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The Crisis in Pakistan: Facing Serious Threats to Human Security PDF Print E-mail
Written by Raza Shah Khan   
Thursday, 13 August 2009 21:24

For the last three decades, the conditions and fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan have often been intertwined. During this time, Afghanistan has experienced continuous war. Warlords and religious extremist groups have flourished — aided and promoted by neighboring Pakistan and (in the 1980s) by the United States, the latter having helped arm the Afghan militants after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then in the 1990s, Pakistan played a central role in creating the Afghan Taliban and actively aided them in seizing control of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.

But in this region, as elsewhere, what comes around goes around. Today both the U.S. and Pakistan are dealing with the consequences of their earlier involvement in Afghanistan. The same extremist groups armed by the U.S. in the 1980s are now using U.S.-supplied weapons against U.S.-led coalition forces in that country. And the violence in Afghanistan, which was promoted by its neighbor, is crossing into Pakistan, which is experiencing one of the worst crises in human security in its history.

The Crisis in Pakistan

In Pakistan, militancy, extremism and terrorism are on the rise. The government’s hold on power is tenuous. One particularly troubling aspect of the situation in Pakistan is that Pakistani society is fully armed, with one of the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world. As a result of these conditions, Islamic extremist groups have grabbed power, even challenging Pakistan’s government for control of some areas, including the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA, also referred to as tribal areas).

The Roots of the Crisis

The roots of today’s crisis in Pakistan can be traced back to the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which marked the beginning of the radicalization of Pakistani society. The military government of General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq (who served as Pakistan’s president from 1977 to 1988), played a central role in this radicalization, actively promoting conservative religious ideas and groups within Pakistan. During this time, religious extremist groups misused Islam to make political gains and to mobilize local communities. Pakistan’s government also enabled the massive growth in militant madrassas and the recruitment of young people in the name of jihad.  Prevailing conditions, including high rates of poverty and low rates of literacy, were fertile ground for the growth of religious extremism and militancy in Pakistan. As a result, the very social fabric of the tribal society was much changed.

After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the global community, in general, and the Pakistani government, in particular, paid little attention to increased militancy within the tribal areas of Pakistan. In time, the scenario that began in the tribal areas spread — to other parts of the North West Frontier Province, Punjab, Baluchistan and Sindh, where various extremist and religious groups established their bases and madrassas.

Changes after 11 September 2001

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, both the Pakistani and the U.S. governments shifted their policies in the region. But it is only very recently that Pakistan has begun to take on religious extremist groups. As a result, Pakistani law enforcement agencies are now engaged in an ongoing armed conflict against militants, who have gained sufficient power and resources to challenge the authority of the federal government in the Swat, Buner and Dir districts of the NWFP and the tribal areas.

The region has been devastated. The valley of Swat — a tourist destination famous for lush green valleys, clear water, and a Buddhist civilization thousands of years old — has become a hell on earth. Extremists have killed thousands of tribal elders, community leaders and innocent people, including government and development workers. Fighting between militants and Pakistani military forces has displaced more than two million people, who have been forced to migrate to safer places. Many of the most vulnerable are living in camps for the internally displaced. Farming, which is the only source of income of the majority of local communities in these areas, has been badly affected.

Challenges to Human Security

Human security in Pakistan today is extremely tenuous, threatened by a number of interrelated factors, including religious extremism, the widespread presence of guns and other small arms, rising crime and terrorism, and the lack of governmental capacity to deal with these issues (or indeed to provide for the basic needs of many Pakistanis).

Religious Extremism. Religious extremism is the biggest threat to human security in the conflict areas in Pakistan, where people have been forced to keep beards, dress and live a life like the Taliban. The refusal to obey such orders often results in severe punishment, including death.

Women and girls are among those most severely affected by religious extremism in Pakistan. In December, the Taliban announced an education ban on women and girls in the Swat Valley and threatened to bomb schools that ignored the directive and to severely punish violators. (Girls in some areas have since been allowed to return to school, but only if they wear burqas which cover them from head to toe.) Even before the ban, the enrollment of women and girls in schools and colleges in the Swat Valley region was only a quarter of what it was only three years ago, before the Taliban gained strength there. In the past year, more than 180 schools, many of which were all-girl institutions, have been destroyed in the area. Very few funds are available to rebuild these schools.

The Proliferation of Small Arms. Another alarming challenge to human security is the proliferation of small arms in Pakistan, which has been an ongoing problem for a number of years.

Many of the small arms present in Pakistan today originated in the United States. According to the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (Small Arms Database, 1992), from 1950 to 1996, the U.S. government donated nearly 120,000 surplus small arms to Pakistan. Between 1979 and 1989, the U.S. also channeled $2 billion in arms aid through Pakistan, bound for Afghanistan (Small Arms Survey, 2001, Graduate Institute of International Studies). At the height of the Afghanistan crisis, roughly 50 to 60 truckloads of U.S. weapons crossed Pakistan’s borders each day. An estimated 70 percent of those arms never made it to Afghanistan, however, but instead were diverted to the black market in Pakistan, which has become a significant source for illicit and covert weapons deals in South Asia (Small Arms Survey, 2001).

In addition to guns coming in from the outside, illegal weapons are also manufactured in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

According to a Pakistani Ministry of Interior report, there may be as many as three million Kalashnikovs (the ubiquitous AK-47) and its many derivatives (including the Chinese Type-56 assault rifle) in circulation in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan alone — thus the term “Kalashnikov Culture,” which was coined during the Soviet-Afghan war. This estimate presumably does not take into account other types of assault rifles such as M-16s and G-3s, as well as varieties of handguns (revolvers and pistols) and light weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and recoilless rifles, all of which are known to be present. There is concrete evidence of the use and sale of these weapons in the arms bazaars of the NWFP and other parts of Pakistan.

In addition, religious extremists are known to have other sophisticated weapons, including landmines.

Although there are no official figures available about the number of illegal weapons in Pakistan (no government agency has ever tried to collect such information), rough estimates put the total at more than 10 million. According to the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, authorities differ on the number of illegal weapons in NWFP and the adjoining tribal territories, with estimates ranging from four million to seven million.

The unchecked smuggling of weapons from Afghanistan to Pakistan, coupled with the lack of security in the border areas and slackness on the government’s part have encouraged many ordinary citizens to own weapons. The presence of huge numbers of weapons has fueled sectarian and regional violence. Pre-existing antagonisms have escalated into gun violence, and there is a distinct crisis of law and order, especially in the frontier regions.

Rising Crime. The high prevalence of small arms, combined with poverty, injustice and the lack of an efficient police force, has resulted in an increased rate of crime throughout the country. Information available from Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Statistics shows that the rates of almost all serious crimes have increased significantly in the last 10 years. My own research in 2003 on the “Prevalence and Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons in NWFP and FATA” revealed that fire arms were used in 98 percent of the cases of murders and attempted murders there.

Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan, has seen frequent incidents of violence and destruction, the result of huge illegal transfers of small arms from FATA and NWFP. The majority of these weapons have ended up in the hands of criminals, and the general public has paid the price, suffering psychological trauma, and human and material losses.

Lack of Government Capacity. The government of Pakistan, which should be a source of security for its people, is instead another source of insecurity for the country’s population. The police, the courts, and the educational and healthcare systems are overwhelmingly inefficient and unreliable. The valley of Swat provides an example of just how serious the consequences of this can be. In Swat, the Taliban gained the support of local communities largely by promising speedy justice to the people, who had suffered through injustices and delayed justice by the Pakistani government. This laid the groundwork for and ultimately led to the armed violence and massive displacements we see in Swat today.

The police are particularly problematic. They lack the skills, training, resources and motivation to protect the lives and property of the people. They, along with the civil administration, are mistrusted, particularly in the NWFP, where they failed to respond quickly and effectively to the violent insurgency that has wracked the province.

The war on terrorism, rather than making people feel safer, has also increased insecurity. Millions have been displaced, and bomb blasts and suicide bombings have become more frequent, killing and maiming innocent people.

Rather than being able to depend on their government, the poor, especially, must depend on tribal leaders, feudal lords, religious and political leaders, extremists and industrialists, whether good or bad.

Improving Human Security

The human security condition in Pakistan could be significantly improved if there was strong political will and if civil institutions were made efficient and responsive to the needs of the public. The government of Pakistan has much work to do to gain the trust and confidence of its people.

Perhaps its greatest challenge is building trust in law enforcement agencies, both in their work with the general public and as they conduct counter terrorism operations. In this regard, developed countries could support the Pakistani government in building the capacity of the police force to better handle armed conflicts. The government must also work to refine its anti-terrorism policy to better ensure the security of the country’s people. As part of this effort, the government and its law enforcement agencies must reach out to the public to educate them about potential threats to their lives and properties.

The government must also work to curb as much as possible the illegal possession, production and transfer of small arms. Illegal arms are used in most crimes and thus are a significant threat to human security in Pakistan. In 2001, the military government of General Pervez Musharraf launched a de-weaponization program, which despite falling far short of its goals, paved the way for the future. There was also a ban on the display of arms in some of the tribal areas which was indeed effectively implemented. Unfortunately most such policies are only inconsistently enforced, thus encouraging some people to keep their illegal weapons. Those who have voluntarily handed over illegal weapons have too often been disappointed when their security situation has not improved.

There are laws governing the manufacture, sale, transfer and licensing of small arms and ammunition in Pakistan, and penalties in place to deal with those who break such laws. Today, however, such laws mostly go unenforced.

There is also a role for civil society organizations in Pakistan. My organization, the Sustainable Peace and Development Organization (SPADO), is working for the effective implementation of the U.N. Program of Action on Small Arms and educating the public about the impact of small arms and light weapons on their communities. There is an urgent need for more public education, particularly about the regulation and control of small arms, which should occur in tandem with government efforts to effectively enforce such regulations.

Religion has too often been misused to promote violence in Pakistan (as elsewhere). It could, however, instead be utilized for promoting non-violence and peace-building. Moderate religious leaders and organizations must begin to talk about the teachings of Islam that promote tolerance, non-violence and mutual co-existence.  The great majority of people in Pakistan are moderate, progressive and believe in true democracy and justice for all. Many of the human security concerns of the people of Pakistan could be addressed if Islam as a religion was not misused for personal, political and religious interests.

Raza Shah Khan is the executive director of the Sustainable Peace and Development Organization, which has offices in Islamabad and Peshawar, Pakistan. SPADO is working at the grassroots and policy levels to promote peace through tolerance, non-violence and disarmament in the region.


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