‘Good’ Taliban, ‘bad’ Taliban, and a need for stability 1 July 2014
The Pakistan military has finally decided to confront anti-social elements located in North Waziristan, one of the seven tribal agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This military action has been named ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’, which apparently means a ‘sharp and cutting strike’. This refers to the sword that Prophet Muhammad used in two significant battles while attempting to consolidate Islam. This historic term seeks to refute those hardline elements in FATA who consider themselves more religiously pure, or Islamic, than most Pakistanis, and who consider themselves above Pakistan law. They are now being ‘struck’ by a stronger, more capable, Islamically-inspired force. One hopes they see the irony.
To date, military activity has included air strikes against militant strongholds and ammunition dumps in North Waziristan. These actions follow a ‘convenient’ strike by a United States’ drone that killed a high-level Haqqani operative and which, while condemned by the Pakistan Government, was surely welcomed by the Pakistan military, and possibly done in conjunction with it. For some time, Pakistan has publicly complained about US drone strikes while privately welcoming their results that have eliminated some significant anti-Pakistan militants.
Ground forces apparently are waiting to move into North Waziristan once the Pakistan Air Force completes its work. However, to avoid the fighting, actual or potential, some 430,000 Waziris have fled to Bannu and other parts of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, or in lesser numbers—some 65,000 people—to Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces. Unfortunately, some of the elements that the Pakistan Army is trying to subdue or kill may have been part of this human exodus. It is very difficult for all security forces—Afghan, Pakistani or those in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—to determine which men are actually hardline, anti-social elements. Most Pukhtoon/Pushtoon males, who predominate in FATA, dress in a similar way. They certainly don’t wear uniforms that identify them as ‘terrorists’.
The agitated human ‘collateral damage’ fleeing the military action hopes to return to North Waziristan once the Pakistan Army has cleared their region of ‘rebels’. Many of these refugees will likely have to rebuild their homes on their return. These displaced people add to the large numbers of Afghan refugees still located in Pakistan and to refugees from the 2009 military action in Swat. This is an enormous economic, social and emotional burden for Pakistan to bear, particularly as its economy currently is very weak. Afghanistan now has a similar problem, although not of the same magnitude as Pakistan’s.
In a positive development for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistan military has finally decided that it will attack all anti-social elements in North Waziristan, regardless of whether they either are, or previously have been considered, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Generally, ‘good’ elements have been Pakistanis and other pro-Pakistan men allowed to live in Pakistan and who often have been used in Afghanistan, either against its government or against Indian assets. These armed elements include the Afghan Taliban (based around Mullah Omar and the so-called ‘Quetta shura’ that he leads), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistan Taliban), al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network. Lesser elements include Uighurs from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. China, particularly, will be happy to see Pakistan striking Uighurs, who have been causing it problems in Xinjiang. Similarly, Afghanistan and India will be pleased to see the disruption of the notorious, capable and long-lived Haqqani network.
Conversely, ‘bad’ elements comprise those Pakistanis who have been brutally and incessantly attacking the Pakistan state and Pakistanis. These elements now chiefly comprise the Pakistan Taliban, whose strongholds are largely in FATA. The military has lost control of this extra-legal element—its ‘good Taliban’ have increasingly been morphing into ‘bad Taliban’—as most recently highlighted by the attack on Jinnah Airport, Karachi. This is a problem that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate presumably did not foresee: when one creates or supports a monster, it may develop a life of its own and seek to devour its creator. Regardless of their characterization as good or bad, Taliban elements clearly have their own agenda. This overrides that of the Pakistan or Afghanistan governments and their militaries—which the Pakistan Army now has finally realised.
A further factor in the current operations is cross border relations with Afghanistan. In a complete reversal of roles from a few years ago, some Pakistanis now are blaming Afghanistan for not doing enough to patrol, control and conduct surveillance along the (notoriously porous) Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to limit the ability of anti-Pakistan elements to obtain sanctuary in Afghanistan. To control, then destroy, the menace that groups such as the Taliban pose, both nations will need to genuinely coordinate their efforts. Should this occur, it will be good for both nations and their citizens—and bad for the Taliban.
While all of this activity is occurring in north-western Pakistan, some nearby developments pose some wildcards. First, India’s new government may choose to be assertive against Pakistan, although I think that Prime Minister Modi really wants India to develop economically before he becomes belligerent. However, given its current workload, the Pakistan Army’s ability to respond to any Indian provocations in Jammu and Kashmir, or elsewhere, will be limited. It could, however, deploy other proxies, such as the ‘good’ Lashkar-e-Toiba that still appears to be functioning largely unhindered in Punjab. Second, the result of Afghanistan’s presidential elections are still unclear—except that Abdullah Abdullah won’t accept any result in which he comes second. That, plus some resurgent Taliban activity, suggests there are plenty of issues yet to be resolved in Afghanistan.
The need of the hour in all three nations is stability—stability for India while it develops economically; stability for Pakistan while it deals with its unsavoury elements and an array of other issues; and, stability for Afghanistan as it enters its uncertain post-ISAF phase. This need might moderate the actions of the leaders in all three nations—except against their anti-social elements.
The opinions in this blog are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organisations, professional or otherwise, with which I am involved or associated.
1 July 2014