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 undermined by corruption or interrupted by periods of 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 after Pervez Musharraf was first persuaded to legitimise his rule by running for election, and then forced into resignation by the threat of impeachment. The recent transfer of power from President Ali Asif Zardari to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif marks the first time an elected government has successfully completed its term in office and handed power to an elected successor.

However, despite this success 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 state of Pakistan has faced several waves of regional conflict and separatism that have their root in partition. This includes the unfinished business of partition and the divided state of Kashmir. Pakistanis often refer to Kashmir as their jugular vein or ‘Shehrag’ in Urdu. It remains an open wound since partition, pitching the Pakistani and Indian governments in an unending territorial dispute.

Image by openDemocracy published under a creative commons license

The conflict has included three full-blown wars (1947-48, 1965 and at Kargil in 1999) and also in 1971, when fighting spread to Kashmir after India intervened in then-East Pakistan to support independence fighters (see below). Between 1971 and 2008, both India and Pakistan lost roughly 13,000 lives over Kashmir. Seperately, since 1989 a complex local insurgency, partly backed by Pakistan, has also claimed over 30,000 lives. Other estimates place the death toll in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir even higher, at 100,000 during the 1990s alone. The unresolved conflict in Kashmir between India, Pakistan and elements of the local population remains one of the most dangerous in the world.

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.

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. An insurgency 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, and clashes have re-started 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.

Image by βalochistan published under a creative commons license

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 with 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. Violence between all three communities remains an on-going problem.

Photo credit: Benny Lin

East & West split

The Pakistan formed in 1947 included two non-contiguous provinces, East and West Pakistan, separated by over 1000 miles of Indian territory. Bengalis formed the majority of Pakistan’s population, but were concentrated in the East. They remained largely under-represented in the Pakistani army and central government which were dominated by elites in the West. The Bengali language was not recognised as a national language alongside Urdu. Bengali grievances accumulated over the decades after independence, while demands for increased autonomy went unheard. In 1970 the Awami League won a majority in theational Assembly and was technically in a position to form a national government without a West Pakistani coalition partner. The disputes arising from this event led to civil war in 1971 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.

Continuing ethnic and sectarian conflict since Partition

Sectarian and ethnic violence have been a recurrent feature of Pakistan’s history since 1947, both in the form of violent conflict between religious and ethnic groups, and in the form of one-sided violence against religious and ethnic minorities by the state or its proxies. While Punjabis represent the majority of the population, Pakistan is also 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. Inter-religious conflicts surfaced as early as in the early 1950s, when religious parties, and in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami, called for the exclusion of the 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 to be non-Muslims, while their religious freedom was further curtailed in 1984 by a highly repressive military ordinance issued by General Zia ul-Haq.

Formerly peaceful Shia-Sunni relations were also shattered in the 1980s by then-military ruler General Zia. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was at war with Iran, and was supported by the US, Pakistan’s ally. General Zia’s sectarian Sunni-Islamisation agenda fit into the regional context of opposition to neighbouring Iran’s Islamic revolution. Pakistani Sunni religious movements were radicalised through Saudi funding and patronage. This was ignored by the Pakistani government because of Saudi-Arabia’s ties with it and its US ally. Meanwhile Pakistani Shias became increasingly sectarian under Iranian influence. After the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Sunni-Shia conflict escalated further, as a pattern of tit-for-tat assassinations of sect leaders and activists emerged. Mass killings of civilians on a sectarian basis became more frequent after 1997. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war of influence, through support to various Islamist and sectarian movements inside Pakistan, has also continued to affect stability.

Image by sic!ut.at published under a creative commons license”

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 the most prominent, and since the 1990s there has been marked anti-Shia violence perpetrated by armed militant groups operating in Pakistan with ties to Saudi Arabia. These Sunni armed groups include 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 manyanti-Shia attacks, including targeted assassinations, shootings and bomb attacks against Shia communities in Punjab, Karachi and Quetta. They have also been involved in violence against non-Muslim minorities. 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 for incidents outside Pakistan, such the demolition of the Babri mosque in India, and the 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 in the 20th century 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 temporarily settled the border issue in 1963, although this dramatic improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations was to last only a decade. Pakistan and Afghanistan have consistently offered refuge, funding and support to each others’ dissidents. Afghanistan supported Pashtun and Baluch separatism in Pakistan, and Pakistan supported the Afghan mujahideen, and later the Taliban, opposing to the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan.

In 1981 the Reagan Administration issued $3.2 billion in aid for Pakistan. The package was increased to $4.02 billion in 1987, including military aid worth $1.7 billion. During the US-supported war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, General Zia’s military regime pushed a policy of state-driven Islamisation and directly supported violent jihadist groups. 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. Pakistan’s ambiguous current involvement alongside the US and NATO in the Afghanistan war betrays a deep and complex relationship with Pakistan’s former support for the Afghan mujahideen. Pro-Taliban militant groups have been active in Indian-held Kashmir with Pakistani backing, and yet also inside Pakistan itself, turning their violence against the government and segments of the population. The war in Afghanistan has also been spilling over into Pakistan in complex ways and with disastrous consequences. Political and economic factors interact with volatile tribal, ethnic, religious and political identity groups, bringing violent conflict into the heart of the country.

Image by Al Jazeera English published under a creative commons license

Domestic Terrorism & Extremism

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 TTP) in the tribal areas of the country. Meanwhile the US and NATO have adopted a strategy of pre-emptive strikes and drone attacks into the tribal areas of Pakistan, which militants had been using as sanctuaries, escalating the conflict between the people in the tribal areas and the government of Pakistan, and increasing the animosity of local people towards the West. The war brought an influx of fighters from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s border regions. However, it was the Pakistani government’s participation in the war that brought conflict into Pakistan. The government faces a variety of different foreign and domestic groups in these areas opposed to it and/or the US occupation authorities in Afghanistan. Many fall under the umbrella of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), although this name can cover a variety of different factions and networks. Relations are further complicated by ties between some militant groups and sections of the Pakistan defence establishment. Despite these ties, violence between militant groups inside Pakistan and the Pakistani establishment has been a growing trend since the start of the ‘War on Terror’.

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. Although violence has dropped since a spike in 2009, it continues at high levels. In 2003, 189 people died in terrorist incidents inside Pakistan, including militants, civilians and members of the security forces. In 2013, 5379 people died, the lowest total since 2009. Altogether over 50,000 people have been killed inside Pakistan since the start of the war.

Pakistan continues to back militant factions in Afghanistan it believes will take power after the coming American withdrawal, in order to secure a pro-Pakistani government there. This has led to increased US strikes inside Pakistan, an example of which was the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 by US military forces. This stirred up affairs around the world and particularly in Pakistan, where the Islamist leader was tracked down. As with the extra-judicial killings of other important militant leaders, Pakistan was hit by a wave of violence in retaliation, including a suicide bombing killing five police officers, as the Pakistani Taliban and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups strove to avenge Bin Laden’s death. Subsequently, relations between the US and Pakistan dropped to a new low. With the election of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2013, peace efforts with domestic militants have been restarted.  However since the state will not meet the extremists’ central demands, violence has been increasing again in the border regions between the army and the TTP. Once again, a spiral of revenge and violence threatens the long-standing efforts of peacebuilders.

Last updated: March 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.