Understanding the insurgency

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

This state of affairs did not develop in a year, but gradually since 2001. The Musharraf regime and the MMA government in the NWFP allowed these elements to entrench themselves and expand their influence

The October 2 suicide attack at the residence of the ANP chief, Asfandaryar Wali Khan, was another frightening reminder of the escalating threat to Pakistani state and society. Coming less than two weeks after the Marriott bombing in Islamabad, the Charsadda attack shows that Pakistan faces something more than pure and simple terrorism, often explained, if not justified, by pro-militancy elements as a reaction to American presence in Afghanistan.

The ANP is not known as a pro-US political party, and it has always stood for an independent foreign policy with an emphasis on conflict-free relations with all neighbours. Its support for counter-terrorism is based on protection of Pakistani society, particularly Pakhtun society, from religion extremism and violence.

The latest suicide attack shows that anti-Americanism is not the sole explanation for the activities of Islamic militants. Pakistan faces an insurgency led by the Pakistani Taliban with their core base in the tribal areas. They appear well entrenched there, and their activities are now aimed more at the Pakistani state than at supporting the Afghan Taliban, as was the case in the past (though they still cooperate with each other).

The Taliban want to consolidate their territorial control in the tribal areas and extend it to as many parts of the NWFP as possible. They would like to establish a political and administrative domain that will have Islamic features similar to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during 1996-2001. They also have an ideological agenda of making their domain available to other movements that share their “Islamic” agenda. Their approach also involves extending influence and control throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan through allied hard-line groups.

The attack on the ANP leader can be explained only in the backdrop of this ideological and territorial agenda. Unlike the MMA provincial government (2002-2007), the present ANP government in NWFP has openly challenged the efforts of Pakistani Taliban to expand their domain at the expense of the state. The Taliban asked the ANP government to resign, which the latter refused. Therefore, the Taliban view the ANP leadership as an adversary that obstructed the implementation of their agenda. Their bid to eliminate Asfandyar Wali failed, but it underlined the point that the Taliban will target individuals and entities that are blocking the realisation of their agenda.

Pakistan now faces an insurgency whose leadership wants to displace the state and government, or at least restrict its domain. If the government of Pakistan cannot neutralise these challenges through military and political means, it will become increasingly irrelevant in many parts of what is today Pakistan. This is the most serious challenge to post-1971 Pakistan: an armed and well-organised movement has entrenched itself in the tribal areas and now threatens to displace the Pakistani state from as much area as possible.

This state of affairs did not develop in a year, but gradually since 2001. The Musharraf regime and the MMA government in the NWFP allowed these elements to entrench themselves and expand their influence.

The Pakistani Taliban is a post-2001 phenomenon. After the capture of Kabul by American and Northern Alliance troops in November 2001, most of the original Taliban and Al Qaeda elements initially disappeared in mountainous regions like Tora Bora. Later, they moved into FATA and parts of Balochistan adjacent to Afghanistan. A good number of them already had links in Pakistan though the madrassa system. Their entry and stay in the area were also facilitated by shared ethnicity, religious outlook and the desire to free Afghanistan from American occupation.

The continued presence of the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda mobilised local Pashtuns, some of whom had fought with the Afghan Taliban first against the Northern Alliance and then against the Americans. These local Pashtuns began to organise themselves under inspiration and support from the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, later naming themselves the Pakistan Taliban.

Three factors facilitated their growth. First, the initial target of both sets of Taliban was Afghanistan. As they did not challenge Pakistani authorities, the latter did not generally interfere with their activities unless they got involved in local feuds and disturbed the law and order situation.

Second, the Musharraf government pursued a dual policy of confronting and arresting some Al Qaeda and Taliban elements but not pushing security action against them to dislodge them completely. Local civilian and intelligence authorities had enough discretion to give some space to these elements. This helped the Musharraf government get the MMA’s backing and consolidate itself. It was only after the Red Mosque incident in July 2007 that the MMA began to distance itself from the government.

Third, local authorities under the MMA government in the NWFP did not try to stop the Taliban march from the tribal areas to adjoining settled districts because they shared their worldview. By the time the MMA government left office in 2007, the Pakistani Taliban had reached several rural and urban centres of the province. Further, the MMA opposed the federal government’s military operations in the tribal areas.

The Pakistani Taliban (backed by their Afghan counterparts and Al Qaeda) decided to challenge the Pakistani government openly in settled areas after the Red Mosque incident because they viewed it as the beginning of the government’s new policy of subduing their Pakistani allies. A series of suicide bombings hit Pakistan in 2007-2008.

The recent spurt of violence is a Taliban reaction to the present PPP-led government’s unambiguous policy of countering terrorism. The latest military action has also hit them hard in Bajaur and Swat. A significant development in the tribal belt is that non-Taliban tribesmen have started supporting military action against the Pakistani Taliban. They have been taking action against militants and protecting Pakistani forces’ supply lines. The Pakistani Taliban have increased suicide attacks in order to force the government to stop these military operations.

Pakistan faces an insurgency in the tribal belt that targets the settled areas. The aim of the insurgency appears to be to subdue Pakistan’s state and society. The on-going operations are meant to remove this challenge. The ANP and the MQM have also taken a public position against extremists and militants. Islamist parties do not support the government’s tough line and military action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The PMLN and the PMLQ (the ruling party under Musharraf) do not support military action and express reservations on the current government’s handling of the situation.

These parties are unable to fathom the threat to Pakistan, and continue to view these developments through their anti-American lens. Some of them describe the situation as a conspiracy engineered by the US, India, Afghanistan and Jewish extremists.

Even if there is merit to such conspiracy theories they cannot be tackled by suicide bombings, burning of girls’ schools, public executions, Islamic-sectarian killings or inter-group conflict. There is a need to see the emerging challenge of insurgency in its true perspective.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst. (Daily Times)