“I have no doubt that terrorism is Pakistan’s most pressing national security challenge,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif tweeted after the suicide bombing at a mosque at a specially secured police compound in the two-million city of Peshawar. The vast majority of the approximately 300 believers present and the more than 100 fatalities were accordingly police officers.

Pakistani army chief Asim Munir was also determined. Actions like these could not shake the nation’s resolve. Rather, they bolstered Pakistanis’ determination to succeed in the ongoing war on terror and to show zero tolerance towards terrorist organizations, the general told a gathering of Pakistani military officials.

It is true that Pakistan has been fighting Islamist terrorism for years, particularly those groups that formed the umbrella organization Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Movement of the Pakistani Taliban, TTP) in 2007. Despite numerous arrests and extremists killed in the course of military operations, the successes have so far been manageable. There are a number of reasons for this, says Niels Hegewisch, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Islamabad. Pakistan is an explicitly Islamic state that already bears the commitment to the religion in its name: Islamic Republic of Pakistan. “Islam stands at the beginning of the founding of the Pakistani state and is therefore also an outstanding part of the national state-cultivated identity,” Hegewisch told DW.

For a long time, the state was cautious about this identity. An extremist interpretation of Islam was just as far away from him as the majority of the population. But under the military government of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, this course changed from 1977. In reaction to the traumatic separation of the former East Pakistan, which emerged from the war in 1971 as the independent state of Bangladesh, the general opted for a consistent Islamization of the state as well as a turn towards the rich oil state of Saudi Arabia. As a result, Wahhabism, a particularly strict interpretation of Islam and Saudi Arabia’s state religion, gained influence in Pakistan.

The Pakistani state has exploited these fundamentalist tendencies for its own interests, says South Asia expert Christian Wagner from the Berlin Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

He points to the ambiguous policy of the Pakistani state and army leadership: while they have supported the Taliban for foreign policy reasons in order to secure influence in Afghanistan since the 1990s, they have fought their offshoots in their own country. After the Taliban took power in August 2021, the Pakistani Taliban have significantly increased their attacks on Pakistan. “For many years there has been a discussion in Pakistan as to whether the army, by supporting the Taliban, has not let a genie out of the bottle that it is now unable to put back in,” says Wagner.

In addition to the historical decisions, there are also economic and cultural problems. Pakistan is made up of diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. “Religion is all the more powerful as a unifying bond,” says Hegewisch. “It provides an answer to the question of identity, both personal and collective. Especially people from educated classes are looking for cultural anchoring. If they rely on religion, it can also lead them to religious radicalization.”

Pakistan is a poor country that is also suffering greatly from climate change. Its effects became apparent in the summer of last year, when there were extensive floods of a magnitude previously unknown and more than 30 million citizens had to leave their homes. The catastrophe exacerbated the economic misery of large parts of the population, with a good third living below the poverty line. This precarious existence comes in very handy for the Taliban, who are striving for a steady supply of new recruits.

Strong support for Taliban

They are particularly successful in recruiting in the border area with Afghanistan, says Niels Hegewisch. “The Pakistani education system is often hardly present there. Education is provided by religious schools, the so-called medreses.” Most of these are not radical either. “But some do offer radical representatives a platform. Their performances can then lead some students into a career of radicalization.” This is all the more true because the extremists often offer them prospects, so that the students could contribute to the upkeep, for example. “Fundamentalist religious groups such as the Taliban receive a constant flow of motivated, militant fighters from this environment,” write the South Asia experts Katja Mielke and Conrad Schetter in their book “Pakistan. Land of extremes.” With the help of these youngsters, they are putting pressure on the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani state has begun to counteract the extremists with educational and social programs, says Christian Wagner. These programs are still in their infancy, but are urgently needed. “Because the TTP certainly has the right to destroy the Pakistani state and set up its own regime in its place. Having succeeded in this in Afghanistan, they feel encouraged to now try this on Pakistani soil.”

Author: Kersten Knipp

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The original of this article “Pakistan’s Perennial Terrorism Problem” comes from Deutsche Welle.