Earlier this week, Dawn reported on a meeting between the civilian and military leadership in which the DG ISI was told, in uncharacteristically blunt terms, that Pakistan’s increasing diplomatic woes could be attributed to the widespread perception that the military establishment was reluctant to sanction action against select militant and extremist organisations within Pakistan – the proverbial ‘good’ Taliban nurtured as proxies to be deployed in Afghanistan and Kashmir under the direction of the state. While the government was quick to deny the substance of Dawn’s report, reiterating its position that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were wholly committed to combating terrorism and militancy in all its manifestations, statements made by other politicians reinforced the belief that elements of the civilian political leadership were unsatisfied with the progress being made against extremism; PML-N MNA Rana Muhammad Afzal questioned why people like Hafiz Saeed continued to benefit from state patronage despite widespread international (and domestic) concern about him and his organisation and, in an address to parliament, Senator Aitzaz Ahsan drew a direct link between Pakistan’s international isolation and its alleged support for non-state actors.

Since the launch of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, much has been made of Pakistan’s frenzied fight against militancy, with the mainstream narrative being one that highlights how the military’s campaign in FATA has dealt a serious blow to militant organisations operating throughout the country. However, despite the progress that seems to have been made, there are some troubling facts that continue to raise uncomfortable questions about the strategy that has thus far been pursued to deal with extremism in Pakistan. For example, the continued existence of, and impunity enjoyed by, organisations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-i-Taiba is worrisome because of the direct and undeniable role played by them in disseminating a violent and parochial Islamist ideology that is similar to the one propagated by the Taliban. The notion that these two organizations can be tolerated because of their lack of interest in targeting Pakistan, and their explicit orientation towards India and Kashmir, is problematic partly because it reinforces the idea that Pakistan sponsors militancy beyond its borders, but also because the same argument could have been two decades ago about the groups now being targeted by the military in FATA. Similarly, the freedom with which clerics and ‘religious’ leaders around the country openly call for the persecution of those who do not adhere to their narrow moral code and belief system (usually religious minorities and rival Islamic sects) flies in the face of official pronouncements claiming that there will be zero tolerance for hate speech and violent extremism.

It is the persistence of these contradictions – military action against some militant groups and the provision of state patronage (or the adoption of an attitude of indifference) towards others – that underpins the belief that the powers-that-be are not truly committed to undertaking the comprehensive process of reform that will be required to rid Pakistan of the scourge of extremism. Furthermore, it is not particularly difficult to explain the persistence of these contradictions; religion has long been used by the state to legitimate itself, thereby providing space to increasingly assertive religious organizations and parties, and has also been used as a tool through which to cultivate the support of militant proxies previously deployed in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Consequently, an apparent lack of willingness to properly confront and acknowledge the disastrous results of these policies only suggests that elements within the military and political establishment remain wedded to paradigms of domestic control and external security that external observers might rightly recognize as being self-defeating.

The very same organisations and groups that were/are championed by the state are the ones that have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis, soldiers and civilians alike. It is these same organisations that have been directly involved in cultivating an environment in which those expressing the ‘wrong’ beliefs or following the ‘wrong’ creed lead lives defined by constant fear and a lack of security. There are obviously differences between various militant factions and religious organisations, and it would be a mistake to treat them all the same way, but it would also be utterly disingenuous to suggest that organisations preaching hatred and bigotry are somehow disconnected from more overtly militant ones. Dealing with the latter necessarily requires meaningful action to also be taken against the former.

The latest round of introspection regarding Pakistan’s relationship with extremist outfits has been prompted by external developments. It is in the wake of the Uri attack and the diplomatic offensive launched by India that attention is being paid to non-state actors in Pakistan as a possible explanation for the country’s failure to generate more international support for itself and its position on Kashmir. Indeed, if news reports are to be believed, even China has expressed concern over the apparent support that continues to be extended by the government to non-state actors. However, the only thing that is surprising about this whole affair is how this appears to be a revelation that has just dawned upon the powers-that-be. Analysts and observers have been crying themselves hoarse about the dangers posed to Pakistan by a soft stance on extremist organizations, and it is regrettable that tremendous amounts of domestic pain and suffering were unable to prompt the kind of frank and honest debate that seems to have been prompted by an inability to match India’s diplomatic maneuvering.

The government and the military continue to insist that they do not distinguish between different militant and extremist organizations. Unfortunately, much remains to be done to actually deliver on these words and it can only be hoped that Pakistan’s ongoing diplomatic difficulties will finally provide the impetus for change that years of bloodshed and terror could not.