Why Pakistani Taliban matter
UNLIKE the Afghan Taliban, the international community does not appear keen to engage the Pakistani Taliban in talks.
The emphasis in western and regional capitals is on reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and that obviously forms part of the Nato exit strategy from Afghanistan.
Although there is little reason so far to be optimistic about the future of engaging with the Afghan Taliban, at least weighing the different options is under way. One may be excused for concluding that the western and regional capitals consider the burden of sorting out the Pakistani Taliban to be Islamabad’s alone.
The security, strategic, political and ideological implications of the post-Nato scenario in the region and the future of the Pakistani Taliban is not getting the deserved attention in Islamabad’s policy circles. No rationale for this attitude is available, except for the ambiguous threat perception about the Pakistani Taliban, especially amid false notions of their reconcilability and the externalisation of the threat.
In that context, there is a need to identify the potential of the Pakistani Taliban and their strength, which may help remove any ambiguities in threat perception. The Pakistani Taliban’s main strength lies in their ideological bond with Al Qaeda and their connection with the Islamisation discourse in Pakistan. They gain political and moral legitimacy by associating themselves with the Afghan Taliban. Their tribal and ethnic ties provide social space and acceptance among a segment of society.
At their core, the Pakistani Taliban espouse Deobandi sectarian teachings. This commonality allows them to function under a single umbrella, even though their political interpretation of Deobandi principles is at times not monolithic. As a group, they maintain a dogmatic stance by espousing an interpretation that is intolerant of all other Muslim sects.
This ought to isolate the Taliban from the majority of Pakistanis who adhere to the Barelvi tradition. In reality, this was only
partially the case when the insurgency began as the Pakistani Taliban craftily created a narrative around their movement that found sympathy across the sectarian divide. They strove to portray their struggle as one aiming at driving out foreign ‘occupation’ forces from Afghanistan in the short run, and all ‘infidel’ forces from Muslim lands in the long run.
By doing so, they not only tied in with transnational jihadi groups in a material sense but also presented themselves as ideologically similar. More tangibly, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership, especially its first head Baitullah Mehsud, also tried to portray the outfit as an operation under Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban. Every militant faction that wished to join the TTP had to take an oath of commitment to the enforcement of the Sharia and of allegiance to Mullah Omar. By doing so, Baitullah hoped to gain more legitimacy and further portray his struggle as Afghanistan-focused.
Baitullah knew that existing as an overt anti-Pakistan group aiming to target the Pakistani state would quickly generate a consensus against his activities, and therefore he used the TTP’s ideological, ethnic and sociopolitical ties with the Afghan Taliban to stress a natural cohesion between their operations and goals. This strategy was also instrumental in attracting other sectarian groups, such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), and splinter groups of Kashmir-oriented outfits to work closely with the TTP.
The Pakistani Taliban not only had a well-defined ideological base, the geo-strategic milieu also worked in their favour.
While the Pakistani Taliban may not enjoy moral or political support from neighbouring states, they have strong connections with non-state actors in those territories, which allow them to thrive despite opposition from the Pakistani state.
The TTP has connections with smugglers and mafias in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have support from international terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda. Coupled with the Pakistani state’s belief that the conflict in Afghanistan is upsetting the regional power balance in favour of its adversaries, and that the war is entertaining covert wars of international and regional spy agencies and players, it has distracted the counterinsurgency focus.
Another strategic advantage for the Taliban has been its dynamic leadership; evident especially in the case of killed leaders such as Nek Muhammad, Abdullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as the current TTP head Hakeemullah Mehsud, who emerged as a ‘charismatic strategist’. Hakeemullah also quickly realised the benefit in associating himself with global terrorism rings, and used it as a means to enhance his own and his outfit’s stature.
Hakeemullah’s appearance in 2009 in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber, who later killed several CIA agents in the Afghan province of Khost, put his name on the list of high-value militant targets for the US. This endorsed his stature as a worthy successor to Baitullah. Similarly, TTP’s fingerprints on the failed Time Square bombing by Pakistani-born Faisal Shehzad in May 2010 elevated the TTP’s stature as a group that could directly threaten America on its own soil.
The challenge for the Pakistani state is complex, with dire implications for the country’s internal security. Al Qaeda, the TTP and militant groups in Punjab, Karachi and elsewhere have developed a nexus. Splinter groups of banned militants organisations or emerging groups have been involved in the recent wave of terror in mainland Pakistan.
These groups, tagged as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, are the product of a narrative of destruction fostered within the country over the past three decades. Their agendas revolve around Islamisation and sectarianism. Their operational capabilities have been enhanced by Al Qaeda providing them training and logistics, and by the Pakistani Taliban offering safe sanctuaries.
Breaking these links between Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and mainland militant groups is not an easy task, especially when the state continues to lack the vision to build a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, and the capacity for effective implementation.
Even if all of these things materialise, the central, and the most difficult, task for the state in the post-Taliban insurgency scenario will be to overhaul and rehabilitate tribal society, as well as restructure the administrative, political and economic systems in the areas where the Taliban claim to provide an alternative to the state.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.