South Asia

Pakistan Army Continues Proxy Wars Across Borders and Plunder at Home

The Bajwa Leaks may not lead to any convictions, but they surely show how blatant the army brass is in abusing its privilege and power.

The stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban jihadists, dubbed the intra-Afghan dialogue, are tipped to finally commence within days. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, has claimed that he is confident that talks among Afghans will begin shortly.

One of the irritants in getting the parleys going has been the release of several hundred Taliban prisoners, which the US had agreed to have freed from the Afghan government’s custody, when the US-Taliban peace deal was inked in February this year. The Afghan government has released most of the Taliban detainees except 300 odd prisoners, whom it wanted to swap for Afghan soldiers and special forces personnel in Taliban captivity. Additionally, Australia and France had objected to release of the Taliban terrorists involved in the killing of their nationals.

With the US presidential elections just over two months away and the incumbent President Donald Trump in a virtual tie with the Democratic challenger Joseph Biden, the Afghan government also has other reasons to drag its feet. It may be biding time to take its chances with Biden, were he to win come November.

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Trump had essentially signed a humiliating deal – a surrender in the name of peace, with echoes of Vietnam – to extricate the US forces from Afghanistan. And in the process, he has not only entangled the Afghan government and its people in an agreement over which they had no control, but also didn’t set any mechanism or metrics to measure the Taliban compliance with the US objectives. For example, one of the requirements of the so-called peace deal was that the Taliban would not only sever its relationship with the trans-national jihadists like al-Qaeda but also renounce such association.

The Taliban have not only ignored this effectively, but also appointed its dead founder Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqoob, as its military chief. Yaqoob is said to have been trained by the notorious Pakistani trans-national jihadist terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad that has attacked targets in both Afghanistan and India.

No wonder that Pakistan, which remains the chief patron of the Taliban and provider of sanctuary to its leaders and cadres, felt emboldened to host the Taliban for delegation-level talks with its foreign minister. While the Taliban may have met only with the Pakistani foreign minister this time, it is well known that the country’s foreign policy and its prosecution – including through jihadist proxies – is crafted by the Pakistan army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate.

From the moment the US forces arrived in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the Pakistan army had bet that the Americans would eventually have to leave. Despite siding with the US overtly, the Pakistan army provided sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, helped them regroup and rearm, retrain and fight the US and coalition forces in Pakistan. No less than the former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf admitted Pakistan army essentially raising the Afghan Taliban, ostensibly to fight Indian presence in Afghanistan. The army had used the lands along the Durand Line, including the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the Balochistan province, as safe havens for the Taliban and its most vicious affiliate the Haqqani Network (HQN).

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In the process, a whole jihadist-terrorist ecosystem was created where the Pakistani religious seminaries as well as local zealots provided logistic support and manpower to the Taliban. Some sections of the local jihadist terrorists ostensibly spun out of Pakistan army’s control and formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007.

While targeting Pakistan army and mercilessly killing Pakistani people, the TTP pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and worked hand-in-glove with the HQN as well as collaborated with the al-Qaeda. The Pakistan army tolerated the TTP for years before cracking down on it. In the army’s calculus, the menacing TTP was merely the cost of doing business in Afghanistan and its victims were described as “collateral damage”, by a former ISI director, Lt. General Asad Durrani.

The Pakistan army made an arbitrary distinction between the jihadists. The ones who attacked the US, Afghan or Indian targets were dubbed the so-called good Taliban and the ones that attacked the army were the ostensibly bad Taliban. After the army operations against the TTP in ex-FATA a new phrase was introduced: the surrendered Taliban. They were the ones who cut unofficial, opaque deals with the army to not attack it again. Unlike the bad Taliban who were pushed into the poorly governed Afghan territory west of the Durand Line, the surrendered Taliban were allowed to return to their former strongholds in the ex-FATA.

Interestingly, no Afghan Taliban were ever targeted, captured or killed in these operations, and were merely relocated within different tribal and settled areas. The Afghan Taliban leaders lived, died and held court in Pakistan without any hinderance. The local religious seminaries that provided support to them also continued to operate uninterrupted.

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A net result of the Pakistan army’s continued Afghan jihad project is that the so-called surrendered Taliban have staged a resurgence in the ex-FATA regions from Waziristan in the south to Bajaur in the north. Many of them collaborate with the army and its favourite Afghan jihadists while others pursue a more rogue approach. Nonetheless, they are a menace to the local population whom they threaten, extort from and kill and maim.

The locals fear a throwback to the 2007-2015 era when large swathes of the ex-FATA, and some settled areas, had come under the TTP sway. Tens of thousands of local people remain internally displaced, after having been dislodged from their homes during the military operations. In an ominous development, the TTP rump and its breakaway factions Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) reunited last month.

Now the Pakistan army would have us believe that it is running this jihadist enterprise to keep India off its back in Afghanistan, and that there is cost for doing it. The cost includes a massive domestic blowback from jihadist terrorism – 70,000 or more Pakistanis killed – but to Generals Musharraf and Durrani and their ilk, it is just collateral damage that has to be borne if Pakistan army were to stymie Indo-Afghan nexus. But the fact is that these self-anointed guardians of faith and frontiers, have a much more simple, temporal and ulterior motive: procuring and preserving financial fortunes.

Not only does the army devour the lion’s share of the country’s budget, assorted generals from the first military dictator General Ayub Khan down to Pervez Musharraf became multi-millionaires or billionaires on the job. Ayub Khan got his son Gauhar Ayub’s father-in-law General Habibullah Khan to set up a textile mill and then to take over the General Motors’ – no pun intended—Karachi operations to set up the Gandhara Motors. Gauhar Ayub became an owner in his father-in-law’s business. Ayub Khan, son of a risaldar – a junior commissioned officer in British Indian army – had thus a multimillionaire son, while he ruled the country for a decade.

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Similarly, General Zia-ul-Haq’s father was a civilian petty officer in the British army, his ISI chief General Akhtar Abdur-Rahman’s father was a doctor, but their children boast tens of millions in their elaborate business portfolios. Pervez Musharraf’s father was a mid-level civil servant but the man himself is said to have amassed billions during his dictatorial stint.

The most recent addition to the military millionaires is Lt. General (R) Asim Saleem Bajwa. He is the former commander of Pakistan army’s Southern Command, ex-Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), and currently serves as the chief of Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) and as an advisor to the PM Imran Khan. An explosive investigative report, published last week, by a Pakistani journalist Ahmad Noorani last week has claimed that General Bajwa’s (no relation to the incumbent army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa) family established businesses and amassed tens of millions of dollars while he served at these powerful military and non-military positions.

The report states that quite curiously the Bajwa family had no major business to its name, before the man joined dictator Pervez Musharraf’s inner coterie and was elevated to the rank of a brigadier. But after his rise in the army ranks, the family’s fortunes rose exponentially and his five brothers, three sons and his wife developed and owned – together or individually – 99 companies, 130+ franchises, 15 commercial and residential properties including two shopping centres and two houses in the US, while General Bajwa held key positions in the army, especially in the restive and strategically important province of Balochistan.

Interestingly, the army-backed Imran Khan government had recently released the assets details of his advisors, including General Bajwa, with much fanfare. A glaring discrepancy between General Bajwa’s declared assets and the Noorani report – dubbed ‘Bajwa Leaks’ on Pakistani social media – is that in the former, he categorically stated that his wife does not own any business or properties outside the country, while the official documents posted by the website www.factfocus.com show that she is an equal partner with his brothers in assorted businesses including over 130 pizza franchises in several countries.

The Bajwa Leaks have raised a concern not only about how an army general’s spouse – a housewife, no less – was able to build a business empire outside Pakistan, but how the family’s business trajectory matched the general’s rise in power. Noorani’s report has not actually traced the money trail from Pakistan to the US, but has certainly raised a question about how a pizza-delivery man started buying scores of pizza franchises in the US the moment his brother rose to power in Pakistan. It also puts a huge question mark on the Pakistan army’s internal accountability system in which the officers supposedly declare their assets on a yearly basis.

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Other than a one-line tweet “rebutting” the Noorani dossier, General Bajwa hasn’t produced a shred of evidence to refute the report. As expected, his surrogates in the media and former army officers have been trotted out to “debunk” the report but interestingly, not one of them has actually asserted that the said assets do not exist. Instead, they have – quite predictably – resorted to smearing Noorani and those who have joined him in asking for accountability as Indian plants, enemies of the CPEC project and national security, and outright traitors. Army’s otherwise verbose ISPR wing has remained mum over the whole affair, while the Imran Khan government has suggested that General Bajwa will give an explanation to refute these charges.

The vitriol against Ahmad Noorani was such that media, lawyers’ and human rights group had to condemn threats to his life. The bottom line is that the Pakistan army, while pretending to be the praetorian guard looking after the country’s best interests, has become an independent economic class that is out to keep its chokehold on the nation’s resources through whatever means necessary. As the old refrain goes, most countries have armies but in Pakistan’s case the army has gotten hold of a country. This effectively means that the military-nation relationship is a predatory phenomenon in Pakistan, where the army establishment is plundering the country in the name of safeguarding its geographical and ideological frontiers.

To this end, the army sees those politicians who wish to check its power as its nemesis and actively plots to oust them. The Bajwa Leaks may not lead to any convictions, but they surely show how blatant the army brass is in abusing its privilege and power. The only antidote to the army’s domestic hegemony is the politicians getting their own house in order and joining hands to not just demand accountability of the generals but also effect it through the parliament, and if needed through mass protests.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki