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Signs of frustration

October 20, 2012

SIGNS of panic are evident in Pakistani Taliban ranks following the attack on Malala Yousufzai. They are clearly trying to recover from their biggest defeat on the propaganda front after the attack on the 14-year-old in Swat.

The damage was done by the initial claiming and justifying of the attack on Malala by the Taliban spokesperson. Subsequent mud-slinging by the Taliban has also seriously backfired. It may lead to fissures among the Taliban over their propaganda strategy, which had been proceeding largely smoothly, despite defeats on the military front. In the Malala case, there is a likelihood that the militants may launch indiscriminate attacks in frustration.

In recent years, the real strength of the militants belonging to most groups has been their ability to sell their cause; and through their propaganda strategies they have tried to counterbalance differences between the capabilities of the security forces and the militants. Their utmost weakness also lies in their strength — that they cannot tolerate any voice that challenges their cause or ideology. This is a common characteristic of major militant movements the world over.

The militants had carefully crafted a propaganda strategy, built around the cause of struggle against oppressive forces in Afghanistan and gradually expanded into the realm of the state system, the socio-cultural way of life and, most dangerously, in the sectarian domain.

The short-term goal of the Pakistani Taliban was to liberate Afghanistan from the US-led forces through ‘jihad’ and a secondary objective was to enforce a new social, political and economic order based on their ideology or interpretation of Islam. The long-term objective was to drive out the ‘infidel’ forces from all Muslim lands. The Taliban associate their identity with various Islamic and Islamist movements across the world and scoff at geographical boundaries of states.

An average Muslim may not disagree with this cause, and when the objectives include anti-imperialism people consider it a revolutionary movement. The Taliban have tactically manipulated their agenda. Religious political parties that are part of the mainstream electoral process and moderate Islamic scholars have struggled to counter the Taliban on the ideological front.

Apart from their well-defined ideological inspiration, the Taliban have got logistic support from international terrorist groups and used terrorism to achieve objectives which can be summarised as follows:

1. To destabilise the state’s security apparatus so that people look towards the Taliban for protection.

2.    To force the government not to interfere in Taliban-controlled areas so that they can continue their activities unhindered.

3.    To force the government to bring structural changes in laws or the constitution, or to bring a new system according to the Taliban agenda.

Some Taliban groups have sectarian agendas, especially against Shias and followers of Sufism. They are also well connected with global terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, which have even more dangerous agendas of destabilising or toppling the government and capturing territory.

Until 2004, the main focus of the Pakistani Taliban was on protecting foreign militants, recruiting for the war in Afghanistan, training the recruits, and securing their position against security operations. Their main strategic victory that made them a major player in the area, however, came after a tactical change in their operations: they began kidnapping security and other government officials in 2004.

Although suicide attacks on security forces that started in 2006 targeted the morale of the security forces, it was the kidnapping strategy that elevated the Taliban to a position where they could negotiate with the government on their terms and bargain for the release of captured militants as well.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has provided shelter to smaller groups working under the command of Mehsud militant commanders. Baitullah Mehsud had tried to unite all these groups under the banner of Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader. Every group that wished to join the TTP had to

take an oath of allegiance to Omar and proclaim its commitment to the enforcement of Sharia.

Contrary to common perceptions, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups are bound by ideological, ethnic and socio-political ties. The Pakistani Taliban are an imitation of the Afghan Taliban and their raison d’être is linked to their Afghan counterparts. If they detach themselves from the Afghan Taliban, they lose their justification to exist. In this context, the formation of the TTP in Pakistan was an important development which brought together scattered tribal Taliban groups and also other Pakistani militant groups, such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and splinters of Kashmir-based groups.

The Taliban have remained resolute in pursuing their strategy of propaganda and ideological propagation. They are trying to appeal to the people in the name of religion and ethnicity, using a combination of temptations and threats to keep them from siding with the ‘enemy’. They are extremely intolerant of their ‘ideological enemies’, who can be classified into two broad categories: those people following and supporting practices the Taliban deem un-Islamic, and ‘infidels and their friends’.

In the current context, it would be difficult for the Taliban to modify the cause and propaganda strategies as they have marked clear ‘us-versus-them’ boundaries. It is now time for them to revise their arguments, which still appeal to fragmented segments of society. But they will not be able to reverse the narrative against them. Not only religious-political parties but also the new far right, the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council, seem to be on the defensive. These are the actors who transmit the Taliban’s narratives and serve as connections between the masses and the militants.

Obviously, the mainstream media is a new front for the Taliban, where they are fast losing sympathies. It is not the media’s war but a media war, where opinion leaders need to be well equipped with arguments. The dilemma with the electronic media is that political parties’ representatives have taken over the job of opinion leaders, and they lack clarity on the issue and perceive every issue through the prism of their political parties’ interest. They need to realise that in this new phase of insurgency arguments have more value than bullets.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.