Main Image Credit A flag hoisting ceremony held at Pakistan Navy Dockyard, Karachi, to formally commence the Aman-21 multinational maritime exercise. Courtesy of Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (Pakistan)/CC BY-SA 4.0
Pakistan has had a long and complicated relationship with terrorism, but the recent Aman-21 naval exercise hosted by Pakistan is evidence of its military multilateralism.
Multilateralism is the participation in and organisation of relations between three or more states in pursuance of common goals, and this concept underpinned the recent Aman-21 naval exercise. Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Amjad Khan Niazi, suggested that Aman-21 provided a platform to ‘develop doctrinal synergy to tackle maritime security challenges’ and that it will ‘bring us even closer to the cherished goals of realising regional peace and shared prosperity through collaborative efforts’.
A major security challenge is of course terrorism, and the goal of securing peace requires multilateral counterterrorism. As well as demonstrating the counterterrorism drills of Pakistan’s Special Operations Forces and operational strategies, discussions were held between Admiral Niazi and foreign naval commanders on issues relating to maritime security and how collaborative efforts can further this.
Terrorism and Pakistan’s Reputation
However, the Pakistani military has not always been perceived by other military powers as a multilateral player in the fight against terrorism. Pakistan has been accused in the past of supporting different terrorist outfits.
Some modern-day terror groups that have been associated with Pakistan, such as Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), have their origins in the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–89). During this time, Pakistan and the US, among others, supported the mujahideen against the Soviets and the Afghan government.
Groups like HuM, after the withdrawal of the Soviets, later turned their attentions to the disputed lands of Kashmir, where commentators have suspected that the Pakistani military has supported militants in targeting Indian forces. Having formed as a splinter group of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), HuM reunited with HuJI in 1993 to form Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA), a merger which was allegedly facilitated by Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf. HuA was designated by the US as a terrorist organisation in 1997 due to its associations with Osama bin Laden, and so it changed its name back to HuM to continue operating.
In 1999, HuM hijacked an Indian Airlines flight, and, with the help of the Afghan Taliban, it negotiated the release of militants from the Indian government. Consequently, it was reported in the US that HuM was supported by Pakistan and thus that the country was complicit in the hijacking, leading to the risk of Pakistan being placed on the US’s list of countries that supported terrorism. This claim was bolstered by allegations that Pakistan was supporting such terror groups to further its interests in Kashmir.
The perceptions of Pakistan held by the US before 9/11 were thus highly negative. General Musharraf (who was the Chief of Army Staff and the Minister of Defence at the time) had appeared reluctant to ban organisations like HuM or to take measures against the Afghan Taliban, placing him in seeming contradiction to the multilateral counterterrorist goals of the US.
Such perceptions, which cast Pakistan as an antagonist of the US, are not entirely fair. The US had been content to bolster the militant convictions of the mujahideen to secure the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, including through a programme worth millions of dollars that provided Afghan children with violent textbooks to encourage resistance to the Soviets. No effort was subsequently made to rehabilitate or reduce this militant mindset, which undoubtedly made it easier for groups like the Afghan Taliban to train and recruit the disenfranchised, particularly among the millions of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the US demanded that Pakistan side with it in the so-called War on Terror. Tughral Yamin, a Pakistani academic, suggested in his strategic analysis that Pakistan’s decision to accept the US’s demand was the ‘only rational choice’, given that failure to do so could lead to Pakistan being designated as a ‘terrorist state’ and that ’Pakistan lacked the means and resources to chart an independent path’. Before and at the start of the War on Terror, Pakistan and its military were considered not only to be sympathetic to terrorism but complicit in it.
Pakistan’s people have since suffered for its part in the war on terrorism, particularly in recent years as a result of the formation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007, which has targeted the Pakistani state and military due to their operations against militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A report found that at least 80,000 Pakistanis were killed in the fight against terrorism from 2005–2013.
Pakistan Turning the Tide on Terrorism
Fortunately, the number of terrorist incidents in Pakistan has declined in recent years, with the Institute for Economics and Peace stating in its ‘Global Terrorism Index 2020’ that the ‘significant reduction in terrorism can be attributed to ongoing counter-terrorism operations undertaken by Pakistani military and security forces against a number of groups including the TTP and the Khorasan Chapter’. Such operations include Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad.
Despite being concentrated on land, terrorist activity extends to the sea, such as through attacks on commercial shipping. Consequently, NATO’s response to 9/11 also included multilateral maritime counterterrorism operations, such as Operation Active Endeavour, to keep seas and vessels safe.
The inaugural Aman naval exercise can thus be considered to have been part of a larger international initiative when it was held in March 2007, with a total of 28 countries taking part with their navies or as observers. The exercise has since been hosted biennially (with the exception of 2015) in Karachi, and participation has increased almost twofold, with 46 countries taking part in this year’s Aman-21. Given the increased number of participants, the exercise is evidence of an important positive development in perceptions of military powers towards the Pakistani military in relation to terrorism. Pakistan is now playing a critical role in facilitating large-scale, multilateral counterterrorism training and discussions.
Aman-21 also embodies the UN’s vision for counterterrorism strategies. Vladimir Voronkov, the head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, has emphasised the importance of multilateralism because terrorism has ‘consequences that span across borders’. NATO allies like the US and the UK took part alongside Russia in Aman-21, marking their first joint military exercise since Bold Monarch in 2011. Under the auspices of the Pakistani Navy, divergent forces have shared counterterrorism strategies, recognising that the threat of terrorism is bigger than any single state.
It is important to note that Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy cannot be limited to military operations if it is to be positively perceived. Alistair Millar of the Global Center on Cooperative Security previously characterised this by stating that military ‘activities are complemented by “softer” social measures intended to blunt the allure of violent extremism’.
Though military activities should not always be contrasted with ‘softer’ activities, given the importance of soft power in defence diplomacy – particularly in relation to Pakistan’s discussions with Afghanistan in the Afghan Peace Process – Pakistan has complemented its military operations with other multilateral strategies. For example, Pakistan and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime have developed Pakistan’s Action to Counter Terrorism. This is multilateral not only in its joint development and financial contributions from the EU, but also because it was designed to improve ‘inter-provincial coordination on counter terrorism’, particularly in relation to the judiciary system and investigative processes. Other ‘softer’ counterterrorist strategies include Pakistan’s 2014 National Action Plan and ongoing reforms to and regulations of the madrassah educational system.
Pakistan’s fight against terrorism is by no means over. But the unfortunate toll that terrorism has taken on Pakistan and its people has left its military well-placed to inform other militaries on counterterrorism operations and strategies. The sharing of Pakistan’s expertise through Aman-21 thus highlights not only the strength of Pakistan’s commitment to multilateral counterterrorism but also its improving international reputation.
Mary Hunter is a postgraduate research fellow at the Centre for Army Leadership, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.