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Three halves of militancy

March 15, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WELL, that’s enough politics for now. Until the next faux crisis, media frenzy or electoral farce at least. Never can there be a vacuum though. On cue, the other side has bubbled up: security.

Just as Lakhvi is being ushered out of his pen, the Afghan Taliban, we are told, are being herded towards the negotiating table. And in the middle of all of that the anti-state/anti-Pakistan militants are being pounded away at.

Try spinning a coherent narrative from that. Some point to good Taliban/bad Taliban still holding, but that doesn’t quite explain the VIP treatment for the anti-India lot while the Afghan cohort is apparently being downgraded.

Just as Lakhvi is being ushered out of his pen, the Afghan Taliban, we are told, are being herded towards the negotiating table.

So, what gives?

It helps to look at the militancy landscape as three halves: the Afghan-centric lot; the India/Kashmir-orientated ones; and the anti-state/anti-Pakistan bunch.

Start with the Afghan-centric lot. On the face of it, there’s no compelling reason for the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.

The Afghan Taliban have outlasted the Americans; the Afghan Taliban can hold their own against the Afghan government; and, between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government, it’s the Afghan Taliban who look like they’re a more sustainable proposition.

And yet there you have Pakistan apparently nudging the Afghan Taliban to talk to the Afghan government when it doesn’t make obvious sense. Scratch around a bit though and some possibilities become apparent.

To begin with, it’s 2015. This was the year the new American plan was supposed to go into effect. Turns out the US doesn’t have a plan and it’s got its hands full with the world going to hell in other places. That makes it a good time for Pakistan to seem helpful and finally take the lead a bit.

Then there’s the new Afghan government, which hasn’t really taken off. It’s wobbly and weak and that’s just the kind place you need to be eager-desperate — maybe a weak but willing Ghani is ready to cede the kind of stuff a fierce and baulky Karzai never would.

Again, that makes for some kind of incentive for Pakistan to become active again and suggest it is willing to coax the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Still, separately or combined, those two reasons don’t amount to a convincing argument for a changed Afghan policy. We must look elsewhere and it’s to the Durand Line we must turn, the problem of cross-border militancy having become bi-directional.

The stuff we’re seeing in Tirah this week, it’s phase two of Khyber-I and it’s in part been prompted by Afghan help. With the anti-Pak militants made uncomfortable on the Afghan side of the border, Tirah is the new place for them to congregate.

Hence all that news about rifts in the TTP being healed and Mangal Bagh coming on board too: together they can better withstand all that the Pak military is planning to throw at them in the difficult Tirah terrain.

There, then, is a good reason to be helpful on the Afghan Taliban front: gain Afghanistan’s cooperation in getting the anti-Pakistan militants scrambling back and forth across the border.

Without Afghan cooperation, without pressure from the Afghan side too, Khyber-I, Zarb-i-Azb and other Fata operations could become little more than that old squeeze of the balloon — go after the anti-Pak militants in one area and they’ll pop up in another.

If that’s the real reason for nudging the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, there’s an obvious follow on: do we really intend to do all that we can to force the Afghan Taliban to talk or is the prospect of talks just bait to get the Afghan government to do all it can to help fight the anti-Pak militants straddling the border?

Lakhvi and the India-centric ones are easier to figure out. It’s not clear if Modi has a policy on Pakistan, though it is apparent that he’s not super keen on talks.

In that case, it makes sense to unleash the dogs here. It may serve to catch Modi’s attention: hey, you, so keen to get India’s economic engine purring again and trying to look tough on security, look over here. See what we’ve got.

And then Modi looks up and sees the dogs being unleashed and thinks, hmm, maybe I better engage their masters after all.

Or Modi doesn’t look up and goes about his business and continues to ignore Pakistan. In that case, why continue to incur the cost of keeping the jihadis muzzled. Let them run around and snap and snarl and revitalise themselves.

After all, it only makes sense to keep the anti-India jihadis muzzled if there’s something good happening on the India front. If there isn’t, it’s a headache and a half trying to keep the muzzle on.

So, there you have the downgraded Afghan Taliban and VIP treatment to the anti-India lot. Which leaves this business about crushing the anti-Pakistan bunch. Do they really mean it? It seems they do. But are they willing to do what it takes?

Specifically, the following link: to finish off the anti-Pak lot, you need Afghan cooperation; to keep getting Afghan cooperation, you need to nudge the Afghan Taliban to make concessions; to make the Afghan Taliban walk back from their maximalist demands, you need to be a bit more relaxed about India; to be more relaxed about India, you need India to be more relaxed too — which means putting down the anti-India jihadists here.

Not as simple as they make it seem, is it? That’s what happens when your militancy landscape consists of three halves.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2015

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