The two Taliban

Published October 20, 2013

MANY Pakistanis are confused about the true nature of the Taliban and the Taliban movement. But some can clearly distinguish between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and see the former as a legitimate resistance force fighting against foreign occupants in their homeland. This perception exists even if Pakistani Taliban reject the impression that they are different from the Afghan Taliban.

In fact, many believe that Pakistani Taliban groups are not deserving of sympathy and label them as foreign agents, criminals and thugs. But then again, there are others who give them maximum concessions and say the Pakistani Taliban are a misled lot of militants.

This shows that there is confusion about the Pakistani Taliban — and this is reflected in the difference of opinion among policymakers, political and religious parties, the media and the general public.

Taking advantage of the confusion that prevails, the Afghan Taliban groups operating across the Pak-Afghan border camouflage themselves in Pakistan’s doctrine of strategic depth, and render policy responses even more confused. At the same time, they have also managed to gradually reduce the space for Pakistan to use them as a tool of strategic manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

One reason behind the lack of clear policy on Pakistan’s part could be the ambiguity and confusion among its policymakers on the use of the Taliban as a balancing factor in Afghanistan.

Apart from the so-called strategic perspective of the debate, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have many commonalities and few divergences. Although they hail from two different territories, they do not believe in geographical boundaries. Indeed, the Taliban’s (Afghan and Pakistani) main strength lies in their ties with each other which they use to launch common operations in Afghanistan.

In the eyes of some, the Pakistani Taliban gain political and moral legitimacy by associating themselves with the Afghan Taliban. Their tribal and ethnic ties provide them with social space and acceptance among a segment of society.

If the Afghan Taliban succeed in Afghanistan, at a certain stage they will have to choose between their militant allies and Pakistan. There is greater likelihood of their joining the former.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership, especially its first chief Baitullah Mehsud, tried to portray the outfit as a movement under Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban. Every militant faction that wished to join the TTP had to take an oath of commitment to the enforcement of the Sharia and loyalty to Mullah Omar. By doing so, he hoped to gain more legitimacy and further portray his struggle as legitimate and Afghanistan-focused.

Baitullah Mehsud was aware that operating as an anti-Pakistan group openly aiming to target the Pakistani state would quickly generate widespread opposition, and therefore he used the TTP’s ideological, ethnic and socio-political ties with the Afghan Taliban to stress upon a natural cohesion between their operations and goals.

The relationship between the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a post-9/11 story. It goes back to when the Afghan Taliban’s consolidation of power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s impacted Pakistan’s tribal areas in two ways. First, the ethnic and religious affinity of the tribes with the Taliban augmented the latter’s support base, and secondly, the influence of Deobandi militant organisations and madressahs increased in the region.

During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, attempts to establish a similar religious/Sharia system in the tribal areas had already begun. For example, Mullah Abdul Raheem, a cleric from Orakzai Agency, launched his own Taliban movement in Orakzai in 1997 and tried to enforce the Sharia.

At their core, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban espouse Deobandi sectarian teachings. This commonality allows them to function under a single umbrella, even though their political interpretation of Deobandi principles is at times not monolithic. As a group, both the Taliban maintain a dogmatic stance by espousing an interpretation that is intolerant of all other Muslim sects. This ought to isolate both strands of Taliban from the majority of Pakistanis who adhere to Barelvi traditions.

However, this was only partially the case when the insurgency took off, as the Pakistani Taliban craftily created a narrative around their movement that found sympathy across the sectarian divide. They strove to portray their struggle as aiming at driving out foreign “occupation” forces from Afghanistan in the short run, and all “infidel” forces from Muslim lands in the long run.

It is an open secret that in both countries, many militant groups, a number of whom were previously part of Pakistan’s foreign policy adventures, turned against the state after Islamabad joined the international alliance aimed at fighting the militants based in Afghanistan and in the Pak-Afghan border areas.

Militant groups quickly began to project themselves as saviours of the Muslim ummah against the Western ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan and built support for their new jihad. This gave birth to a broader jihadist brotherhood in the region.

The government did not realise at that time that their strategies would spur fresh militancy in the region, instead of defeating Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s focus was to mainly capture Al Qaeda militants, and it strategically overlooked the domestic sources of militancy.

On the other side, two major divergent trends can be found between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban — their tribal and nationalistic credentials. The Afghan Taliban remained in power and were considered legitimate nationalist actors in Afghan politics; but the Pakistani Taliban have no such advantage.

In the absence of its own political and nationalistic credentials, a religious ideological drive became dominant in Pakistani Taliban groups, which led them to develop stronger bonds with Al Qaeda. At the same time, they tried to take up the agenda of Islamisation in Pakistan, which was once the primary objective of the country’s religious political parties.

Do these divergent characteristics between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban offer enough reason for Pakistani policymakers to treat them as separate entities? And are these reasons enough for the Afghan Taliban to distinguish themselves from the Pakistani Taliban? That remains to be seen.

The writer is a political analyst.

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