PAKISTAN’S TALIBAN NIGHTMARE

Canberra, 20 April 2013
Pakistan has been in the grip of a domestic Taliban insurgency for a number of years. The insurgency has managed to repeatedly disrupt the normal functioning of the society and, more importantly, made the limited secular influence within the polity withdraw and become insignificant. In the past few months it has also been wrestling with a complex political transition—from the completion of the first full term of a democratically elected government in the nation’s independent history to the conduct of fresh elections and the establishment of the next democratic government. Even a superficial analysis of the situation clearly shows that this on-going process is full of pitfalls; neither can the end-product be predicted with any assurance, and nor can the future path of the nation be assumed to be a projection of the current trend. As if these troubles were not sufficient, Pakistan faces another looming crisis that could derail the entire process. According to reports the discussions between the US and the Afghan Taliban to arrive at a negotiated political settlement are not going well. It is perceived that there is a distinct possibility of the Taliban coming back to power (or definitely being in a position of power) once the US-led NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014. This would be disastrous for Pakistan—its domestic Taliban will increase their activities and it would be almost impossible for the Pakistani authorities to take back control of its northern territories, which have become the stronghold of the Taliban. Therefore, there is only one option available to Pakistan if it is to move towards positive stabilisation of the nation—it has to weaken and if possible stem Taliban insurgency before the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. The question is, how is this to be achieved?
Perhaps the precariousness of the situation is not lost on the interim government or the Pakistani military—last week the military launched the biggest action in the past two years as part of the counter-jihadist offensive that the military had been conducting (in a rather desultory fashion most of the time) for nearly four years now in the tribal areas. The primary aim of the campaign from its initiation four years ago was to regain control of its northwest, mainly the seven provinces that make up its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This region has increasingly come under the control of Pakistani Taliban, aligned with al Qaeda—the two main groups being Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and some elements of the Lashkar-e-Islam—since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has been unable to make much headway in retaking control of FATA, both for want of trying, an absence of will at the operational level,  and a lack of expertise in fighting the type of battle/war necessary to win in the tribal areas against an adversary, entrenched—physically, morally, ethnically and religiously—in the region. The fallout has been the inability of the civilian government to initiate and/or complete development projects that could gradually integrate the region into the rest of the nation. Notwithstanding the current offensive, it is highly unlikely that the areas currently under Taliban influence and control will come under Islamabad’s writ anytime soon.
The Broader Picture
With a little over one year left for the deadline of Western troops to leave Afghanistan, the talks between the United States and Afghan Taliban have not progressed beyond the actual activity of meeting—no tangible results have been forthcoming. This could well be a delaying tactic of the Taliban, who know only too well that the Western forces do not have the stomach for lengthy occupation and counterinsurgency operations (albeit the fact that the Afghanistan campaign has been on-going since late-2001), to not commit to any future action inimical to their perceived interests. It is certain that Pakistan would have welcomed a negotiated settlement between the US and Afghan Taliban that would in turn have made it easier for them to deal with their own domestic Taliban insurgency. That has not happened. Pakistan is now confronted with a diabolic situation. The Afghan Taliban is Pakistan’s creation and even now tacitly supported by their Army; and the Pakistani Taliban derive their strength from the Afghan element. Add to this the confusion that is bound to prevail in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the President Ahmed Karzai stepping down because of term limits which sort of coincides with NATO withdrawal. Therefore, it is vital for Pakistan’s well-being that the Afghan Taliban is made part of the political transition in Afghanistan and also that they adhere by the political settlement that takes place. If they remain outside the political process, and are unencumbered by the presence of Western forces, they can and will provide safe havens for the Pakistani Taliban—a sort of a reverse flow from the days of 2001—and also revitalise al Qaeda, headquartered currently in Pakistan.
The solution to these challenges would be fairly obvious. Pakistan must build a relationship with the Afghan government, sideline the Afghan Taliban, and seek the support of anti-Taliban elements within the Afghan minorities.The out-going Pakistani government has attempted to do all this and more, even trying to pamper the Tajiks who have been at odds with Pakistan for their support of the Afghan Taliban. However, the democratically elected Pakistani government did not have the stature or the effective power to force the Army to adhere to governmental directives and therefore the attempt at building a bulwark against the domestic Taliban being feted by their counterparts in Afghanistan has remained an unfulfilled endeavour. Further, there is a sizeable minority of civilians within the administration who covertly support the Taliban, which makes it difficult for the government to implement strategic initiatives that would create even a minimum of far-reaching and positive influences. The on-going acrimony between the Pakistan government and the Karzai administration; perhaps the result of the uncertainty that is slowly creeping into the region as the withdrawal of NATO forces approaches closer; has been another factor that has almost reversed any gains that have so far been made.
Pakistan’s Fledgling Democracy
While the possibility of the first ever democratic transfer of power in Pakistan is a laudable milestone, it could yet prove to be a double-edged sword. It is evident that the new parliament would be even more fractured than the previous—with the right-wing nationalist political parties like the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s Pakistani Tehrik-i-Insaf certain to make major inroads into representation in parliament. A fragmented parliament makes the process of policy making complex and complicated. More importantly the right-wing parties rely heavily on Islamists and other groups that perceive that the US war in Afghanistan has been one of the major reasons for the deteriorating security situation in the country. [Finding an external scapegoat for the ills within the nation is a favourite pastime of the broader Pakistani population.] The Pakistani Taliban is bound to exploit this situation. On a more alarming note, there is a vociferous section within the right-wing parties who believe that the Pakistani Taliban must be brought back into mainstream society purely through negotiation, a pipe dream if ever there was one. This ‘laudable’ thought process suffers from a concerted lack of understanding of the nuances of religious issues at stake and is shrouded in a blind belief in the overarching correctness of religion. It does not take into account the fundamental difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are nationalist jihadists operating within the limited political goal of freeing the state; whereas the Pakistani Taliban want to convert the state of Pakistan into becoming the launch-pad for the creation of an international caliphate. Negotiation, reconciliation, and return to the common fold—much akin to the prodigal son, as some well-meaning but naïve people believe—are the last things that they want.
There is another aspect of the Pakistani Taliban that needs mention—they are vehemently opposed to the conduct of free elections, currently scheduled for 11 May 2013. They have already attacked a number of meetings of political parties, particularly those of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which opposes the extreme religious concept being propagated by the Taliban. Both MQM and The Awami National Party (ANP) (who enjoy majority voter support in Karachi Province and Sindh) have emerged as vociferous opponents of the Taliban whose attitude towards the general population of the nation is one of condemnation of not being ‘good practicing Muslims’. Since Pakistan has no dearth of conspiracy theories, the one doing the rounds in this instance is that the Taliban is a CIA sponsored group set up to create unrest in the country and maybe even generate a ‘Shia-Sunni divide’ that would accentuate the bloodshed. This is a far-fetched theory and only assists in creating a chimera of helplessness in the national ethos—‘after all we are being targeted by a powerful external adversary!’ Blaming everyone else for the ills generated within the nation has been raised to a new high in Pakistan! There will be bloodshed in the run up to the elections; it can only be hoped that the silent majority will go out in strength and exercise their democratic privilege to vote even against the direst threats from the Taliban who would not want the elections to be held at all. Anarchy is what suits them best to spread their concept of an ideal society. 

Pakistan has so far hedged its bets on controlling their domestic Frankenstein with the help of the Afghan Taliban. Of course this calculation is based on the Afghan Taliban arriving at a negotiated settlement with the US and becoming politically integrated. Once this was achieved, it was thought that, the domestic Taliban could be gradually whittled down and controlled through direct action as well as by creating fissures within the group. Two fundamental reasons will prevent this from happening. First, the Afghan Taliban will not become part of the political process; it suits them to stay outside the process. Second, and perhaps more important, the Pakistani Taliban wants to establish a ‘true’ Islamic state in Pakistan after toppling what they have termed, an ‘un-Islamic’ government. The achievement of this objective really has no direct connection to the goings-on in Afghanistan. Even the unlikely event of a breakthrough in the Afghanistan negotiations will not change the ground facts in Pakistan. Irrespective of whether Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban or descends into a vicious civil war, the Pakistani Taliban will only be emboldened to continue their insurgency against the legitimate government in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s political transition and fundamental stability as a nation is directly hinged to the integration of FATA into the state, which is something that can only be achieved if the Afghan Taliban becomes part of the political process. Although Pakistan was their mentor, it is unclear whether or not the Afghan Taliban continues to heed the advice from Islamabad, the clues all point to their autonomy. In many ways the student has become more efficient and capable than the master. It is quite apparent that they do not feel any obligation to pander to the needs and requests of their erstwhile controllers. When a nation’s stability is intrinsically joined to, or controlled by, that of another state over which you only have limited influence, then it is time for the government of the affected nation to take a good hard look at where they are; how they reached there; and the probable future if they continued on the same tack. It is time for Pakistan to find an ‘honourable’ way out of this self-generated morass. At least for now there seems to be no solution to the current imbroglio and from all angles it looks as if Pakistan is on a slippery slope to further and more amplified chaos. I am pretty sure that I used similar words in a previous post on Pakistan—it is only the degree of chaos that the nation seems to be capable of descending to that is the difference. The steepening of the downward spiral is obvious.
With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”
Verse XXVIII
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
(Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald)

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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