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Taliban 2.0

Updated February 16, 2014


THE best thing about the Pakistani Taliban was that you could count on them to do something stupid.

They got Swat and should have consolidated first. But they spilled out into neighbouring districts, flogged a teenaged girl and denounced democracy. Advantage lost.

It didn’t matter much if the state was weak and vacillating because the TTP would do something egregious and force the state into responding.

That was then.

Now, you keep waiting and waiting and waiting for the critical misstep, the mistake too far, but it never seems to come. Welcome to the TTP v2.0.

It began before Fazlullah became head honcho, but has become more pronounced on his watch. That makes sense: Fazlullah has the benefit of hindsight, having survived the Swat debacle five years ago.

But it’s not just Fazlullah and it’s something more: the TTP 2.0 is beginning to understand what makes Pakistan tick.

Before, and loosely, it was a bunch of far-away cavemen who thought the best way to get what they wanted was to blow lots of stuff up.

They didn’t understand Pakistan — Pakistan proper anyway, the country outside the anachronistic Fata — and Pakistan didn’t understand them.

But TTP 2.0 is different. It’s got inside the head of Pakistan. It’s figured out the pressure points and vulnerabilities and it’s learning to exploit them.

And that makes them more dangerous than a thousand suicide bombers or twenty thousand fighters.

Because, in messing with our heads, the TTP has learned possibly the only thing we couldn’t have afforded them to learn — that what it can’t get through force, it can get through manipulation.

Asymmetric warfare was hard enough for the state to learn. But learn it did — kinda — because the Taliban kept forcing its hand. They would grab land here and there, always push for more, fight and blow up stuff — and then, overreach.

They’d get too greedy, hit the wrong target, push too hard. The lumbering state would be forced into a response by either military necessity or public opinion.

The Taliban 2.0 still does all of that stuff. They haven’t suddenly become military geniuses. But what they are becoming are masters of manipulation.

And the state simply has no answer.

See what the expanded bag of tricks has allowed TTP 2.0 to do. A year ago, for the first time, the TTP inserted itself into the national political process.

Going into the election, the TTP drew a neat line down the middle: PPP, ANP, MQM on the wrong side; PML-N and PTI talked about encouragingly.

The stick it threatened to wield against one end of the political spectrum mattered less than the carrot it dangled in front of the other end of the spectrum. But that’s been parsed before.

Fast forward to the more recent past.

For the TTP to be squeezed, three sides need to align: the army, the political government and public opinion. But the TTP has figured out that those sides can also be played against one another.

Here’s how it’s worked. New government comes in mid-year and there are rumblings that the army will push to sort out the nastiest bits of the TTP.

So the need, from the TTP perspective, is to drive a wedge between the army’s intentions and the government’s will.

KP gets hit. Again and again. Soft targets, hard targets, anything and everything. Kitchen sink kind of stuff.

Punjab, which is running Islamabad, looks up at KP and blanches. We don’t want that here, Punjab, which is running Islamabad, thinks.

So dialogue is mooted. Wedge driven.

Now, the TTP refocuses. The targets narrow. Too much fire and brimstone rained down on a divided public leads to too much hostility.

So fewer market bombings and random acts, and more of the old stuff like going after cinemas and sundry guilty pleasures.

Song and dance, movies, theatre — there’s enough public ambivalence about whether they are culturally appropriate and religiously permissible to not trigger a wave of revulsion or anger when they’re hit.

If the soft targets are selected more discerningly, the hard targets are picked more liberally.

The army is Enemy No 1. The TTP is always aching to hit it.

Now, having driven a wedge and postponed an operation, the TTP can attack its nemesis. So it does. And all the army can do is limited retaliation.

And since it’s not always easy to get directly at the military, the wider security nexus is whacked too: police, paramilitaries, civilian forces.

See how that works?

When fearful of a military operation, TTP 2.0 ignites fresh fear in the politicians to stave off action. But sowing fear in the politicians comes at the cost of alienating the public, so once TTP 2.0 has bought itself some more time, it recalibrates its attacks.

And once that recalibration leads to pressure anew from the army on the politicians (because the army is made to look weak and vulnerable), the TTP 2.0 can repeat the cycle all over again.

And the TTP 2.0 can do all of that because it’s figured us out. It knows what makes us tick.

The truly troubling bit? The state seems to have no idea what it’s dealing with or even that the enemy has figured it out.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm