The curious case of the cousins

The state must be engaged, present and involved in how the unease among the people can be alleviated


Shahzad Chaudhry November 26, 2021
The writer is a political, security and defence analyst. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

I t may irk some but look at the TTP Taliban as cousins of the Afghan Taliban. They first hosted the Afghan Taliban in the Waziristan(s) when the US bombed them out of their haunts in Afghanistan and then took inspiration from them to take the nomenclature with its Pakistan-suffix to establish its organisational linkage with the Afghan Taliban.

This linkage only strengthened after the Pakistani militant groups of the former FATA conglomerated in Afghanistan as the guests of their Afghan cousins when forced out under similar conditions by the Pakistani military. These operations against militant terrorism began in 2008, some outside of FATA in Swat, and slowly combed their way through the tribal agencies — now conditionally incorporated as regular territories under the K-P province — by 2016. Being from the same ethnic stock in the majority helped form this camaraderie as indeed did the overt religious connotations that underwrote their purpose.

With the Afghan Taliban back in control in Afghanistan, by default, if not de jure, they hope to find a similar arrangement for their cousins in Pakistan except they will not find capital at their feet as was the case for the Afghan Taliban — the Pakistani state is more fortunate than her western neighbour on more than many counts. But the TTP does hope to reclaim its lost enclave. This has found resonance among many of its ilk in the aftermath of the US withdrawal and the news of the TTP’s engagement with the Pakistani state for a peace settlement. The TTP seeks to restore the former status of the FATA agencies as is also now the cry of the PTM and of the Afghan Taliban in similar declarations. The Afghans may have dialed it down a bit as the adversity against their regime has only mounted and they desperately need Pakistan’s support to climb out of it but the impulse was quite naturally and explicitly visible in the initial days.

Afghan state’s conventional claims over Pakistani territory have been rather expansive over the decades but their first order of interest remains the restoration of the tertiary arrangement of the former FATA region with Pakistan. This adds up well with what the PTM too demands of the state though from an entirely opposing, ethnonationalist definition. The TTP wears the garb of its religious roots. This variation in their genetic evolution is as much a cause for an impending implosion as the two seek to establish their competitive influence and hold over the region for tribal interest. It also makes for a juicy possibility for those harbouring nefarious intent against the Pakistani state as it does for the re-initiation of the malice that such inherent tussles inevitably engender through another spate of instability and conflict. For the short-term though and insofar as immediacy demands the two main proponents for Pashtun influence may coalesce for a momentary unified interest against the state of Pakistan by adorning the more convenient ethnonationalist colour.

At the back of it will remain the traditional Afghan intent of claiming lands up to Attock and far into Balochistan. The Taliban have said so in barely muted terms in their 2.0 iteration already. One saw the PTM making no bones about it in the recently held event in Lahore though for a different purpose. They sought ‘independence’ in their slogans. The demise of the ‘Malik’ as an institution in the formerly tribal agencies has meant the rise of the cleric and the nationalist. Add to it the role of the more traditional politico-religious parties and the blooded nationalists who vie for control. PTM claimed ownership of the notional seventy thousand casualties in the twenty-year long war as its own in an exaggerated comment when attempting to frame the state for excesses in the form of fake encounters or missing persons or target killings. A significant part of Pashtun media supports such enunciations on ethnic lines with the consequent effect of generating a willful unease of the state.

Someone out there is inciting another tinderbox for the next phase of armed insurgency against the Pakistani state as pieces of it begin to fall in place. One wonders what else American presence in the region was keeping in check which now stands at the verge of unleashing. David Petraeus bemoaned recently that the check American presence had exercised on chaos in Afghanistan was now no more, ready to spread widespread harm. The TTP — the principal perpetrator of the loss of the seventy thousand lives — also seeks being allowed a political office in a third country, a la their Afghan cousins, when it negotiates with the state. That inter alia amounts to bestowing a political recognition to a disparate terror group which is a first step to a break-away state. That the dialogue is being supported under friendly coercion of a neighbour (Afghanistan) that Pakistan has chosen to carry the cross for under a most trying international environment makes it doubly complicated.

Negotiations with those who are willing to shed violence and join the mainstream is perhaps the normative way forward but whether the state has the means and the will to keep a check on those that have only known war and conflict as a way of life and have been nurtured by an economy of strife and violence remains moot. Hence the wariness and the dismal prognosis of it finding wishful fruition. Next, we will only kick the can down the road for others in the future if we choose this path to ease our own sailing through difficult times but shall have to face the consequence as a nation when we give in to one or the other group of violence, one precedence after another. The state must act as one if it must retain its integrity and credibility by invoking the law and its power of retribution if a group or an individual violates its responsibility to the state.

Terror groups are not knighted with a potential state; instead they need to be criminalised if they don’t give up their ways and disciplined through law for excesses they commit. K-P province and its enterprising people have always held a liberalist tradition of ethno-nationalist identity and prided in riwaj. To extend it to anti-nationalist hues with militancy and terrorism betrays the norms in a nation-state. One sees the making of a toxic mix which may in time ferment to challenge the state even if it will ultimately end up being fratricidal for its foundational variations and competitive urge to wrest control. The PTM leader was explicit when he invoked the preciousness of the region in mineral and material wealth and the absence of the state in making the people of these regions equal beneficiaries of programmes like CPEC. We have seen this movie before.

If the state was amiss then it must not be found missing again. The state must be engaged, present and involved in how the unease among the people of those regions can be appeased and alleviated. It may still be tough going but it is worth the pain, and blood, for a little longer now than deal with it as an existential sore later.

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