Who is a terrorist — and who isn’t — in Pakistan?

Published: March 3, 2013
The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

Debate over the merits of peace talks with the Taliban has been raging for months. One camp maintains that it is the only way of ending the campaign of violence, since military campaigns have not had any long-term impact. The other argues that entering into a dialogue with criminal actors gives a level of legitimacy that the Taliban don’t deserve: how can you negotiate with terrorists? In the latest development, a grouping of 30 mainstream political, religious, and civil society groupings have agreed to negotiate peace through an expanded tribal jirga formed by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F (JUI-F). There are several question marks over this plan — not least the fact that the current government has just a few weeks left in office before its five-year term comes to an end.

The group has agreed on a five-point declaration, which states: “Practical steps should be taken to end lawlessness and we support every process of negotiations resulting in the establishment of rule of law in the country.” The declaration does not use the word “terrorism”, opting instead for the more euphemistic “lawlessness.” Clearly, the tension between wanting diplomacy and not wanting to legitimise militants has not been entirely resolved. The difference between “lawlessness: and “terrorism” may seem like a minor semantic quibble, but the controversy over the latter term points to wider issues about what constitutes terrorism and how the state responds to it.

According to reports, the final choice of wording came after some tension between the JUI-F and representatives of the PPP, who insisted on using the word “terrorism”, while the JUI-F maintained that it could alienate the Taliban and other militant groups with whom they have agreed to hold negotiations. There is no doubt that there is controversy around the terminology — in short, the Taliban do not like being called terrorists. In September 2012, the US officially designated the Haqqani Network a terrorist organisation, prompting immediate condemnation from the Afghan Taliban and a suicide attack in Kabul.

Nowadays, the PPP takes a strong rhetorical stance on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups, but it was not always thus. Until very recently the party shied away from referring to these groups as “terrorists”, opting instead for the less inflammatory “banned groups.” Detractors claim this was due to the same fear that has allowed these extremist groups to occupy so much political and social space, as well as a deep-seated ambivalence towards such organisations. At a recent event in London, a representative of the High Commission of Pakistan disputed this, telling me that words such as “extremist” and “terrorist” are just fashionable terms coined by the Western media. He pointed out the inconsistency of how these terms are applied, drawing a comparison between the present day, when the US and its allies unequivocally condemn the Taliban as a terrorist organisation, and the 1980s, when it was seen as a legitimate insurgency against the Soviet occupation.

What makes someone a terrorist, and why is the use of the word so fraught? The CIA defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” Clearly, there is some space here for interpretation. While in its broadest sense, the word terrorist simply refers to the use of violence or intimidation for political ends, it implies something illegitimate, which is why militant groups from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to the Tamil Tigers, to the Taliban have denied that they fit into this category. As the age-old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Certainly, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent and ongoing covert drone war in Pakistan’s tribal area has drastically increased the social capital of the Taliban. In the Pashtun heartlands, many see the group primarily as one that is fighting against an occupying force. Those in these areas suffer the most from militancy and the Taliban’s brutality, but they suffer, too, from drones and foreign soldiers. The view that the Afghan Taliban is legitimately fighting a foreign invasion and defending its homeland is held across Pakistan. Even in the metropolitan areas, far removed from the fighting, people frequently express this opinion, even as they condemn the TTP, the Afghan Taliban’s Pakistani brother, for its relentless campaign against civilians on home turf. This ambivalence underlines the complexity of these definitions: objectively, what actually divides these groups? Is it the presence of an occupying force? Or merely the fact that one is further away?

The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crucial part of defining terrorism. It is difficult to see a coherent political rationale behind the wanton victimisation of innocent Shias, or attacks designed to inflict the maximum civilian casualties. The aim of this is only to spread intimidation and fear: the very definition of terrorism. The counter-argument to this would be that all acts of war, not least drone strikes, involve civilian deaths, but although this so-called collateral damage is unacceptably high, there is still a difference between this and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants.

The ambiguities and biases inherent in the term “terrorism: mean that it is easy to see why some are sceptical about its use. Western governments, in particular, are guilty of repeatedly supporting insurgencies abroad before turning on them, labelling them terrorists, and absolving themselves of responsibility for the consequences: freedom fighters until they are no longer convenient.

In Pakistan, the continued debate about the very use of the term “terrorist” in relation to a group which is clearly committing frequent acts of terrorism demonstrates a deep-seated uncertainty about how best to seek a solution. Across the world, governments have entered into talks with groups they define as terrorist; the Good Friday Agreement that brought about a ceasefire in Northern Ireland was reached after years of talks between Britain and the political representatives of the IRA. If Pakistan’s stakeholders cannot even agree on how they view the TTP and associated groups as a basic starting point for talks, it is difficult to see how anything fruitful can come out of the discussion.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2013.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (36)

  • Imran Kazmi
    Mar 4, 2013 - 12:15AM

    The problem is not that we do not want to finish TTP. The problem is we can not do it given our resources. TTP have severly damaged us economically, politically and socially. They have the upper hand now! Politicians are scared of them, and so is army. This is time for peace negotiations because war is in their favor!


  • Parvez
    Mar 4, 2013 - 12:18AM

    Nicely said.
    The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the terrorist / extremist / Taliban / bad guy is smarter than both the government and our security establishment combined. The reason for this is that they have nothing to loses (dying for them is not a problem), as an entity they could be termed as robust or anti-fragile. While we ( our leaders ) on the other hand have everything to lose but lack the will to defend ourselves and are floundering making myopic compromises. We ( the people who have received nothing from the leaders ) in our frustration are trying to decided which way to jump and many have decided.


  • Azhar Ayaz
    Mar 4, 2013 - 12:41AM

    very pertinent analysis..intersting read.


  • Carl Glynn
    Mar 4, 2013 - 1:13AM

    A group like the IRA had clear political (and only political) goals. It was easy to see how some form of compromise could be reached with them – in this case a form of power sharing in Northern Ireland.

    But what are the actual goals of a group like the TTP? An implementation of strict sharia? The restoration of the caliphate? A cleansing of Pakistan of all “western” influences? If you are a “liberal” Pakistani and wanted your country to be a reasonable place in which to live, what could you actually negotiate with these groups about?


  • Reas
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:54AM

    Altaf Hussain warn well ahead of time that TTP are gathering and focusing Karachi to destabilize Pakistan.. It was not only ignored.it was unfortunately misunderstood.


  • khattak
    Mar 4, 2013 - 3:00AM

    it is Pakistan officially declared policy to use these cheap forces(label it taliban etc) to gain foreign policy achievements & to translate it into econmic achievments. The establishments/army is very successful in this regard. They have made 100% profit at the cost of 40000 dead/injured Pathans watans out of population of around 200 million. Not a bad deal.


  • Arindom
    Mar 4, 2013 - 3:37AM

    why all this confusion?
    why can’t you just fight anyone who is holding a gun and killing people?


  • Observer
    Mar 4, 2013 - 3:55AM

    @Imran Kazmi:

    “The problem is we can not do it given our resources.”

    Pakistan has the fifth or sixth largest military force in the world not counting police and other paramilitary forces. How does that amount to not enough “resources” to kill off a few thousand terrorists?


  • MSS
    Mar 4, 2013 - 4:41AM

    If the PPP, Jui and PML still talking semantics then there is no hope. If the army units are afraid to go in TTP areas then use the air power and support the US drone strategy. Allow TTP more time and space, the job is going to get harder. It is hard to understand what is Pakistani nation paying to maintain a huge army PAF for if An illegal terrorist outfit can’t be challenged to modify its ways?
    All other arguments are a waste of time. The aim should be clear – seek and destroy TTP and its sympathisers.


  • Raj Kafir
    Mar 4, 2013 - 4:41AM

    Dr Afia Siddiqui, a terrorist is not a terrorist in Pakistan.


  • Gp65
    Mar 4, 2013 - 6:48AM

    @Imran Kazmi:
    So according to you in 8 years of pow wow with Taliban you decided that they have the upper hand and you cannot win the peace with them – you have to negotiate. But 4 wars and 65 years of hostility where you have never won have not convinced you that you cannot win Kashmir? In fact all these hate factories which generate the TTP came into existence precisely to try to win Kashmir. Even today if you shut the hate factories down – by which I mean the wall chalkings, hateful textbooks, angry Friday sermons etc. you can starve the TTP of its human fodder. Sadly you hate India more than you love Pakistan.


  • Gp65
    Mar 4, 2013 - 7:09AM

    Agree with most of what you say. But using air power on one’s own people is not a solution. It will be like another swat where civilians suffer and terrorists escape.

    When Chidambaram wanted to use our air force against Maoists, the Airforce chief flat out refused. He said we are not trained to bomb our own citizens. Chidambaram went to the courts and came back empty handed on the issue.

    The Pakistani army has to use tried and tested counter insurgency methods to overpower TTP. While the army leadership may be quite willing to put the brave soldiers as cannon fodder, they do not want their own lives to be at risk the way ANP and PPP leadership has been killed.


  • Truth_Prevails
    Mar 4, 2013 - 8:49AM

    @Carl Glynn: You got it wrong. TTP are a bunch of ruthless murderers and thugs who have evolved from street looters to dacoits to kidnappers and to what they are now. They have no ideology. They don’t even understand and practice the basic tenents of Islam, leave alone them implementing Sharia’h. You simply have to run them over but our political parties are disgustingly cheap. They only consider their own political money making interests!Recommend

  • ALi
    Mar 4, 2013 - 10:29AM

    @ Raj Kafir Dr Afia Siddiqui, a terrorist is not a terrorist in Pakistan

    Goes both ways, as Bal Thakeray, a terrorist is not a terrorist in India


  • Mar 4, 2013 - 10:54AM

    TTP is not fighting a foreign force or foreign occupier of their land and can not be termed as freedom fighter . They can be termed as terrorist who are using violent means to impose their will of a unspecific rule of sharia as interpreted by them against the will of people . Girls’ education, music dance and so many other activities assumed to be un islamic by them is unacceptable to them. If you are hesitant to term them terrorists it is grossly wrong and apologist..Military is well capable to control them provided civil leadership are willing to own the collateral damage which may incur in the process. In case of status quo the situation is in favour of Army willing to rule by proxy as the chaotic situation( which is uncontrollable.under civilian rule, ) is conducive for their role and importance.

    However, hopefully peace be given one more chance to prevail though expectations are low..


  • observer
    Mar 4, 2013 - 11:05AM

    Who is a terrorist — and who isn’t — in Pakistan?

    Let me see.

    Anyone who targets

    Ahmadis, Shias, Hindus, Christians and fallen Muslims like Salman Taseer is not a Terrorist.

    Anyone who protests against any of the above is a Secular/Liberal Extremist and hence a terrorist.


  • Mirza
    Mar 4, 2013 - 11:35AM

    This Op Ed says a whole lot of nothing and concludes nothing. IRA were fighting for their rights in their own homeland against British occupation. TTP consists of most foreigners and foreign financed people who want to implement strict version of Sharia on all Pakistanis by force. There is no freedom movement involved and do not try to confuse the war in Afghanistan with the war of terror unleashed by TTP on Pakistani civilians using Pakistani territory. Even in presence of TTP, the people of KPK have elected a secular govt of ANP/PPP not the rightwing mullahs. TTP are like militant Israeli settlers who are using guns to suppress the local populace.


  • SD
    Mar 4, 2013 - 12:50PM

    It seems it is fashionable in Pakistan to call Bal Thakarey a terrorist.


  • MSS
    Mar 4, 2013 - 1:20PM

    You have a point about the use of air force on Pakistan’s own population. However, PAF has already bombed the border areas where the boundary is blurred and I suspect even inside Pakistan. Pakistan is different from India. The courts are not necessarly focused and have not ruled against US drones. It would be a travesty to allow US attacks from the air but disallow PAF to do the same. But then you never know, it is Pakistan where contradictions are ignored.


  • Burjor
    Mar 4, 2013 - 1:41PM

    Who is a terrorist? Pakistan is failed state. Period. In a failed state, everything is failing, it does not matter, who is and who is not a terrorist. Words do not matter.


  • Maxwood
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:09PM

    @ SD

    you are right, One should’nt say like this


  • Raj Kafir
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:29PM

    @ALi: Saab, A Terrorist is always a terrorist whether it is Dr Afia Siddique or Bal Thackray…


  • Raj Kafir
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:37PM

    @ALi: By commenting you accepted that Bal Thackray and Dr Afia Siddiqui fall in the same category…


  • andy fr dc
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:51PM

    The writer seems unaware that her opinion is irrelevant. In Pakistan only the Generals count, and the Pak Generals decided 12 years ago to hide OBL and support the Taliban. Now that Frankenstein is coming back to repay Pakistan .
    Do Enjoy the fruits of Pakistan’s investment in terror. I know I am.


  • Hassan
    Mar 4, 2013 - 2:55PM

    The irony- TTP are ‘terrorists’ for Pakistanis, Afghan Taliban are ‘freedom fighters’ , LeJ are now terrorists, but LeT ,JeM ,HuJI, Al-Qaeda and so forth are not eh? Why these double standards.
    Freedom fighters until they are no longer convenient..So true , but that brings into mind the question- convenient for who?
    All the above outfits are terrorists, just like the IRA, LTTE etc are. No two ways about it.


  • Fareed
    Mar 4, 2013 - 3:05PM

    You are really pathetic ET, censoring my posts isnt less a terrorist attack in itself. ET where everyone can read selected and censored posts


  • amoghavarsha.ii
    Mar 4, 2013 - 4:23PM

    Chidambaram never suggested airial bombing, he was more into airial reconisance which is still done.
    Also chidambaram did not go to court to get approval for arial bombing !!!!
    Govt. does not need court order to defend its people atleast in india.


  • amoghavarsha.ii
    Mar 4, 2013 - 4:30PM

    @ALI and others, bringing in BAL Thackrey.

    I do not endorse BAL Thackrey’s politics and not his supporter too.
    If you do not know about a person then do not speak or write about them.
    BAL Thackrey was not a terrorist, he never advocated killing of inocents to prove his religion was great.
    Neither did he fight for rights of people with guns/bombs.
    He was never hiding also.
    When he died there were great people condoling for him.
    Who is Dr. Afia is best known to your ISI/Pakistan Army rather than common civiliance like you.
    Bal thackrey is known to many commoners in mumbai.


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 4, 2013 - 4:54PM

    There is no terrorist in classical term, in Pakistan. And if ET trashes it I shall stop blogging on Express Tribune.

    Rex Minor


  • amoghavarsha.ii
    Mar 4, 2013 - 5:02PM

    thankyou for posting my comments after long time.
    you had not posted many which I taught was right.
    hope there is some guidlines too to make sure our post is published.


  • Bharat
    Mar 4, 2013 - 8:04PM

    Taliban is same as Tehreek. Since Pakistan army supported US to invade Afghanistan. The Taliban are now attacking Pakistan for supporting US


  • ashok
    Mar 5, 2013 - 3:09AM

    Let me ask the readers two simple questions.

    Who were the real terrorists for the 55% population of Pakistan living in the eastern wing in 1971?

    Most of the Paksitanis know the answer by now, whether openly admitting or not.

    Who are the REAL terrorist now in Pakistan?

    Those who brainwash, aid and abate the guilible young Muslim males to take up arms and furnish them arms, funds, training, shelter and logistics to attain their selfish goals, all in the name of Islam.


  • Jamshed
    Mar 5, 2013 - 7:55AM

    “Who is a terrorist — and who isn’t — in Pakistan?”
    The outside world has been struggling with this issue for some time now.


  • Mar 5, 2013 - 9:10PM

    Dr.Afridi, the man who helped find the top notorious global terrorist Osama Bin Laden who was chilling in Abbottabad, was quickly declared a terrorist (on trumped up charges of LeI links) and locked up in record time.

    People don’t realize that TTP has many members who were part of LeJ, as well as the Afghan Taliban. All of whom support each other and openly claimed innocent lives. People don’t realize how much some untouchable members of our society and institutions have supported and contributed to these twisted criminal groups.

    So not surprised by the lack of progress in tackling extremism and terrorism and high tolerance for insane violence in all these years, when there’s a high amount of overlap of religious nationalist ideology and deluded narrative that has been shared and propagated among the Pak majority masses and institutions.


  • Angel of peace
    Mar 6, 2013 - 6:09PM

    Absolute nonsense do you think administration has not lost his worth.Just see in a way that the forces of destruction have funded these TTP mercenaries and effected our basic roots of our society.


  • Hasan Mehmood
    Mar 6, 2013 - 11:35PM

    @Imran Kazmi:
    {The problem is not that we do not want to finish TTP. The problem is we can not do it given our resources}
    Thats a very unrealistic comment. The whole point is that we have still not used our full resources. How could we when even now the majority of intelligentsia / political leadership / Ulema / media etc have not termed the TTP as Enemy of State deserving full scale elimination. If we develop a national consensus, go after them and their supporters with single minded determination and still fail a few years down the line, maybe peace talks will be in order. Right now we have not even tried. That’s what really hurts.


More in Opinion