The changing Taliban

Published: July 4, 2012
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

Maulvi Fazlullah was evicted from Swat in 2009 after a copybook operation by the Pakistan army. While thousands supporting the rebel cause were arrested, Fazlullah made good his escape to Fata where he was followed, eventually landing across the border in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces. It is from here now that he pursues the Pakistan army with ruthless tactics of abducting soldiers on posts and patrol and slitting their throats to cause fear, a tactic first brought to the region by the Uzbeks headed by Tahir Yuldashev.

In 2009, when US President Barack Obama granted a frugal surge of 33,000 troops to General Stanley McChrystal against his much larger demand, the general chose to modify his mission. He vacated the distant outposts strung along the border regions and in the rural areas, preferring instead to defend major towns in force. This is when most adjoining regions of Fata on the Afghan side went outside the writ of the Afghan government and became a freeway for the movement of Taliban militants of all hues. These regions include the bordering provinces of Nuristan and Kunar where Fazlullah now reigns, and Paktia and Paktika from where Jalaluddin Haqqani conducts operations in Afghanistan. This move by McChrystal not only ceded critical space to the Taliban, it also rubbished any pretensions of an anvil-and-hammer strategy that was popularly propounded when the US and Pakistan resumed their operational focus on fighting the war in 2008.

The enemy in this war has changed face over time. What began as a war against al Qaeda soon had the Taliban in its cross hairs. And, while Mullah Omar was the declared head of the Taliban, he was never pursued with any intensity by the US. Instead, it is the Haqqanis who caught America’s fancy. Though they remain the most vilified, they have yet to be proscribed by the US. And while the US has engaged drone targets with abandon in Pakistani space, for most part, the Haqqanis have been spared attention. As things stand in this war today, al Qaeda, America’s original target, is neutralised; and the Taliban, America’s newer quarry, specifically in the shape of the Haqqanis, remain the most visible entity. The broader formulation of the Taliban are a loose group of Afghan and Pakistani affiliates who have coalesced around the Haqqanis and continue to offer resistance to Nato/Isaf when working in tandem. They also target the Pakistani state when acting independently based on their Pakistan-specific agenda. The Quetta Shura, as Mullah Omar’s group is called, has chosen to remain obscure even while its affiliates contest the presence of foreign forces on its behalf. The Haqqanis on the other hand have stuck to their part of the mission.

Money, too, has played its part. With al Qaeda, when funds were aplenty, groups mushroomed under its umbrella to act as its foot soldiers. When its influence waned and diffused to other regions in the larger Middle East, the Taliban became the paymasters for most small groups. While contributions did come from religious and individual charities around the world, the funding was liberally augmented by the drug trade, and by taxing the movement of men and material through the regions under Taliban control. This attracted smaller groups to the Taliban (read the Haqqanis) and added impetus to operations against foreign forces.

Three specific groups with Pakistani roots form this augmented force: the Tehreek-i-Taliban-Pakistan under Hakeemullah Mehsud, the Maulvi Fazlullah group, and splinters from at least three major sectarian/Kashmiri outfits. Two others, the Mangal Bagh group and the Tariq Afridi group are more local in influence but will offer their services to the Taliban in the wider franchise for a suitable quid pro quo.

There is little likelihood that any of these groups is driven by genuine ideological motivation. Instead, money has spawned their growth. To supplement their resources, these groups resort to frequent abductions for ransom, carjacking and other crimes, major or minor. Such criminality will be easier to handle when the garb of ideological underpinning is removed from under the umbrella below which these groups claim relevance in the local communities where they operate. The religious mantle that al Qaeda claimed, and Mullah Omar inherited, is now pinned on the Haqqanis, for they remain the most visible entity continuing their defiance of the international forces and are thus easier to characterise as the bearers of the ideological tradition that first spawned the Afghan effort against Nato/Isaf.  With the exit of the Haqqanis from Pakistan’s tribal areas the Pakistani state will have an easier qualification to pursue these groups as criminal outfits and not as insurgent groups which can engender a different reactive dynamic altogether.

Fazalullah’s forays against the Pakistani state are emblematic of the same approach. As the war approaches its end in Afghanistan, he hopes to establish his credentials by cowing the state into some accommodation. His objectives remain pretty obvious: relevance, power to influence and domination of the region of his influence, and thus the ability to tax the freedom of all who will live under his lien. While he pursues his own motives with the Pakistani state, unbeknown to him or perhaps in convenient cahoots, he paves the way for a more heinous agenda of those external elements that wish for Pakistan to remain in the muddle even as war winds down in rest of the region. If Pakistan neglects these developments it does so at its own risk and that is why it is imperative to stop Fazlullah from his deadly mission. The state’s full power must be brought to bear against him.

It is essential that the war must now cease and all foreign groups residing in Pakistan exit our regions. That remains our best chance to cleanse our tribal regions from convolutions that have evolved with time. Without untangling this complex web the treatment of the malaise will remain elusive.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • sidjeen
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:04AM

    just terminate the services of their handlers inside the establishment. the rest will take care of itself.


  • Basit
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:10AM

    The superpower completely and utterly failed in actually defeating the taliban and now wants to pin the blame on Pakistan. By overly relying on small number of special forces, air strikes and unruly and untrustworthy Afghan warlords, the US has itself to blame for its loss in Afghanistan.

    US military commanders are lost in their maze of acronyms and made up terms in their field manuals while they ignore the basics of good soldiering that they knew some 70 years ago.


  • Babloo
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:20AM

    “It is essential that the war must now cease and all foreign groups residing in Pakistan exit our regions.”
    What about strategic assets / groups armed, trained, sheltered by the agencies , in exchange of money and security, to do the bidding ?


  • masood
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:31AM

    Its nice to read the Air Marshal saying all this. The ordinarry people whose lives have been wrecked along the border have been saying this for years. One wonders how fazalullah escaped when the nose was so tight around him and how for years the State allowed him to have fun in Swat. If we are not willing to get to the bottom of this and put the Pakistani people first and everything else second this game will go on


  • Falcon
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:51AM

    An informative article. I think this is the key point: as long as we keep analyzing political ambitions as religious ambitions, we will keep devising wrong strategies. Pakistan’s best strategy is to de-legitimize religious hypocrisy of these groups to expose their political interests and then move to contain them. Otherwise, they will keep shielding themselves by fooling the naive locals against the state.


  • mahmood
    Jul 5, 2012 - 1:38AM

    It is essential that the war must now cease and all foreign groups residing in Pakistan exit our regions.
    Air Marshal, you and yours have been thrusting war down our throats for the past two generations. People’s welfare…….the nation’s prosperity……these were alien concepts to you as you pursued conflict all around us, in the process decimating vital institutions, which brought misery to a country that otherwise was full of promise and potential. And now you say this war must cease. Do you plan to start a new war after this one ceases, or just continue with the easier-to-manage war on 180million people’s political rights.


  • Waziristani
    Jul 5, 2012 - 1:57AM

    Dear writer, Mulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gulbahader is missing in your article. The reason may be that they are good taliban.


  • ayesha_khan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 7:12AM

    @Basit: “The superpower completely and utterly failed in actually defeating the taliban and now wants to pin the blame on Pakistan.”

    It is US which is occupying Afghanistan and Haqqanis who are living in caves for the last 10 years. US has achieved most other objectives too. Significantly disrupt Al Qaeda financing, kill Osama, prevent terror attacks on its own land and that of its allies.

    The thing it is blaming Pakitan for i.e. providing safe haven to Haqqanis who attack NATO/ISAF is true. IT is also duplicitous given that Pakistan claims to be a US ally in the war on terror and has even been claiming coaliation support funds.


  • kaalchakra
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:24AM

    Wazirastani, Sir, people fighting on behalf of Pakistan, battling anti-Pakistan nationalist forces that are agents of Iran, Afghanistan, USA, and India must be supported. We are not speaking of them here, but of foreign forces that don’t always work with us.


  • observer
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:58AM

    There are two ways of looking at the internal dynamics of the AfPak border areas.

    A. Taliban(Haqqani Variety) is feted and pampered as Pakistani proxy for ‘strategic depth’ extending westwards. Corrollary to that is the creation of TTP (Fazalullah and Hkimullah variety) by the Afghans for ‘strategic depth’ extending eastwards.

    B. The local population, which is predomionantly Pushtun/Tribal, is bent upon having a Shariah compliant regime for itself, whether it is delivered by Madarassa Haqqania ideologues or the thinkers of TNSM, is only incidental.

    The first interpretation indicates outsider control, the second local desires.

    Take your pick.


  • Raza Khan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:38AM

    Till such time we do not fully convince ourselves that Talibans are our enemy nothing will change! They are war lords and only understand force which can be applied by army. There are no good or bad Talibans, they all are bad & terrorists & out to destroy Pakistan.


  • A J Khan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:46AM

    USA has produced so many and so much of variety of talabans that it will be very difficult for Pakistan to handle them after the US/NATO/ISAF vacates Afghanistan. Pakistan will have no option but to show them the road to Kashmir.


  • niaz
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:52PM

    @ author! Do you really think that US wants to give a final and permanant defeat to Taliban? I dont think so. From day 1, they do not want to locate quetta shura or Haqqni;s and just like they provided escape to OBL in 2001 near Tora Bora to keep the war going, they want to keep some level of pasthun taliban presence. Because once reconciliation is done, these fighters can be of great asset to US to use against Iran and some factions of them against Pakistan. Their prsence will also justify permanant US bases in afghanistan.


  • zoro
    Jul 5, 2012 - 3:52PM

    Everybody knows Retd Gen Musharraf personally congradulated Lakhwi when he brought an Indian soilders head to him … The practice is still carried on .. and it will end when some BIG head will be cut off … Time will tell whose head it will be ..


  • zoro
    Jul 5, 2012 - 3:55PM

    “Money aplenty” I wonder who was supplying Al Quaida with so much of funds … I am really scratching my head !!!!


  • zoro
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:02PM

    “It is essential that the war must now cease and all foreign groups residing in Pakistan exit our regions” The author conviniently forgets that he too was a part of the same organisation which nurtured armed and fed the same people he is asking to leave now ..


  • Nand
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:30PM

    @A J Khan: ‘Pakistan will have no option but to show them the road to Kashmir.’
    Please let us have your itinerary so that we can give you a welcome at arrival, Indian style


  • Imran Con
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:37PM

    @A J Khan:
    Yeah. Pakistan’s support/looking the other way and glorification of it through groups such as DPC totally repulses people to the idea of joining in.


  • Author
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:41PM


    Some remarks on this page are from well informed readers. Waziristani happens to be one such. Though I am certain he will also know that both Mullah Nazir and Gul Bahadur are more local warlords than the Taliban by any chance. True, they retain an affiliation with Haqqani, almost acting his hosts, but minus Haqqani they will neither have interests in Afghanistan nor outside of North Waziristan. They also do not challenge the state. Since the focus of this article is the Taliban and the need for the Haqqanis to spare our regions further honor of hosting him along with his clan, Pakistan seeks an end to the war and for that an important onus lies on Pakistan and push peace so that our guests have a chance to exit. With that will begin the internal putsch. If Mullah Nazir and Gul Bahadur seem to change their role they will have to contend with compatible treatment.
    It serves no purpose to alienate a couple more against the state when the plate is already full and the task beyond 2014 is cut out.
    Hope that explains the absence of the two. Though TWO BROWNIES to Waziristani.


  • Jul 5, 2012 - 5:50PM

    “He vacated the distant outposts strung along the border regions and in the rural areas, preferring instead to defend major towns in force. This is when most adjoining regions of Fata on the Afghan side went outside the writ of the Afghan government and became a freeway for the movement of Taliban militants of all hues. “

    I don’t think its as simple as that. NATO simply tried to hit 2 birds with one stone.

    1) US just didn’t see any strategic advantage of holding onto these Territories.
    2) US knew and wanted this area to be occupied by the Taliban fleeing Pakistan just so that they can trouble Pakistan just like the Haqqanis are troubling them.

    They got their wish when this happened.

    “However, the offer is linked with the Pakistani military agreeing to eliminate alleged sanctuaries of the Haqqani network on its side of the border, diplomatic sources revealed.”

    I don’t see any reason why the US will agree to any US or Pakistani action on the safe havens unless the ones in Waziristan are eliminated by Pakistan.

    Brilliant move by the US!


  • tnt
    Jul 7, 2012 - 8:12PM

    seem the defence analyst did not learn anything from history. How are u going to “cleanse” the tribal area? the lack of understanding of tribal area has led to many problems. u just cannot cleanse the tribal area, u cannot just interfere with them, they will hate u for it.
    The best solution is to take the tribal elders into confidence, help them with weapons and money and let them cleanse the area. as long as the army tries to do that, the locals will develop hatred.


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