After the amnesty

Published October 4, 2021
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

AFTER all the brutality and bloodshed, an amnesty is in the offing. Much has already been written about the moral dubiousness and clumsiness of the government’s plans to re-engage and potentially pardon the TTP. Let’s for a moment assume that such an amnesty could work, and a core of the TTP is rehabilitated. What would happen next?

An amnesty process would further mainstream and legitimise the TTP’s extremist viewpoints, creating an even more conducive environment for hardline jihadist perspectives, and all but eliminating public space and protections for women, minorities and progressive or dissenting positions. At the same time, hard-line militants who do not participate in the amnesty will be pushed out to a further extreme.

And such splintering is inevitable. The TTP is a militant Frankenstein comprising numerous sub-groups; since July 2020 it has absorbed around eight disparate outfits. Not all of these will want to reconcile with the Pakistani state.

Global jihadi trends over the past two decades, including in our region, show that the future of militancy is ‘glocal’. Centralised groups such as Al Qaeda and IS have been dismantled, and replaced by ever-proliferating, increasingly localised outfits that effectively marry high-level jihadi narratives with grassroots political grievances. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which began as a Syrian incarnation of Al Qaeda, rebranded and began to focus on political dynamics within the Idlib province. It is now a key political influencer, reportedly receiving Turkish support.

Persistent hyper-local violence will become the norm.

The mainstreaming of regional groups such as the Afghan Taliban and TTP, will lead to further entrenchment of splinter outfits that exploit niche social divides, whether sectarian, ethnic, linguistic or driven by geopolitics. The variety of issues that these splinter groups will champion (anti-Hazara, anti-China, anti-secular education, etc) will ensure that disgruntled or aspiring militants have vast choice when seeking group affiliation. Indeed, global trends indicate that splintering and localisation increases militancy levels; experts estimate that there are four times as many jihadis in the world today than there were on Sept 11, 2001.

All this will unfold against a backdrop ripe for jihadi recruitment. A burgeoning youth population confronting resource scarcity linked to climate change — particularly hapless agricultural labour wondering how to survive as land productivity declines — growing socioeconomic inequality, mass labour deskilling, and more cultural conflict is likely to find the certain ideology (and financial incentives) of militancy attractive.

Proponents of an amnesty for TTP will no doubt cite the group’s 2018 decision to change targeting guidelines, minimising attacks against civilians and instead focusing on strategic targets. But the list of legitimate targets is still long, encompassing state security forces and members of the political elite and judiciary. It is unclear (and unlikely) that non-mainstreamed TTP splinters would adhere to these guidelines. They will also either engage in conflict with each other, or build alliances and pool resources.

In all scenarios, persistent hyper-local violence, which our prime minister has dismissed as ‘just a spate of attacks’, will become the norm. But such a norm is not sustainable. It highlights poor governance and the state’s weakness, and fuels more grievances that exacerbate violence.

There is also no guarantee that post-amnesty militant violence will remain low-level. Writing in the CTC Sentinel, Colin Clarke analyses militant groups’ interest in cutting-edge technologies. He looks ahead to a future in which violent extremists use printed 3-D explosives, weaponised drones, driverless car bombs, and bio-weapons, all paid for with cryptocurrency.

A recent Broo­k­ings report argues that Pakistan’s nukes are well protected against militant groups, but other vulnerabilities exist, particularly connected to energy. Moreover, with some part of the TTP mainstreamed, fringe groups will be compelled to seek out attention-grabbing, legitimacy-building tactics.

In any event, Pakistan cannot be complacent at the prospect of an ever-rumbling militant threat. There are consequences in the form of political and economic isolation, lack of investment, and even sanctions. Last week, merely the distant (and unlikely) possibility of sanctions in the form of a US bill calling to examine Pakistan’s role in the Taliban victory in Afghanistan led to plummeting stocks and the rupee hitting a historic low.

Clarke also points to a future in which localised, violent extremist groups increasingly merge with the state, citing the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and warning of a “morphing into hybrid entities with political, military, social, cultural, and economic responsibilities”. This would no doubt be the future of a rehabilitated TTP. Do we want to live with that?

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2021

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