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Taking on good, bad, all Talibans

Despite a change in mood in Pakistan after the Peshawar massacre, India cannot afford to be complacent given that the network of the various ‘Talibans’ is more united and synchronised than ever, and benefits from the differences between South Asian neighbours

In its multi-point National Action Plan against terror, Pakistan’s government and military has envisaged a plan more comprehensive than any other in the past 20 years. It was in 1994 that the Taliban first emerged to take power in Kandahar, funded and trained by Pakistani officials, and will be full circle for the country if its leaders go ahead with the ambitious course laid out in the plan. The steps include the establishment of fast-track anti-terror courts, a crackdown on banned organisations and terrorists and choking their finances, disarming all militia, and the regulation of madrassas that indoctrinate them.

Pakistan has made such declarations before. The first was when it became a “partner” in the war on terror in 2001 and agreed to look for Osama bin Laden, and again in 2002, when President Pervez Musharraf announced a crackdown on anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Neither of those pronouncements came to much, but there is still reason to hope that the new announcement recognises that the people of Pakistan want a decisive turn after the massacre of over 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar. It is now a battle for Pakistan’s soul, one made even more complicated by the fact that the perpetrators of this diabolical operation once trained alongside the Afghan Taliban in a war in which Pakistan was once a prime mover.

The many Talibans

Much has changed since those days, in the 1990s, when the Taliban claimed Kabul, and welcomed every kind of jihadi group into the country, and some of those fighters were given access to Pakistan’s borders with India, so as to fight in Kashmir. A distinction between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” has come up between the Afghan Taliban groups and the Pakistani Taliban who target the Pakistani military and civilians. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s statement that there will now be no good or bad Taliban is welcome for most Pakistanis, but the euphemisms of good and bad are only a more visible part of the threat they face from the Taliban. It is important that Pakistan’s leaders recognise the other Taliban threats today, in a self-destructive war they have already squandered too much time on, and after Mr. Sharif has committed to fighting “All the Talibans”.

To begin with, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that carried out the Peshawar massacre now represents, weren’t always separate entities. In 2008, when the TTP first came up under Baitullah Mehsud, its chief patron was Mullah Omar, the chief of the Taliban. Mehsud himself had been very close to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and declared a governor by Mullah Omar in 2004 before five major Taliban commanders, including men responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto and assassination attempts on Mr. Hamid Karzai and Gen. Musharraf. Therefore, it is baffling how the narrative today has become one of Pakistan protecting the Afghan Taliban, while Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of sheltering TTP leaders and other members of the Pakistan Taliban.

Also read: >Who are the Pakistani Taliban

The differences between Mehsud and other commanders — like his cousins Qari Hussain Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud, or rival Mullah Nazir — ultimately led to factions coming up on the Pakistani side of the border. But having trained in the Afghan jihad, they never really strayed from that evil purpose, of killing Pakistani civilians and Army personnel and training scores of Pakistani children as suicide bombers. For Pakistan’s purposes, none of them should have been counted as the “good Taliban” as they were.

Also read: >A tale of two Taliban

Reign of terror

The next distinction that should never have been made is with the Punjabi Taliban. The groups in Punjab like the JeM, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Sipah-e-Sahaba, and the LeT now control vast parts of Pakistan’s most powerful province, with compounds across acres, congregations in the lakhs, and thousands of young recruits at their seminaries. Despite all the outrage expressed by India over 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, the hijacking of an Indian flight (IC-814) and Parliament attack mastermind Masood Azhar, Pakistan still sees these men as allies and is quite comfortable in letting their groups run riot in Punjab. But they have missed two important outcomes: first, whether it is Masood Azhar’s control of Bahawalpur, or Hafiz Saeed’s citadel in Muridke, these groups now run terror enclaves within Pakistan, unchallenged. Second, like Abdul Ghazi, the ‘Maulana’ of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, sooner or later these two men will end up challenging their military patrons in much the same way that Ghazi took on Gen. Musharraf a stone’s throw from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters.

Notwithstanding a stand-off that left more than 100 people dead, and an operation that claimed Gen. Musharraf’s job, in 2007, Ghazi remains a threat to the Pakistani establishment. In the wake of the Peshawar massacre, hundreds of Pakistani protesters surrounded the Lal Masjid and finally shamed the government into seeking an FIR against him. Despite obtaining a warrant, it is yet to arrest him. Meanwhile, the head of the LeJ, Malik Ishaq, in jail for the attack in Lahore on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, has been released, while the LeT operations chief, Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi, has been nearly released twice.

Also read: >After Peshawar, Pakistan's litmus test

With their access to trained jihadis in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Kashmir, Azhar, Saeed and Ishaq will be much more difficult to control. And the stand-off with them is going to be even more bloody than the Lal Masjid operation was. It is inevitable because it is evident that the Punjabi Taliban is deeply linked to every major terror attack in Pakistan, including the brutal killings of Shias, Ahmadis and Christians. No one typifies this link more than the case of Dr. Usman, the first man Mr. Sharif ordered to be hanged after lifting the moratorium on executions in December. Usman, or Mohammad Aqeel, was trained in the Army’s medical corps, from where he was recruited by the LeJ. Along with TTP leaders and other Taliban commanders, he then went on to plan an assassination attempt on Gen. Musharraf, the General Head Quarters (GHQ) attack, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers and the Marriott hotel bombing. The Punjab link to the Peshawar massacre has already emerged, with four suspects detained in Hasilpur in Bahawalpur. It was from here that some calls were made to the attackers as they attacked the students.

Embedded in the establishment

Finally, there is the Taliban threat that no one, not even in Rawalpindi, Washington, or in New Delhi likes to speak of — the institutional Taliban, or the radicalised elements who exist within Pakistan’s military, civil and judicial establishments. For this, one has to read the works of Pakistan’s best investigative journalists. In his riveting work, Talibanisation of Pakistan: 9/11 to 26/11, journalist Amir Mir has written of the work of the Tableeghi Jamaat, whose headquarters in Raiwind adjoin Mr. Sharif’s family estate. It was former military leader Zia-ul-Haq who encouraged the Tableeghis to shape Pakistan’s military into “an army of Allah”. Since then, several top-level officers, and chiefs of the ISI in particular, have been members (most notably, Lt.Gen. Hameed Gul and Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, both retired officers known to liaison with terror groups). “Many Pakistani government servants, military officers and scientists devote at least a part of their annual leave to do voluntary work for the Tableeghi Jamaat,” writes Mr. Mir, adding that the ‘Ijtema’ congregation represented “the picture of a well-designed, well-managed strategy to organize Islamic combatants, ready to wage jihad.” In fact, every attack on Pakistan’s military installations, from the GHQ, to Mehran naval base, to the Minhas air force base, or several attacks in FATA have been traced to radicalised officers.

It was this trail of radicalisation within the Pakistani forces that journalist Saleem Shahzad (who had interviewed both Kashmiri and Baitullah Mehsud) was uncovering when he was kidnapped in May 2011. His body was found in the Jhelum bearing signs of torture. In his book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, released just 10 days before his death, Shahzad says that there is an “ISI within the ISI” and a “jihadi army within the army” that operates as a sleeper cell while their interests align with the Pakistani establishment’s, i.e., in fighting India. It was his case that the Mumbai attacks were the work of a radicalised group of Army and ISI officers of the “313 brigade” run by ISI/LeT militant Ilyas Kashmiri, who subsequently became al-Qaeda’s commander and was killed in a drone attack in 2011. His theory, that found few takers in India as it did in Pakistan, was that this group, with help from the al-Qaeda, the LeT and others had one aim: to spark a major war between India and Pakistan. Though they haven’t succeeded as yet, Talibanised officials within the Pakistani establishment will keep trying to do so.

While there was deep outrage and empathy across India following the Peshawar incident, there was also a certain amount of Schadenfreude among strategists, that the terror Pakistani groups have unleashed against its neighbour had come home to their military masters. But India can hardly afford to be complacent, given that this network of the various “Talibans” is more united and synchronised than ever, and benefits from the differences between the South Asian neighbours in the areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India it focusses on. For Pakistan, the only hope is that Mr. Sharif challenges “all the Talibans”, if he wants to steer his country away from its course over a cliff. It is hard to see how long the Pakistani leadership can refuse to see what history has taught everyone — from the ancient Turks, to the United States with the Mujahideen, to the Saudis with al-Qaeda, and even what India learnt from the LTTE experience — that sooner or later, mercenaries you engage with will turn on you, your leaders, and even your children.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 1:21:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/opinion-on-pakistani-and-afghan-taliban/article6745657.ece

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