Pakistan: Conflict Profile
Since its birth in 1947 the Pakistani state has been repeatedly challenged by various groups on the basis of nationalism, regional separatism, religious doctrine and political ideology. This instability has been mirrored in domestic politics, where democracy has been regularly interrupted by authoritarian military rule (Auyb Khan 1958-69, Yahya Khan 1969-70, Zia ul-Haq 1977-88, Pervez Musharraf 1999-2007). In recent years, democratic rule has returned, and Musharraf was the President of Pakistan until August 2008, succeeded by Ali Asif Zardari.
Pakistan is currently facing several distinct but inter-related conflicts, both international and domestic.
The scars of partition
In 1947, colonial Britain divided the subcontinent into two new states: a mostly Hindu India, and a mostly Muslim Pakistan. Partition caused between 200.000 and 360,000 deaths, while 10 to 12 million people became refugees in the largest population transfer in our era. The young state of Pakistan has faced several waves of regional conflict and separatism that have their root in partition. Pakistanis often refer to Kashmir as their jugular vein or ‘Shehrag’ in Urdu. Indeed, Kashmir remains an open wound since partition, opposing the Pakistani and Indian governments in an unending territorial dispute. The conflict has included three full-blown wars (1947-48, 1965 and 1971) and a smaller war at Kargil in 1999, taking a heavy toll on the local population. Between 1971 to 2008, both India and Pakistan lost roughly 13,000 lives over Kashmir, while the insurgency and military operation have claimed over 30,000 lives since 1989. Some estimates place the death toll in Indian administered Kashmir well over 100,000 during the 1990s alone when the insurgency was its highest level [John 1997, Tavares 2008, Champan 2009].
The Pakistan formed in 1947 included two non-contiguous provinces, East and West Pakistan, separated by over 1000 miles. Bengalis formed the majority of Pakistan’s population, and were concentrated in East Pakistan. Bengalis remained largely under-represented in the Pakistani army and central government, while their language was not recognised as a national language alongside Urdu. For over two decades, Bengali grievances accumulated while demands for increased autonomy went unheard. In 1971, a civil war opposed the government to the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force) in East Pakistan, leading to secession and the formation of Bangladesh. Casualty estimates vary greatly, with between 300,000 and 3 million conflict-related deaths, and between 200,000 and 400,000 female rape victims. Even accepting the lower figures, the war was exceptionally bloody and bilateral relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh remain coloured by this conflict. Resource-rich Baluchistan, located near Pakistan’s south-western border with Iran, was also scarred from partition. Only a small portion of Baluchistan was in the British Raj, while partition saw the annexation of further territory. Baluchistan was granted full provincial status by the central government in 1970, but provincial status was dismissed in 1973 provoking much resentment among nationalists. In addition, further grievances emerged from the lack of redistribution of wealth derived from the central government’s exploitation of local coal and gas reserves. A civil war erupted between 1973-77 involving violent confrontations between the Pakistani army and the BLA (Baluchistan Liberation Army), BRA (Baluchistan Republican Army) and Baluch Ittihad (Baluch Unity), among others, while clashes have started again since 2004. Baluch nationalists are regularly ‘disappeared’ by the Pakistani military, while in 2009 there was an increase in assassinations of non-Baluch inhabitants by Baluch nationalists.
The province of Sindh experienced both violent secessionism and communal violence linked to partition. During partition, Sindh witnessed a large influx of Muhajirs (Indian Muslims who migrated to Pakistan following partition), who soon became urban elites well represented in trade and civil bureaucracy, especially in Karachi and Hyderabad. Sindhi-Muhajir conflict escalated around the issue of language, triggering riots in 1971 and 1972. In the 1980s, new waves of immigration by Pathans (Pakistani Pashtuns) and Afghan refugees added to existing communal tension as competition increased in urban centres. In 1984, Muhajirs created the MQM (Muhajir People’s Party, later renamed Muttahida Qaumi Movement), defending the Muhajir’s agenda by mass mobilisation and violence, inflaming communal and sectarian violence in an attempt to forge a quasi-ethnic identity among Muhajirs. The MQM moved away from violence after a heavy crackdown by the Pakistani government in 1995. While partition has caused lasting conflict with India, the division of Pashtun territory (currently the Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) during partition has also created deep conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtun-ruled Afghanistan supported an autonomous Pashtunistan and opposed Pakistan’s establishment in 1947, orchestrating repeated raids into Pakistan’s frontier tribal areas. Much of the current armed conflict stems from groups based in the northern provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, largely Pashtun areas which have sought increased autonomy and recognition from the central government. While demands for greater regional autonomy have often been formulated by armed groups, attempts to address regional grievances through the federal apparatus have also sparked local conflict, such as the recent renaming of the North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Religious and sectarian conflict
While Punjabis represent the majority of the population, Pakistan is home to a constellation of communities based on regional, religious, or historical identities: Bengalis, Baluchs, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Sunni, Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, Christians and Jews, Muhajirs and refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Gujarat. Sectarian and religious violence have been a recurrent feature of Pakistan’s history since 1947, both in the form of violent conflict between religious communities, and in the form of one-sided violence against religious minorities. Inter-religious conflicts surfaced as early as in the early 1950s, when religious parties, and in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami, called for excluding Ahmadiyya community from Islam. Ahmadis have consistently experienced severe discrimination both from the government and from other Muslim sects. In 1974, the Pakistani parliament declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims, while their religious freedom was further curtailed in 1984 by a highly repressive military ordinance issued by General Zia. In Pakistan, Hindus are generally second-class citizens facing daily structural violence punctuated by occasional episodes of mass anti-Hindu violence and massacres, such as in 1950 and in 1964 and 1971 in East Pakistan. Formerly peaceful Shia-Sunni relations were shattered by military ruler Zia ul-Haq’s sectarian Sunni-Islamisation agenda, which fit into the regional context of opposition of Iran’s Islamic revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war, where Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was then supported by the US, Pakistan’s ally.
The radicalisation of Sunni religious movements and their increasing sectarianism through Saudi funding and patronage was ignored because of Saudi-Arabia’s ties with the Pakistani government and its US ally, while Pakistani Shias became increasingly sectarian under Iranian influence. Sectarian conflict further escalated after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, as a pattern of assassinations of sect leaders and activists emerged. After 1997, mass killings of civilians on a sectarian basis became more frequent. Sectarian violence has involved groups on both sides, including the Shia group Sipah-e Muhammad Pakistan (SMP; the Army of Muhammad) created in 1991. However, anti-Shia violence has been on the rise, and since the 1990s there has been marked anti-Shia violence perpetrated armed militant groups with ties to Saudi Arabia operating in Pakistan [Abou Zahab 2002]. These Sunni armed groups include and Sipah-i Sahaba Pakistan (SSP; the Sunni Pakistan’s Army of the Prophet’s Companions) established in 1985, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LF – The Army of Jhangvi – 1990), Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-I Muhammadi (TNSM; Movement for Protection of Muhammad’s Religious Law – 1994) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (The Army of the Pure – 1998). Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LF) is responsible for many anti-Shia attacks, including targeted assassinations, shootings and bomb attacks against Shia communities in Punjab, Karachi and Quetta.
These armed groups have also been involved in violence against non-Muslims. In August 2009, a mob guided by Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi attacked Christians on alleged desecration of Qur’an in the city of Gojra (Toba Tek Singh district). In this episode , seven Christians were killed and 20 were injured, and 50 homes were burnt. Meanwhile, Christians and Hindus have suffered in retaliation to anti-Muslim incidents outside Pakistan, such the demolition of the Babri mosque in India, and the blasphemic cartoons published in Denmark.
International interventions and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations
Foreign intervention in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region is nothing new. During the 19th Century, present-day Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan were proxy war zones for the competing British and Tsarist colonial empires, and later between the Soviet and US blocks during the Cold War. This interference inflamed the Pakistani-Afghan territorial dispute. While Afghanistan became increasingly reliant on the USSR for military aid, Pakistan became a key US ally. Iranian mediation ended the conflict and a settled the border issue in 1963, although this dramatic improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations was to last only a decade [Siddiqui 2008: 10-18]. Pakistan and Afghanistan have consistently offered refuge, funding and support to dissidents, with Afghan support for Pashtun and Baluch separatism in Pakistan, and Pakistani support for the Taliban opposition to the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. Zia’s military regime pushed a policy of state-driven Islamisation and supported Jihadist groups involved in the US-supported war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. During Zia’s rule, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan generated an opium and small arms-based war economy inside Pakistan, especially in the Tribal Areas, profiting members of the army, local warlords and mujahideen alike [Siddiqui 2008: 26].
In 1981 the Reagan Administration issued $3.2 billion for Pakistan. The aid package was increased to $4.02 billion in 1987, which was a mix of military aid worth $1.7 billion. Pakistan’s current involvement alongside the US and NATO in the Afghanistan war bears a deep and complex relationship with Pakistan’s former support for the Afghan mujahideen. Pro-Taliban militant have been active in Indian-held Kashmir and inside Pakistan, turning their violence against the government and segments of the population. Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been spilling over into Pakistan in complex ways and with disastrous consequences. Political and economic factors interact with tribal, ethnic, religious and political identity groups, bringing violent conflict into the heart of the country. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war of influence through support to various Islamist and sectarian movements inside Pakistan, has also affected stability [Siddiqui 2008: 24].
Violent conflict erupted in the Waziristan district of the Tribal Areas between 2001-2007 between local tribes and members of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) who fled Afghanistan in 2001 and took refuge in Waziristan. However, beyond the influx of fighters from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s border regions, it was the Pakistani government’s participation in the war that brought conflict into Pakistan. Pakistan withdrew its support for the Taliban after the US-led NATO invasion in 2001, providing logistical and intelligence support to NATO forces in Afghanistan, while fighting the pro-Taliban armed groups (especially the TNSM) in the tribal areas of the country. The US and NATO have adopted a strategy of pre-emptive strikes and drone attacks into the tribal areas of Pakistan, further escalating the conflict between the people in the tribal areas and the government of Pakistan, and increasing the animosity of local people against the West.
The TNSM started directly attacking the Pakistani government in 2007, attracting a large-scale government military offensive against their stronghold in the Swat valley. While many TNSM leaders then renounced armed struggle and effectively brought TNSM to a close, a more militant breakaway faction formed around former-TNSM leader Maulana Fazlullah, and became known as the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan). The TTP has been forcibly closing down government institutions in areas under its control and replacing them with Sharia-based institutions.
After a brief lull in early 2009, the conflict escalated as the Pakistani army led large-scale offensives in the north-west of the country, causing widespread displacement of civilians. Fighting between the Pakistani army and TTP in 2009 displaced over 3 million people, 1.2 million of which remained displaced at the end of the year. Such displacement is partly due to Pakistani army tactics of encouraging civilians to flee in order to “cleanse” the region of all potential support for insurgents, emulating the US army in Vietnam. TTP bombed government targets in the south of the country causing many civilian deaths. Indeed, suicide bombings have been the main tactic used by these armed groups, which claim to target politicians and military targets but spread death and terror among civilians across the country.
The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden by US military forces has stirred up affairs around the world and particularly in Pakistan, where the Islamist leader was tracked down. The excessive broadcasting of Bin Laden’s killing and US revenge statements and celebrations, left many observers alienated and Pakistanis agitated. Subsequently, Pakistan was hit by a wave of violence, including a recent suicide bombing killing five police officers, as Taliban and other al-Qaida-affiliated groups strive to avenge Bin Laden’s death. Once again, a spiral of revenge and violence threatens the long-standing efforts of peacebuilders.
Last updated: September 2011