WITH the coming to power of the Afghan Taliban, their militant cousins across the border have started identifying their targets in Pakistan. Journalists have been the first to feel the heat. A statement issued to the media has gone viral on social media: the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have warned journalists to avoid using the term ‘terrorist’ for the group, or else they would be treated like ‘enemies’. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has also expressed concern which underscores not only the seriousness of the threat but also the need to analyse what future lies in store for press freedom in the context of the region’s recent re-Talibanisation.
The timing of the warning is significant. In a previous statement, the banned outfit said it carried out 32 attacks in August alone, killing 52 people and injuring 38. While it was claimed that these attacks targeted security forces, state authorities have previously blamed hostile agencies using Afghan soil for sponsoring terrorism inside Pakistan. The TTP seem desperate to prove the state is wrong and want to establish that attacks inside Pakistan would continue irrespective of Afghan Taliban rule next door.
Journalists are caught between the TTP and the state. With rising censorship inside the country, it’s difficult to discuss security unless they first establish that they are ‘loyal’ Pakistanis. Many TV talk show hosts, therefore, project Afghanistan as Pakistan’s ‘colony’, a narrative that is reinforced by comments of some of those Pakistani journalists who went to Kabul soon after its fall to report on the Taliban’s conquest of their own country. There are others who, despite a liberal demeanour and awkward efforts to stay objective, seem to share an ideological affinity with the Afghan Taliban. In this one-sided coverage, we are made to believe that the re-Talibanisation of Afghanistan will help neutralise threats from the western border. The national media’s cheerleader role reduces the TTP to an appendage status, giving the impression that this hostile outfit has no capacity to damage Pakistan. The TTP warning is meant to burst this bubble.
Is the TTP really a threat to Pakistani journalists? The answer lies in the state’s own approach towards regional militancy. Two days before Kabul fell, a top official in an informal chat indicated that if the Taliban took control of Kabul, everything else would fall into place. In other words, power elites in Pakistan do not seem really worried about the TTP. After the Doha accord, which ensured the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan’s neighbours cracked down on militant groups using Afghan soil to threaten their sovereignty. Only Pakistan kept its cool — at the risk of exposing its soft underbelly to militancy.
Journalists are caught between the TTP and the state.
The day Kabul fell, thousands of inmates escaped from the Pul-i-Charkhi jail — Afghanistan’s largest detention centre. A couple of days before, Kandahar jail had experienced a similar situation. A Kabul-based local journalist, Anis-ur-Rehman, claimed in a tweet that around 2,300 TTP fighters had been released from these jails, including top commanders belonging mostly to North Waziristan.
The reported killing of two top IS inmates, Sheikh Mutawaqal and Abu Omar Khurasani followed by reports of the arrest of over 25 IS sympathisers and the closure of mosques preaching IS-friendly Salafi ideology in Afghanistan indicate the Taliban’s priorities to clamp down on militancy. While the Taliban regime seems serious in eliminating the IS — the main condition of their Doha deal — the TTP enjoys their hospitality. Pakistan did seek Taliban action, but it was too little, too late. There have been reports that a three-member Taliban commission has been formed to assure Pakistan that the TTP leaders will be asked to settle problems with Pakistan so that they and their families can return to their own country. Asking for possible amnesty for the TTP, it is ironic that the re-Talibanised Afghanistan seeks ‘strategic depth’ in Pakistan.
The TTP, therefore, is a ticking bomb. Around nine splinter groups have reportedly joined the outfit since the Doha accord. After his release from Pul-i-Charkhi, Maulvi Faqir, the TTP former deputy chief and a close ally of the current Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban. On the way from Kabul to Kunar province abutting Pakistan’s Bajaur district, his hometown, Faqir addressed his followers in a viral video, asserting that the TTP would continue to work for Sharia in Pakistan. The interior ministry will be relieved because Faqir did not call for an independent state comprising Pakistan’s tribal areas, a resolve that the TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali made in his latest interview with the foreign media. This TTP commitment is enough to haunt the already deprived people of former Fata who see the outfit through the lens of the state’s regional foreign policy interests.
So, the threat to the media does not actually emanate from the TTP, but from the method behind the ebb and flow of militancy — promoting militarism at the cost of freedom of expression. The best that PFUJ can do is to sensitise media professionals about their own role in connection with the regional economy of the imperialist war embedded in a post-9/11 world. So far this has been missing and the damage is obvious. In a digital media show titled ‘TTP to be mainstreamed?’ ex-ISI chief Lt-Gen Asad Durrani was awestruck by the Taliban’s success against the US in Afghanistan. “They have done a great job,” said the confident analyst to his polite host, “our military and civil administration should learn from their experience.”
About the TTP, the general took a common establishment approach: after all they are “our people”, so he recommended amnesty for those militants ready to live in peace with Pakistan. “Come here at will; it is your country,” he said.
When it comes to Afghanistan, a duplicitous security approach and its influence on a large segment of the national media defies logic; it was in fact unquestioned confusion that birthed the TTP — responsible for killing over 70,000 people, a fact that power elites often cite to make the world believe in the seriousness of their efforts to eliminate regional terrorism.
The writer teaches journalism at Peshawar University. His book The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of News will be launched next month.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2021