Terrorism and the Taliban

By Munir Akram

The cold-blooded shooting of Malala Yousufzai, the girls’ rights activist, by a Taliban hit man has led to an unusual outcry in Pakistan against this “bestial”, “obscene” and “horrendous” act of terrorism. This commendable popular revulsion, emanating from religious and political parties, as well as the military leadership, can crystallise effective action against the perpetrators of terrorist violence in Pakistan.


Some policy and administrative measures are self-evident. Gun control in Pakistan must be a high priority. All political parties and groups which maintain armed militias should be obliged to disband them. Security checks need to be intensified including the use of CCTV. The investigative and forensic capabilities of the security services need to be enhanced. Justice and penalties for terrorist attacks need to be dispensed boldly and quickly. And, Al Qaeda’s presence must be eliminated through decisive national and international action.


However, undertaking a comprehensive campaign against the terrorists will require not only political courage and unity within Pakistan’s disparate power structure but also a full understanding of the nature and causes of the terrorist threat which Pakistan confronts and which has apparently claimed over 36,000 Pakistani lives since the launch of the ‘war on terror’.



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A plan of action against terrorist violence needs to start from a full analysis of the composition, motivation and modus operandi of the militant groups operating in Pakistan. This is a motley crowd. The generic word ‘Taliban’ is now an overextended brand name applied to a variety of groups within Afghanistan and Pakistan.


It is not possible, nor necessary, for Pakistan to fight all of those who are called, or call themselves, ‘Taliban’. All of them are not involved in attacks against Pakistan. Nor is it possible, as some have suggested, to negotiate peace with all of those called ‘Taliban’.


Most of the attacks in Pakistan have emanated from fighters grouped under the Al Qaeda-linked Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — the so-called ‘Pakistani Taliban’, presently led by Hakeemullah Mehsud. The Mehsuds rose against the Pakistan Army after its first ingress into South Waziristan in 2003. Following the Red Mosque episode, the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud brought together a variety of Pakistani militant groups, including those operating in Swat as well as the so-called ‘Punjabi Taliban’, under the umbrella of the TTP.


These groups are united on one issue: opposition to Pakistan’s alliance with the US ‘war on terror’ (which they construe as a war on Islam). But each component group within the TTP also has its own specific objectives and priorities.


The Punjabi Taliban are largely hard-core Sunni groups with a sectarian agenda and an ideology similar to the ‘original’ Taliban led by Mullah Omar. These groups have been utilised by some of Pakistan’s leading political parties to play a pivotal role in south Punjab’s denominationally divided districts.


Some were involved in the Kashmiri freedom struggle. A few among them, working with Al Qaeda, twice attempted to assassinate former President Musharraf for his perceived ‘sellout’ of the Kashmiri freedom struggle after the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. However, the feared pro-Kashmiri Lashkar-e-Taiba did not join the anti-Pakistan attacks although, at US and Indian behest, it was eventually declared a terrorist organisation.


The approach to each of the groups within the TTP will need to be different. The Punjabi Taliban can be best controlled through political, security and judicial arrangements in the relevant districts. Promise of a share in electoral power but also demonstration of a determination to penalise illegal actions against Pakistan’s national interests could be elements designed to pacify these Punjabi groups. Their militancy may ease also with the US-Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to Pakistan’s cooperation with them.


It will be difficult to negotiate with the Taliban group which was operating in Swat and is probably responsible for shooting Malala Yousufzai. The last negotiations attempted with this group in 2009 — so mistakenly endorsed by Pakistan’s National Assembly — failed miserably. The media projection of their atrocities created the political environment that enabled the Pakistan Army to launch military operations in Swat and other frontier agencies. Interestingly, during these operations, the army found itself fighting highly trained Uzbek and Chechen fighters who could have come to Pakistan only through Afghanistan. They will have to be hunted down.


It will also be difficult to negotiate with the core of the TTP led by Hakeemullah Mehsud. At present, many TTP fighters operate from safe havens in Afghanistan against Pakistan Army positions. Pakistani intelligence has assumed for some time that these groups enjoy tacit support from Afghan intelligence if not the Kabul government.


These cross-border attacks against Pakistan from Afghan territory are likely to continue until a broader political arrangement is reached or the Pakistan Army takes action.


The military option against this core of the TTP can be accompanied by talks with the tribal leadership of the Mehsuds and other clans involved. This is probably what Imran Khan is advocating. A re-assumption of authority and power by the tribal maliks from the TTP warlords would help significantly in defeating these militant groups, restoring peace and halting terror attacks from Pakistan’s tribal agencies.


Much as the US and Nato would like Pakistan to undertake military action against the Haqqani group, Islamabad has no pressing reason to fight them or other Afghan Taliban. To do so will expand the number of groups targeting Pakistan. These groups are not involved presently in the attacks against Pakistan.


These Afghan Taliban are not only in North Waziristan; many are ‘hiding in plain sight’ with the two million Afghan refugees who populate virtual cities along the border in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan should help to contain and halt cross-border operations by the Afghan Taliban.


This can be best done in talks relating to the full and early withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. In return, Pakistan should secure credible guarantees that Afghan, Indian and Western agencies are not involved in sponsoring terrorist violence within Pakistan, especially in Balochistan.


Pakistan should also be able to convince Washington that an attack on the Afghan Taliban at present makes little political sense.


The US wants to withdraw from Afghanistan in peace and dignity. This will be possible only if a cessation of hostilities is in effect, even if a political solution for Afghanistan’s future governance cannot be agreed by 2014. Pakistan can help to negotiate such an arrangement.


A US-Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan, and an end to Pakistan’s reluctant cooperation with them, will considerably ease the anger of the religious parties and other Pakistanis who oppose America’s objectives and presence in the region.


If Pakistan’s leadership can ensure that, following US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the much delayed investments in infrastructure, education and jobs are made in Pakistan’s urban and rural centres of poverty, especially the tribal agencies, the country can finally begin to address the root causes of extremism and militancy. This is the most sustainable way to consign terrorism to the dustbin of our history.


The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.