President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, just returned from Islamabad where, on Sunday, she met Pakistan's civil and military leaders and emphasised the need to eliminate terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil. The United States wants Pakistan to confront the Haqqani Network, a terrorist groups that constantly attacks American targets in Afghanistan and was described by former chairman joint chiefs as "a veritable arm" of Pakistan's army.
A parallel development has been the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed neighbours. Talks between the two countries' national security advisers were abruptly cancelled while cross-border firing, especially along the Line of Control in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, has escalated. Pakistan's defence minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, has gone to the extent of threatening India with "heavy losses" in the event of war, a statement assumed to hint at the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
But none of this has deterred Pakistan's all powerful military establishment from pursuing its undeclared war against secular political movements representing minority ethnic groups, especially in the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. A military operation that started in the financial hub of Pakistan, Karachi, to curb the terrorists and criminals has virtually become a campaign against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the Urdu-speaking minority that dominates the city.
According to the MQM, 4,000 of its activists have been arrested and brutally tortured. Instead of being presented before courts, the MQM activists are being hauled in front of secret military courts that were ostensibly created to try terrorists. The military has also expanded its operation to include members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), representing ethnic Sindhis and led by former President Asif Zardari. Last week, Zardari's confidante Dr Asim Husain, also from the Urdu-speaking minority, was arrested by the military on corruption charges - an expansion of anti-terrorist powers that seems a stretch by all measures.
Ironically, the MQM was one of the liberal, secular political parties targeted by the Taliban during the 2013 election campaign while Islamists and their allies were allowed to freely campaign. Now, it seems, that the secular parties are to be charged with corruption or "collusion with India" under terrorism laws that were said to have been designed for jihadis.
Noticeably absent from the military's list of targets are terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (the groups responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks), and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (AWSJ) which attacked a bus carrying members of the Ismaili Shia community in May, killing 45 people. All of these groups are active in Karachi, often with a visible presence.
Pakistani authorities remain confused even about the legal status of some of the jihadi terrorist groups even as the military acts against political groups that have not been banned. For example, Pakistan's interior ministry said that the ASWJ was banned in 2012 but the ban was never made public. The ban did not prevent the ASWJ leader, Aurangzeb Farooqui, from contesting in election 2013 though he went on to lose to an MQM candidate.
The military's operation against the secular, ethnic parties has resulted in a rise in extra judicial killings in Karachi. Enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings have already been a major problem in Balochistan. Senior Police officers in Karachi claim that extra judicial killings by the force are happening as part of the crackdown on crime in the city. The military and the police also seem to be competing in claiming credit for "cleaning up" Karachi.
According to the Police, 90 per cent out of 70,000 arrested in the city have either secured bail, have been acquitted by the court for want of evidence or were found innocent in the initial investigation and let go. The Pakistani military, on the other hand, lays claim to the mantle of national saviour while pretending that those accused of petty crimes are terrorists. A senior police official told a reporter of ET that the arrests in the ongoing operation are all about making headlines in news. "If the numbers are in tens or 20s then you will receive is a pat on the back. You detain a 1,000 and become a hero. You arrest 71,000 in less than two years and you are the saviour."
Rounding up political activists and criminals as terrorists while allowing actual terrorists to carry on with their business reflect the non-serious approach of Pakistan's security services towards terrorism. A major factor in this attitude is the ethnic divisions within the country. The Pakistani security services have historically been dominated by ethnic Punjabis and the current federal government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is also heavily Punjabi.
Pakistan's Punjabi elite seems content to let terrorists, especially those that serve Pakistan's foreign policy objectives in India and Afghanistan, to operate in Karachi and other parts of the country, outside their home base, Punjab. Punjab provincial minister, Rana Sanaullah, said in a recent press conference that "not a single madrassa (seminary) in Punjab was reported to have any links with militancy." The South Asia Terrorism Portal database shows that there has been a considerable and increasing presence of at least 57 extremist and terrorist groups in Punjab alone.
The military operation that started with much fanfare after the attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar last December has only been about eliminating the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had started launching terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, especially in Punjab. The TTP, which seems to be closer now to the ISIS on ideological grounds, sees the Pakistani state as one of many enemies of Islam. But jihadi groups that attack Pakistani religious minorities and direct their wrath against the enemies of the Pakistani state remain exempt from the military's action.
On the other hand, Pakistan's firepower and force is disproportionately directed at political parties and ethnic groups that challenge the jihadi narrative as well as the Pakistan military's dominance of Pakistan's politics, economy and foreign policy.