The Taliban, sectarianism and Chotu
A proposed hierarchy for Operation Zarb-e-Ahan
Contemporary terrorism is evolving at an astounding pace.
Terrorist organisations in Pakistan keep changing their recruitment, attack and propaganda strategies. They are innovative and adaptive to changing circumstances. And they have a tremendous regenerative capacity.
On the islands of the River Indus in Rajanpur, Punjab,and the kacha areas bordering Sind and Baluchistan, a violent criminal gang has been running amok.
The Chotu Gangs worried law-enforcement agencies that tanks, drones and fighter jets were sent to root out its members. Yes, these bandits, killed a dozen policemen and took two dozen hostages. They tried to use the lives of these police hostages as a bargaining chip for their own safe passage.
This saga, which has been playing out for weeks, actually began in 2002 when a handful of burglars lawlessly trespassed and looted aimlessly while using traditional weaponry.
Fast-forward to 2016, the Chotu Gang added hundreds of members, landmines, anti-aircraft guns, bombs and other war-grade weapons to its arsenal. Members staved off a large-scale operation by police and rangersfor two weeks. It took 18 days for the Army to take over the operation and give the heavily armed gangsters until Sunday night to release all hostages, surrender or “be wiped out.”
Was this just more bluster?
Gang members knew about the launch of the military operation announced by the ISPR came against the backdrop of the recent gutless Lahore attack and subsequent inaction. Even facing immense pressure and possibly imminent firepower, gang members probably still thought they had the upper-hand because efforts to uproot them had seemed so haphazard and disorganised.
Hours turned into days after the ominous deadline declaration. It was beginning to look as if the gang had called the army’s bluff.
Gang members knew about the launch of the military operation announced by the ISPR came against the backdrop of the recent gutless Lahore attack and subsequent inaction
At age 13, Ghulam Rasool nicknamed Chotu, was wanted for 18 murders. His gang also kidnapped 12 Chinese engineers from the Indus Highway in 2004 and held them for ransom. But it has been widely reported that the gang has been used by the political elite of the area to wield their might over residents of southern Punjab. Could this be why police operations against the gang ended in colossal failures in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015?
Why would this be any different?
Then on Wednesday, after authorities surrounded their citadel in Kacha Jamal, Chotu, his band of 13 not-so-merry men and 147 other ring members finally laid down their arms. They surrendered and freed all 24 hostages.
The 20-day siege was finally over.
The outcome merits praise, but these traumatic circumstances deserve discussion, dissection and introspection, of which we can expect two out of three.
Operation Zarb-e-Ahan (The Iron Hit) was conceived to target terrorists, but curiously this particular gang never had been involved elsewhere in attacks of a sectarian nature. Hindsight makes it easy to second-guess strategies. So, despite this rare successful outcome, putting the initial focus on gangs – even such a detestable group – would seem to undermine any possibility of carrying out successful operations against organisations committed to terrorism.
Choices made in pursuit of Chotu and his ilk gave true terrorists time to flee from their areas of operation and avoid Zarb-e-Ahan.
Punjab is becoming a favourite target of militants committed to sectarian violence, especially since Pakistan pledged to cooperate with the United States in the war against terror. Violence in the province has been on the rise since 2007.
On March 30, 2009, militants launched a deadly assault on a police training center outside Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Eight police cadets lost their lives. Less than a month earlier, gunmen in Lahore ambushed members of a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, leaving eight dead.
Yes, targeting dacoit gangs is essential, but it cannot happen at the costly price of allowing the Taliban and sectarian outfits to go about their business as usual
Thankfully, Punjab — the most populated of Pakistan’s provinces – has escaped the vast amount of bloodshed that has plagues the country’s troubled northwest sector. Logistical support for local attacks is attributable to the “Punjabi Taliban” network. Major factions within are operatives from Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Jaysh-i-Muhammad.
So, ideally — as in Khyber PakhtunKhwa, Balochistan and Sindh — future operations in Punjab should be kick-started by targeting the Taliban.
For the sake of the safety of innocent citizens, intelligence and future focus must target extremism and sectarian violence by arresting and dealing appropriately with those involved in such nefarious activities. No longer can the Punjab government so effectively impede quick-strike operations. The army and other willing law-enforcement agencies need concrete information and cooperation. They have grown ever so weary of hearing, “There are no terrorists in the province and an operation is not needed here,” the Punjab government’s repetitive and irksome mantra.
In Punjab more than 50 percent of people are traditional Ahl-e-Sunnat or Brelvis. They are mystical and ritualistic and show extreme reverence and respect for Holy Prophet and saints.
Second in number are Deobandis, a sub-sect of Ahl-e-Sunnat; they challenge the mystical and ritualistic views of traditional Sunnis. Both follow fiqah of Imam Abu Hanifa.
Third in terms of population are the Shi’a, who follow the fiqah of Imam Jafar al Sadiq.
Fourth are Ahl-e-Hadith, another sub-sect of Ahl-e-Sunnat; members do not follow any specific fiqah and are dubbed as ghair muqqallid or Wahabis by others. Ahl-e-Hadith are slightly fewer in number than the Shi’a in the province.
Sect-based violence in Punjab was already high in the 1980s when the Sunni-oriented ASS had armed clashes with Ahl-e-Tashi’s SMP. The Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and enforcement of martial law in Pakistan created a nexus wherein interests of various domestic and foreign players clashed. A military government, with the assistance of oil-rich Gulf States, promoted a particular sect with Iran standing opposed. Since then, the issue of sectarianism has assumed great prominence within our internal security paradigm.
All these events opened pathways for rampant extremism, side by side with the mushrooming of madrasas.
Regulated by madrasa boards established on a sectarian basis, these madrasas — by default and by design–have promoted sectarianism. Although Brelvis have more madrasas than those of all others, the ratio of population is not as great. Deobandis are the only sect with phenomenally more madrasas when compared to the ratio of population.
Extremism in Pakistan certainly is not confined to religiously inspired militancy and terrorism; it is prevalent at all levels. A large segment of the Pakistani society, especially our youth, is vulnerable to extremist propaganda. Without first creating an environment hostile to terrorism and militancy, de-radicalisation, attempts cannot even begin to be considered.
Thus, there is an urgent and dire need to build community resilience to immunise those in our society against extremism.
Law-enforcement agencies must stop ignoring the real threats within our province. Their legacy of failure to intervene, monitor and control religious extremism has encouraged even Barelvis to become violent, as recently demonstrated in the capital.
Every few years, our leaders announce intentions and plans to crack down on terrorists, but circumstances never seem to changein our favour.
Since the events of 9/11, Pakistan has had eight prime ministers, three army chiefs and seven heads of intelligence. Instead of fighting extremism, they have become distracted by regional or domestic politics.
Law-enforcement agencies and our government must truly stop ignoring the real and growing threat all extremist groups pose. They must create successful plans to counter terrorism, and they must approach their operations with pre-ordained and established priorities. The operations must be infused with skill, backbone and appropriate muscle.
Yes, targeting dacoit gangs is essential, but it cannot happen at the costly price of allowing the Taliban and sectarian outfits to go about their business as usual.
Zarb-e-Ahan must become as intended — a counter-terrorism strategy. With innovative, preventive and pre-emptive policies, we can always be two steps ahead of those who would harm others. Otherwise, Pakistan willbe destined to continue stumbling from one tragedy to another — from one ill-conceived military operation to another.
Snakes still bite even if milked for 100 years.