How Pakistan ‘Protects’ Itself from Regional Sectarian War


By Arif Rafiq : “An Iraq-style sectarian war has always been unlikely in Pakistan.”. As sectarian wars continue to rage across the Middle East, Pakistan has managed to largely insulate itself from this regional plague. After a surge in Sunni-Shia sectarian violence from 2007-13, deaths from sectarian violence plummeted in 2014 by approximately 60 percent, in comparison to the previous year. In 2014, about two hundred Pakistanis died in Sunni-Shia sectarian violence, compared to approximately six hundred in 2013.

While fatalities from Sunni-Shia sectarian violence this year are on pace to exceed those of last year, the uptick is due to two gruesome massacres that make up a slight majority of this year’s deaths. The actual number of incidents of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence this year have dropped by about half, compared to last year.

Regional Sectarian Fault Lines Pass Through Pakistan

Pakistan is located outside the Middle East, but given its border with Iran and strong ties to Gulf Arab states, it is susceptible to contagions emerging from that part of the world, especially when its leaders play the role of facilitators.

The first wave of Sunni-Shia violence in Pakistan took place in the 1980s, when Iran sought to export its revolution to Pakistani Shias, and Pakistan’s military leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, in concert with Saudi Arabia, aided Sunni extremists who could serve as bulwarks. By the late 1990s, hundreds of Sunnis and Shias had been killed in sectarian violence. Pakistan, a country founded by a Shia Muslim who sought to create a homeland for all of the subcontinent’s Muslims, had become replete with Sunni agitators who, through politics and violence, sought to pressure the state to declare Shias as non-Muslims.

But their wish never came true. Despite its sectarian challenges, countervailing forces prevented the consolidation of Sunni majoritarianism in Pakistan.

Among those countervailing forces is the diversity of Pakistan’s Sunni majority and the divisions within it. A plurality of Pakistani Sunnis is believed to be from the Barelvi neotraditionalist subsect. Barelvis are generally not hostile toward Shias, and they often congregate at the same Sufi shrines. In contrast, the Deobandis, who form the second largest Sunni subsect, have disproportionately directed their polemics and violence toward the Shias. Most anti-Shia and anti-state jihadist groups in Pakistan emerge from the Deobandi community. Sunni Barelvis and Shias—both targets of Sunni Deobandi violence—have banded together in political alliances in recent years. And so the Sunni-Shia conflict in Pakistan is one that is essentially between Sunni Deobandis and Shias.

Additionally, while sectarianism influences Pakistani politics, it is not a prime determinant of voter choice. Ethnicity, kinship ties, and class play more important roles. Pakistani Shias, for example, generally vote for mainstream political parties, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Pakistan Peoples Party. While there are nearly a dozen political parties that represent Shias or each Sunni subsect, most tend to direct their supporters toward mainstream political parties that court their votes to tilt close elections in their favor. And so while sectarian actors have become fused into local politics, their impact on the broader political agenda is limited.

Sectarian Tensions Metastasize Once Again…

An Iraq-style sectarian war has always been unlikely in Pakistan. Its sectarian divisions are not as deep as those of Iraq or other Arab countries like Bahrain, Lebanon or Syria. In Pakistan, there is no minority religious group ruling over a majority; and there has never been a need for a confessional distribution of major political offices.

But the seeds of sectarianism that were sewn in the 1980s proved to be perennial, aided by governmental neglect or assistance, and the introduction of new species into the fertile jihadist landscape.

A crackdown on the anti-Shia Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (subsequently renamed Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jamaat or ASWJ), and its expressly militant splinter group, Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), that began in the late 1990s was never quite complete. The ASWJ and LeJ crept up once again after 2007, as their fellow Deobandi militants, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), launched sectarian attacks in major cities and joined a sectarian war in the Kurram Agency near Afghanistan, as part of a broader campaign to overthrow the Islamabad government.

By the end of 2013 into most of 2014, it appeared that a mix of endogenous and exogenous forces were converging to create an even bigger Sunni-Shia sectarian war in Pakistan. In 2013, general elections brought to power at the center the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which has been historically pro-Saudi, and in recent years, accommodated the anti-Shia ASWJ. In November 2013, Shia processioners, motivated by pent up frustration after witnessing regular massacres of Shias across the country, murdered Sunni Deobandi madrasah students in Rawalpindi. The incident suggested that sectarian violence would once again flare up in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. Subsequently, anti-state jihadists from the TTP and other groups renewed calls to anti-Shia agitators to join their ranks in a war against Islamabad, the Shias, and Iran.

Ahmad Ali Intiqami, the TTP’s Rawalpindi chief, released a video statement in January 2014 calling on Sunnis to wage jihad against the Shia and kill them “before they are able to flee to Iran.” A month later, a TTP suicide bomber targeted the Iranian consulate in Peshawar (though failed to reach it). In 2013, the year that had just ended, both sectarian violence and terrorist violence hit record highs.

And in the backdrop, the war in Syria raged on and Saudi officials were aggressively lobbying the PML-N government to assist it in countering Iran throughout the region. After a flurry of visits by Saudi officials, Riyadh gave Islamabad a grant of $1.5 billion in early 2014. The king of Bahrain made his first visit to Pakistan in March 2014 and was met by Shia protesters. At the same time, the Iranian Sunni Baloch militant groups based in Pakistan stepped up attacks on Iranian security personnel, further straining relations between Islamabad and Tehran, which renewed its sponsorship of Shia militants in Pakistan.

…But Pakistan Deftly Dodges a Perfect Storm

In early 2014, it appeared that Pakistan was going to be swept up in a Sunni-Shia sectarian war engulfing the region. But by the year’s end, the bottom fell out of the country’s sectarian war. And into 2015, sectarian terrorism continues to wane in frequency. So how did Pakistan manage to avert the looming sectarian disaster?

One, the downturn in sectarian violence is a positive externality of a comprehensive, nationwide crackdown on terrorists who challenge the writ of the state. Anti-Shia and anti-state terrorist networks overlap. And so the Pakistani government’s attempts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the anti-state Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has weakened the ability of the group and its expressly anti-Shia partners, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, to target Shia Muslims.

In June 2014, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e Azb in North Waziristan, which had been the lone tribal area untargeted by comprehensive ground and air operations. It served as a safe haven for the anti-state TTP and a medley of other sectarian, regional and transnational jihadist groups.

And so the drop in sectarian violence has come alongside a steep decline in terrorism overall. In 2015, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have dropped for the second consecutive year. Civilian fatalities as a result of terrorism are at their lowest levels since 2006. In 2014, civilian deaths in terrorist attacks dropped by over 40 percent compared to 2013. And this year, they are on pace for another drop of over 40 percent.

Two, the Pakistani government has isolated and eliminated several hardcore sectarian terrorist leaders. In February 2015, Usman Kurd, the leader of the Balochistan wing of prime anti-Shia terrorist group, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, was killed in a shootout with Pakistani paramilitary forces. And in June, Malik Ishaq and Ghulam Rasool Shah, the prime ASWJ militants in Punjab, were killed by police forces in the Punjab province. Ishaq had spent much of the previous two years under administrative detention. But the escape of Kurd from prison in 2007 and release of Ishaq from jail in 2011 helped spur a resurgence of LeJ.

Three, in contrast to previous counterterrorism operations, it appears that militants in the Punjab province will not go unscathed. In fact, the killing of Ishaq in June signaled the start of intensifying counterterrorism operations in Punjab. TTP terrorists later killed the province’s top security official, Shuja Khanzada, in August, in reprisal. But the federal and Punjab governments have made clear through the media and in deed that counterterrorism operations in the province will only become more severe.

The Punjab government, which previously accommodated anti-Shia agitators from the ostensibly banned ASWJ, is finally utilizing once again existing laws to detain or punish those engaging in sectarian hate speech. At least two clerics associated with the Deobandi Jamiat Ulema-e Islam-Fazl party have been arrested on charges of hate speech against Shias and Ahmadis. Punishment of anti-Ahmadi hate speech is extremely rare in Pakistan—and this arrest may signal the government’s resolve to combat hate speech with an unprecedented vigilance.

The Punjab government has also held the ASWJ’s firebrand leader Aurangzeb Farooqi has been held in detention since June. Utilizing detention powers under the Fourth Schedule of the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act reduces sectarian pollution in public space. And Pakistani police official who have long been in the fight against the LeJ say that these measures also slow down the momentum of sectarian and terrorist networks.

Four, sectarian terrorists have far less operating space inside the country than before. The Pakistan Army now is now engaged in active combat operations in all seven tribal areas. The Kurram Agency, located adjacent to North Waziristan, was home to a Sunni-Shia sectarian war that raged from 2007-11. When the Pakistan Army launched the North Waziristan operations last summer, there were fears that terrorists would resettle in Kurram and renew the sectarian war there. But with the army’s active operations across the tribal areas, the TTP can no longer play a cat and mouse game.

Five, at a national level and in all four provinces, there is a whole-of-government approach toward combating sectarianism and militancy. There is unprecedented intelligence sharing and coordination between the civilian and military security agencies in Balochistan and Karachi, where most of the sectarian violence has taken place in recent years.

To be clear, the military is in the driver’s seat. But the net effect has been joint operations by Pakistani paramilitary and police forces in Balochistan and Karachi. Scores of anti-Shia LeJ terrorists have been arrested or killed in Karachi. In Balochistan, targeted killings and mass casualty attacks on Hazara Shias have waned in large part due to the efforts of Home Minister Sarfraz Bugti, who has prevented anti-Shia preachers from entering the province and has swiftly arrested newly created militant cells behind the targeted killings of Hazara Shias this year. Paramilitary forces in Balochistan now provide security for Shia pilgrims en route to Iran.

At the national and provincial levels, government officials are bringing Sunni and Shia leaders together to get them to remove hate speech, terror financing, and incitement material in their curriculums. The government is also considering a ban on takfir—the practice of declaring other Muslims as disbelievers.

Finally, Pakistan’s refusal to play an active combat role in the Saudi-led Yemen war has proved to be a wise strategic decision, helping ensure the country’s internal cohesion. Involvement in the Yemen war was unpopular across the board, but especially with the country’s Shias. A Pakistani combat role in Yemen would have possibly invited Iran to play a destabilizing role in Pakistan, which would then spur Sunni extremists into action.

Digging in for a Long-Term Fight

There appears to be recognition among Pakistan’s senior leadership that Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a cancer that eats at the very idea of Pakistan, which was founded as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. In both word and deed, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership have made clear their seriousness in combating, and eventually eliminating, the scourge of sectarianism.

When Talib Hussain, a Shia private security guard, was killed in July while preventing a suicide bomber from entering a Hazara Shia enclave in Quetta, he was hailed as a hero by the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, and the Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch. The senior military official in Quetta, Lt. Gen. Nasir Janjua, visited Haider’s family. Weeks earlier, Gen. Sharif canceled a scheduled visit to Sri Lanka to head to Karachi after the massacre of Shias by Sunni extremists.

More work, of course, needs to be done. Many key leaders of the ASWJ in Balochistan, Punjab, and Sindh have gone unscathed. Some ASWJ leaders may lack direct linkages to the expressly militant LeJ, but in the case of people like Rafiq Mengal, the ASWJ’s leader in Quetta, the LeJ connections are direct. Mengal was detained in the summer. While Pakistan has made significant gains in reducing sectarian violence in the country over the past two years, victory will come when the arrest, conviction and punishment of extremists like Mengal (who was detained this summer) becomes not the exception, but the rule.

Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He is the author of the monograph, “Sunni Deobandi-Shi`i Sectarian Violence in Pakistan Explaining the Resurgence Since 2007.”