groups. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate (ISI) helped set up the LeT, and it has been alleged that ties between the two persisted through the Mumbai attacks.
This is not to suggest that the Pakistani government is doing nothing to stop extremists in their country. The Pakistani police have recently arrested the founder of LeJ, Malik Ishaq. However, the arrest of a leader and the widespread crackdown on militants are very different things. Furthermore, even if Pakistan’s political and military leadership possess the will to decrease extremist violence in their borders, they may not have the capacity to do so, particularly if some elements of the government remain either complicit with or indifferent to these groups.
But what does this mean for the future of Pakistan? With presidential and parliamentary elections coming this year, it could prove very dangerous indeed – particularly if the complicit elements of the government and military gain even more power. Also, sectarian groups in Pakistan are not isolated from each other; there is often cooperation and crossover between different groups. The LeJ, for example, has ties with the TTP. Thus the growth of one group aids other extremist groups as well. This could lead to ever more powerful networks connecting militants, terrorists, and military and government officials to each other, creating a semi-official system that is complicit with various militant extremist groups in the country.
There are also regional concerns regarding the rising extremist violence in Pakistan. With the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan looming, there is the possibility that the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and various other groups will have even greater freedom of movement across the border. Furthermore, Pakistan is bordered by Iran, which has a history of supporting Shia militant groups in other countries, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon. Recently, Iran has stated its willingness to help Pakistan capture anti-Shia militants. There is the possibility, however, that Iran will arm Shia groups in Pakistan if the violence continues unabated.
Pakistan’s decline into a terror state is the worse-case scenario, and it is not inevitable. The elections could bring moderates and progressives into power that will clamp down on the militant groups. However, the military, the ISI, and the government will have to work together in an active, long-term process in order to successfully combat sectarian extremists and terrorists, and prevent themselves from becoming the next terror state.