The United States Joint Subcommittee hearing before House Foreign Affairs Committee on Pakistan: Friend of Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism? held on July 12, 2016 highlighted that Pakistan continues to provides safe haven and training camps on their soil to militant groups including the Taliban. Post August 2015 bomb attacks in Kabul, similar concerns have been echoed by the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. Equally worrisome is that the Al Qeada while pledging renewed loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar have already announced the formation of the “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian sub-continent”. The aim of the terror group is to conduct terror operations in the region, restore the Islamic Caliphate and enforce Sharia in the region. The impending concern is that the tribal areas of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Balochistan and some parts bordering Afghanistan province are being used as safe havens for terrorist groups planning to execute terrors attacks. This commentary highlights the potential danger emanating from these safe havens and how they can affect the stability in the region.
What are safe havens?
The term safe haven can be interpreted in both positive and negative manner. On the positive side it implies an asylum or sheltered place for refugees or displaced people or group(s) of people pursuing protection from exigencies that can be natural calamity, war crimes or genocide. According to the United Nations, an estimated 200,000 new refugees sought sanctuary recently in the Kurdish north from Islamic extremists.
Negatively speaking, save havens refers to sheltered bases for terrorists that provides suitable bases for planning, communicating, organizing, recruiting cadres, training housing weapons, conduct malicious operations and transit. Safe havens are categorized under two heads: “virtual” safe havens and “real” or “physical” safe havens. Virtual safe havens are not found in the physical sense and are independent of any space. Despite so, virtual safe havens are not imaginary and non-state actors use them effectively for their terror operations. They operate obscurely and yet effectively “through physically diffused networks” like the internet, chat rooms, cell phones, digital imagery that are important conduits for disseminating radical teachings. This provides added leverage to activities of the terrorists. Portable digital devices like flash drive, CDs, DVDs, and websites serve as virtual laboratories to terrorist organisations for the purpose of recruitment and training new members. Recently, a laptop recovered from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, (ISIS) hideout revealed that the “hidden files” section contained 146 gigabytes of material, which included documents on ideological justifications for jihadi organizations and practical training on how to carry out the Islamic State’s deadly campaigns. The documents also suggested that the laptop’s owner was teaching about the use of biological weaponry, probably preparing for a potential attack that would have shocked the world. Virtual safe havens provide easy access and expedite faster coordination among terrorists.
On the other hand, real safe havens provide terrorists with a physical sanctuary that is relatively less vulnerable to attacks from counter terror authorities. This provides opportunities to non-state actors to conduct their terror operations and serve as refuges for their planning and housing recruits and weapons. According to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, “terrorist safe havens include ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas.” Usually troubled and conflict ridden zones devoid of law and order mechanisms serve as ideal safe havens for terrorists. The African regions of Somalia, Mali, Trans-Sahara; remote areas in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines; Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya in the Middle East; the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Asia and in recent times, the seized the city of Mosul are disturbed zones and houses several terrorists outfits like the Al Qeada and ISIS.
Safe havens in the Indian sub-continent
The Joint Sub-Committee hearing highlighted six major groups directly patronized and sustained in their activities by Pakistan: These include the Afghan Taliban and its subgroup, the Haqqani Network; the Mullah Nazir Group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed. The hearing emphasized that these terrorists outfits are the the most “prominent” ones and there may be more to this list actively supported by Pakistani establishment. It is belived that Pakistan’s support to these terror groups are a cardinal aspect of its foreign policy. This implies that Pakistan actively uses these groups to deter what is perceived to be its most ardent enemy – India. Records have prove that Ajmal Kasab was trained under the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group to perpetrate the heinous 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The prevalence of widespread jihadist dogma within Pakistan also indicate the support these groups enjoy on ideological grounds particularly from the Pakistani Military. Having lost four wars against India, these militant groups are increasingly perceived to be Pakistan’s most feasible “unconventional means” for destabilising New Delhi.
Pakistan’s policy of obtaining strategic depth in Afghanistan is to prevent any pitch of India’s influence in the region. Pakistan takes advantage of shared borders with Afghanistan and use its soils as a training ground for recruits to conduct terror activities in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This is the central aim of the strategic depth policy of Pakistan. Undoubtly, in the conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy, these militant groups serve a critical role but what is noteworthy is that the terror activities conducted by these militant organizations have caused the deaths of thousands of civilians and counterterrror groups in the region.
Pakistan has refuted allegations that they use the militant groups as part of their strategic depth policy. The Pakistani military claims to have hunted down these terrorist in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province with some success. However, these claims have failed to convince the international community particularly the US, India and Afghanistan of Pakistan’s good intentions. However, in pursuing these terrorist groups, Pakistan has been selective and deliberately avoided targeting those elements like the Haqqani Network that actively by extending safe locations, recruiting centres, training camps, financial support on their soil to the militant Talibans. Taliban commanders have admitted that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have actively provides safe haven and training centres within Pakistan.
Despite the known terror agenda of JeM, HuM, LeT, the Mullah Nazi Group against India and Afghanistan, Pakistan remains intransigent to crackdown on these terrorist groups. Understandably, Pakistan’s complicity has made the militant groups “highly capable and almost entirely self-sufficient organizations, other than their need for haven.” The presence and growing stronghold of the militant groups portrays a grim situation in the region. The nuclear factor in the region further aggravates concerns particularly from within Pakistan that is housing radical terrorist organizations. Several reports detailing that terror outfits like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are looking for nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. LeT Chief Hafeez Saeed is known for his assertion that he has “no problem” with a nuclear war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
The situation calls for an immediate effective counterterror measures to address the security concerns. It is not only endangering the security in India and Afghanistan but is also inimical to Pakistan’s stability. As a countermeasure, the US and India have agreed to redouble their efforts since the January 2015 U.S.-India Joint Statement commitment and the September 2015 U.S.-India Joint Declaration on Combatting Terrorism to further deepen collaboration against the full spectrum of terrorist threats. They have also affirmed their support for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that expands and strengthens the framework for global cooperation against terrorism. It would be equally important that the governments of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan undertake cooperative measures to systematically target the terror groups and make the region safe.