Happy New Year. Or is it? It is difficult to celebrate a fresh start when challenges are mounting on every front — political, social, economic, environmental, demographic. The multiplicity of issues, the 24/7 news cycle, the incessant chatter on social media — all these make it hard to focus on which problems to prioritise.
But events can sometimes clarify what’s really at stake. The recent attack by the militant Islamic State (IS) group on a Shia cultural centre and news agency in Kabul is a reminder of one of the greatest challenges for the region over the coming year and beyond: sectarianism. The attack highlights the resurgence in sectarian conflict in Afghanistan (while the Afghan Taliban may engage in sectarian violence, primarily against Hazaras, it does not persecute Shias as a defining policy).
The attack crystallises the need to tackle the scourge of sectarianism. Pakistan has already endured so much sectarian conflict that it is largely resigned to the persistence of such violence. But we have forgotten the 1990s, and we have not spent enough time considering how much worse it can get. Further inflaming sectarianism will irrevocably fragment society, making Pakistan weaker, more lawless and more violent. This internal security challenge arguably poses a greater threat than any external actor.
In the short term, increased IS activity will exacerbate poor Pak-Afghan relations. Prior to last year’s run of IS attacks, Kabul experienced a sectarian attack in 2011, which was claimed by a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi offshoot. At the time, the Hamid Karzai administration accused Pakistan of stoking sectarian conflict in Afghanistan to prolong instability there. Further IS activity can provoke similar accusations by the Ashraf Ghani administration, particularly in the context of the Pak-Afghan blame game. The allegations would be fuelled by reports that IS’s ranks include LJ fighters escaping the security crackdown against the group within Pakistan.
In addition to the diplomatic fallout with Kabul, Pakistan is likely to face a spillover effect of increased sectarianism in Afghanistan. Military, paramilitary and extrajudicial efforts against sectarian groups in Pakistan have over recent years weakened the LJ and reduced the frequency of sectarian violence. But the heightened activity of anti-Shia groups in Afghanistan could help them rally recruits and resources to be eventually (re)deployed in Pakistan.
Broader regional trends will also continue to intensify sectarianism. The Saudi-Iran rivalry is playing out through proxy groups in the Middle East and, increasingly, South Asia. It is perhaps only a matter of time before Pakistan sees a return to the sectarian proxy conflict that claimed hundreds of lives in the 1990s. Saudi support has already bolstered anti-Shia groups, but they have so far faced little resistance. This is likely to change over the coming years as Iran steps up its use of proxies in Pakistan. Pakistani Shias have been recruited since 2013 to fight in Syria; as the conflict there subsides these fighters are likely to return home, inflaming a sectarian battleground. Recognising the pitfalls of deepening sectarian divides, Pakistan’s initial approach to the Middle Eastern power struggle was sensible: neutrality as exemplified in the parliamentary decision not to join the Saudi coalition attacking Yemen. But as our civilian government has weakened, so has that diplomatic posture. Ex Army chief
Raheel Sharif is the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism alliance, while the politician Sharif brothers have flocked to Riyadh recently, presumably to seek the kingdom’s help in reconciling with the establishment, and thereby ensuring a tighter Saudi stranglehold over our domestic affairs.
Such a strong tilt towards Saudi Arabia would not be tenable for Pakistan, which would further shred the fabric of our diverse society, already fraying at sectarian and sub-sect levels. It doesn’t help that we have created an environment that is permissive for hate, whether through dharnas, prime-time television, or toxic and divisive parliamentary debate. Nor have we reviewed the blasphemy laws whose misuse lead to allegations being levelled against members of other sects or religious groups with often fatal consequences, eliminating all possibilities for inter- and intra-faith dialogue.
Looking forward, these divisions will prove increasingly deadly in a country facing severe resource shortages on all fronts — water, land, energy, employment. Sectarian identity may become the basis on which groups organise, mobilise and fight over resources, particularly in our fast-growing cities, where ethnic, linguistic and tribal identities are eroded. Is this the future we want for our country? A bleak thought on New Year’s day, but one we should consider as we make our resolutions, particularly on entering a year during which we’ll have some agency, through the ballot, to change course.
By arrangement with Dawn