GROWING insecurity and violence in Afghanistan are not only reducing the space for intra-Afghan political reconciliation, they are also threatening Pakistan’s border and internal security. Anti-Pakistan terrorist groups like the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will be further emboldened if the Afghan Taliban continue to gain ground in Afghanistan. But that may not be the whole story. Religiously inspired extremist groups of all shades, violent and non-violent, will also seek inspiration from the Afghan Taliban’s ‘victories’. A new war of narratives will emerge in the country, which will transform ongoing debates about state and society and the role that religion plays.
The situation in Afghanistan is changing the character of terrorist groups sheltering there. For instance, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud said in a recent interview with CNN that his group aimed to make the tribal districts of Pakistan (along the Afghan border) independent. He also claimed that the TTP could take back control of the Pakistani tribal areas if forced to leave Afghanistan. Apparently, this is a new position of the group; the previous one was to establish an Islamic order in the entire country. Mehsud has elaborated the new strategy of the group in his manifesto Inqilab-i-Mehsud, and the notion of an independent state in the tribal region is being shaped. In an ideological context, it shows that Al Qaeda’s influence over the group is weakening. One of the key goals of Al Qaeda has been the restoration of the caliphate system in the world, which was repeatedly echoed in the statements of TTP leaders. But it seems that in recent years, the TTP has sought more inspiration from its chief mentors ie the Afghan Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, which has apparently helped develop the TTP’s nationalist credentials.
Although there does not exist any demand for an independent state in the tribal or merged districts, the TTP may have started believing that a nationalist rhetoric can boost its lost legitimacy among the tribes. It would also have learned from the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement that a nationalist agenda can make it popular among the masses, even though it cannot transform itself into a rights-based movement.
The TTP had developed the credentials of an insurgent group for a short time when it had territorial control in some tribal districts. But after its defeat and relocation to Afghanistan, it remains a terrorist group in essence. By adding the objective of establishing a state to its agenda, the group is seemingly trying to appear as an insurgent movement, like the Baloch insurgents. But will this agenda ‘transformation’ confine the group to the tribal districts? Will it no longer launch terrorist attacks in other parts of the country? And what relations will it have with its non-tribal supporters and sympathisers in other parts of the country? The TTP is still found to be involved in terrorist attacks beyond the tribal districts. It is not certain what kind of tribal nationalist characteristics it will develop or how popular the idea is within its close circles.
The situation in Afghanistan is changing the character of terrorist groups sheltering there.
If real, this transformation indicates another threat; it can push non-tribal militants into the fold of the Islamic State (IS) group and Al Qaeda or force them to form small militant outfits, if abandoned by the TTP, to pursue their own ideological agenda. Another danger is that a TTP fully focused on the tribal areas will be stronger in terms of its terrorist operations. It has already intensified its attacks against Pakistani security and law-enforcement personnel in ex-Fata as indicated by the more than 15 attacks it launched against military and police there in July.
IS still exists in Pakistan though it is not as potent as it was until 2018. But its potential cannot be underestimated as it can attract disillusioned youth especially those in banned organisations like Jamaatud Daawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad. The ongoing action by the government against these organisations may push these youths towards groups like IS. Not being able to celebrate the victory of their fellow ideologists adds to their dissatisfaction. This requires extra vigilance by the law-enforcement departments.
The religious groups which have no sectarian bond with the Afghan Taliban can also learn from the latter’s tactics. At the same time, they may take to the streets, fearing that rival sects could encroach on their turf, as happened in the 1980s. More precisely, the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan can react in such situations to keep themselves relevant and their subscription intact. The Shia organisations, too, will face pressure, as a sense of insecurity will also prevail among them.
However, a major threat will come from the Taliban’s supporters in religious and political parties and the media. The activation of the ‘glorification syndrome’ is already evident in prevalent media narratives; the state is itself feeding such narratives through promoting dramas that are based on fictional depictions of historical characters.
It is not certain to what extent state institutions are prepared for the next phase of an ideological or a narrative warfare in the country and how they will deal with it, but at least they have a framework available now, which was missing in the past. The National Action Plan can be revamped; it was a consensus policy document that provided support in the war against terrorism.
Paigham-i-Pakistan is another document that has been signed by thousands of religious scholars of all schools of thought. Paigham-i-Pakistan is a comprehensive counter-narrative against all forms of religious hate, but state institutions have not properly used the document. Moderate religious scholars, civil society and the media must bring Paigham-i-Pakistan into the public sphere so that the prevailing ideological confusion can be minimised.
The role of parliament cannot be ignored or undermined as this is the forum which can help not only build consensus but also give direction for the future course of the country. Once again there is a need for extensive discussions in parliament over the changing regional and internal security scenarios, their implications, and the possible ways out.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2021