Pakistani Taleban Bruised But Unbowed

American and Pakistani actions against the insurgents appear to have had limited impact.

Pakistani Taleban Bruised But Unbowed

American and Pakistani actions against the insurgents appear to have had limited impact.

Monday, 22 February, 2010

More than eight years after the initial invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taleban regime in Kabul, their counterparts in Pakistan remain active.

The most recent proof of this came on February 3 when a suicide bomber killed at least seven people near a girl’s school in north-western Pakistan. Three American soldiers, in the area to train Pakistani armed forces, were among the dead.

Tehrik-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan, TTP, arguably the strongest and most high profile insurgent group in the country, claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was in revenge for United States military drone strikes.

American operations against Islamists in the area continue. In January 2010, a US drone strike targeted the TTP’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. A local tribal leader reported that Mehsud had been killed, although this was denied by the TTP.

But despite these efforts, and the Pakistan army actions against the TTP in South Waziristan, the Taleban continues to mount attacks and may even be growing in strength.

Tehrik-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan translates as the Pakistan Taleban movement, however the TTP does not comprise or reflect all the so-called Taleban groups in Pakistan. Indeed, the precise identity of the Pakistani Taleban is unclear.

The Taleban emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Taleban translates in Pashto as students, and its members have been mainly drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. It grew in strength in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA, and in Afghanistan.

In 1996, the Taleban took control of Kabul, after overthrowing the Afghan government made up of various mujahideen groups. The Taleban implemented a harsh form of Islamic government and extremist groups like al-Qaeda found refuge there. After the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taleban regime was overthrown. But far from disappearing, the Taleban have challenged the international forces in Afghanistan in recent years, while bomb attacks continue to be claimed by the Taleban in Pakistan.

At the moment, various militant groups operate in FATA. The TTP are present there, but so are at least two other major Taleban groups under Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

The Taleban name is also applied to other groups. To the north, in the Swat valley of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, NWFP, thousands of Pashtun militants under Maulana Fazlullah were attacked by the Pakistan army in the summer of 2009.

To the south, in the Punjab, Sunni Muslim extremist – but non-Pashtun – groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, SSP, have been called the Punjabi Taleban. Their targets include the secular government and Shia Muslims throughout the country.

Calling all these groups Taleban would imply some form of coordination between them. But Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador to Britain and the US, argues that it would be a mistake to group the different militant bands in Pakistan together.

"If we conflate the threat, we overlook the fact that these groups - militant groups generally in Pakistan (not just the Pakistani Taleban) - are different in their origin, outlook, reach, capacity, ethnic identity, as well as their goals and motivations," she said.

Lodhi, now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, said that these units had to be treated specifically rather than as a single, monolithic entity. She also noted that some do not even call themselves the Taleban, and that it was rather the western media that used the term, "[They are] tending to lump them together. The Punjabi Taleban has become a short-hand for all militant groups."

Even the groups operating in FATA and NWFP are made up of a diverse range of fighters. The majority, as with the Afghan Taleban, are Pashtun. The border between the two countries is relatively easy to cross in FATA, and it is likely that the groups coordinate their efforts. There are unconfirmed reports that both Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Afghan Taleban regime, and al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, are still hiding in Pakistan near the border.

Iqbal Khattak, the bureau chief of Pakistan's Daily Times in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, said that foreign militants are also fighting as part of the Taleban in the area.

These foreign militants include groups originally from Uzbekistan. Khattak, who has been reporting on the Taleban since 2001, also said that Arabs were fighting in the area, but that they mainly work with al-Qaeda rather than the Taleban.

The various groups that make up the Taleban comprise thousands of fighters. In a report in December 2010, BBC reporter M Ilyas Khan referred to estimates that there were more than 10,000 armed militants in North Waziristan. He also reported that the estimated size of the militant group following Hakimullah Mehsud in South Waziristan was more than 15,000. These are the centres for the TTP alone.


In Afghanistan, the Taleban have become increasingly effective at fighting the international forces. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks have arguably made the insurgents much more dangerous than they were in the immediate years after 2001, when they were ousted from power.

In a report published in January 2010, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies reported that “2,586 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian related incidents of terrorism across the country” had led to the deaths of 3,021 people in 2009, an increase of 48 per cent from the year before.

In Pakistan, there have been violent clashes when the Pakistani army has advanced into areas controlled by militants, like Swat and South Waziristan.

Before the army's advances, the insurgents had dominated the areas. The suicide bombing near the girl’s school in NWFP that killed three US soldiers suggests that the militants are targeting international troops with suicide bombers. The militants in FATA and NWFP have also used at least one other tactic of the Afghan Taleban: kidnapping.

According to Rebecca Conway, a British journalist who worked around Peshawar between 2007 and 2008, kidnapping for ransom is one of the main ways that these groups fund themselves.

The area has seen a steady stream of kidnappings. Four hundred students were taken from a college in North Waziristan at the start of June 2009. A United Nations official was kidnapped in the town of Quetta in Balochistan province in February. Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported 147 "kidnapping for ransom" cases in NWFP alone in 2008. Not all of these were necessarily led by the Taleban, but it seems to have become an important revenue stream for them.

In February 2009, Piotr Stanczak, a Polish engineer, was killed by insurgents with reported links to the TTP after they had kidnapped him.

The other way that these groups survive financially, according to Conway, is international funding. She suspects that the Taleban has had "huge injections of cash" from foreign donors in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear who the sources are.

There is evidence of cooperation between the militants in FATA, al-Qaeda and other groups that have committed crimes. Lodhi cited the September 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad as an example of this. At least 53 people were killed after a truck exploded outside the hotel. Pakistan's government later blamed the attack on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim group with links to al-Qaeda.

A report in The Times of London in October 2009 referred to unnamed intelligence sources who believed that "between 5,000 and 8,000 militants from South Punjab were fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan".

Moreover, the TTP appears to be spreading its attacks outside FATA and NWFP. On December 30, a suicide bomb in Karachi, on the southern coast of Pakistan, killed 43 people. The TTP claimed responsibility for the atrocity. It was aimed at Shia Muslims, who were marching through the city.

The TTP has also been fighting the Pakistan army in South Waziristan and it possibly has been aiding the Afghan Taleban in its fight against international forces.


There is a complex range of factors underlying the relative popularity and strength of militant groups in Pakistan.

Western commentators have suggested that the madrassas in Pakistan have contributed significantly to the Taleban cause. But poverty, political disaffection, and the limited influence of Pakistan's government and law, especially in FATA and NWFP, are also key factors.

Many of the Afghan Taleban recruits passed through the madrassas in Pakistan.

Professor Shaun Gregory, the director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford, said that a large increase in the numbers of madrassas since 2001 was a cause for the Pakistani Taleban "growing significantly" in strength.

Conway said that Wahabi madrassas in FATA, the north of Pakistan, and much further south in the area around Karachi, had helped the militant groups to develop. Wahabism is a conservative form of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.

Conway said that the religious schools were attractive to poorer students in this area because they provided free food and shelter. "This financial incentive means students are keen to join madrassas, where Koranic teaching is paramount, and where many Taleban operate and recruit followers and suicide bombers," she said.

The precise number of madrassas in Pakistan is unclear. In 2008, Kamila Hyat reported in Pakistan’s The News International that in 1947 there were 189 but that had mushroomed to over 40,000 by 2008. However, other estimates are much lower, between 15,000 and 20,000.

Moreover, the supposed contribution of the madrassas to the Taleban cause is disputed.

Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper reported in January 2010 that the general secretary of Pakistan’s Deobandi madrassas, Maulana Haneef Jalandhari, said that the madrassas were the victims of propaganda by foreign media, and that the Pakistan government was acting on this propaganda. The Deobandi movement is another conservative form of Islam, which was first started in northern India in the nineteenth century.

Lodhi said that some madrassas had radicalised their students, but that this was by no means the case with all of them. "It is important not to tarnish the entire madrassa system by the fact that some have had a radicalising role to play," she said.

The exponential growth of madrassas began after 1979, when the Americans and Saudi Arabians sent them aid so that they would produce mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, she said.

She added that the leadership of the militant groups from Punjab were predominantly educated in universities or technical institutes rather than madrassas. With those organisations, it was the foot-soldiers that came from the madrassas.

There have been repeated attempts by Pakistan’s governments in recent years to regulate the madrassas, with limited effect.

In July 2009, The News International reported that the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, PMEB, a body formed by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2001 in order to modernise them, “is yet to produce results”.

Without a stronger central government, it seems likely that at least some madrassas will continue to radicalise their students. In a sign of a new approach from the Pakistan government, it agreed in late January 2010, to create a new Madaris Regulatory Authority, MRA, to supervise the institutions.


The government’s apparently limited influence over the madrassas seems to reflect a wider lack of control in parts of FATA and NWFP. The most notable example of this came in the Swat valley in April 2009, when the government allowed the Taleban to implement Sharia law. The failure of this policy led to Pakistan’s army advancing into Swat in May 2009. Hundreds of Taleban militants were killed or arrested, while reportedly more than two million people were displaced from their homes.

The signs are that the government is trying to integrate these areas more closely into the Pakistani political system. In late January 2010, an election was held in the Swat valley for a new member of the provincial assembly: the previous member had been killed by the Taleban.

Other momentous changes are happening in FATA. A law was passed in August 2009 that allowed political parties to work in these tribal areas and represent them in parliament from 2013. A December 2009 report in The Economist noted that the development budget of South Waziristan had been increased 15-fold and that there would be a new tribal police force.

The Obama administration is also pursuing both a political and military strategy in the conflict against the Taleban, a conflict which it sees as being part of a wider Af-Pak theatre.

The Americans have increased funding for Pakistan to 1.5 billion US dollars per annum for the next five years, calling for reform of the political system. At the same time, they have continued drone attacks in Pakistan, which started during George W Bush’s time as president. These continuing attacks suggest that the Americans are sceptical that the Taleban can be defeated by Pakistan’s forces alone.

The Americans do not formally acknowledge drone strikes, but, according to the BBC, the US military and the CIA are the only groups able to launch such attacks in the region.

The strikes continue despite criticism from the Pakistani government and a perception that anti-American feeling is rising among the Pakistani public. The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told reporters in 2009 that his government had told the Americans that drone strikes were counter-productive and could contribute to the destabilisation of Pakistan.

American and British troops are also involved in training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force which patrols the border with Afghanistan. The three US soldiers who were killed by the suicide bomb on February 3 were part of this training mission.

But the Pakistani public does not seem to regard the American influence as helpful: a survey by the International Republican Institute conducted between July and August 2009 found that only 18 per cent of Pakistanis supported cooperation with the US against extremism.

The Pakistani army has also conducted high profile offensives in the last year, such as in the Swat valley. In August 2009 in South Waziristan, the leader of the TTP, Baitallah Mehsud, was killed by a US drone and the Pakistan army attacked the Taleban there in October.

According to Khattak, the growth of the Taleban had been checked by such offensives. "The military is hitting them hard and Taleban lost considerable ground to the military," he said.

But the Taleban threat has certainly not been extinguished. Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the TTP and a relative of Baitallah Mehsud, appeared in a video alongside the suicide bomber who went on to kill seven CIA agents and a Jordanian in Afghanistan on December 30, although it is possible the video had been doctored.

Bradford University professor Gregory said that the army attacks on the TTP in South Waziristan were proving counter-productive. The army may have killed some militants, but most had simply been displaced, he said. Moreover, the offensive was sharply radicalising Mehsud’s tribal groups in the area, Gregory believes.

But imagining the conflict as one with the Pakistan army on the one side and the Taleban on the other may also overlook the secretive links that could exist between the two.

Pakistan was one of the few countries to recognise the Taleban regime in Kabul in the years before the invasion of 2001. Gregory claims that elements within the Pakistani authorities had been supporting the Afghan Taleban since 2002, and suggested this would remain the case, since Islamabad fears the government of President Hamed Karzai in Kabul would quickly fall under the sway of India once the US retreats.

Gregory noted that the Pakistani army's offensive against the TTP in South Waziristan had not attacked the Taleban groups in North Waziristan under Mullahs Nazir and Bahadur.

"My understanding, and it is no more than an understanding, is that broadly the Pakistan army has agreed a non-aggression pact with those two Pakistan Taleban groups, and it has brokered that agreement through Mullah Omar," he said, suggesting that Omar may have called on Nazir and Bahadur's groups to focus their efforts on defeating the US surge in Afghanistan.

Pervez Musharraf, speaking in 2007 when he was still president of Pakistan, denied that Pakistan's notoriously secretive intelligence agency, the ISI, was cooperating with the Taleban, but admitted it was possible that former ISI officers had done so.

IWPR was unable to secure a response from the Pakistan army, but Lodhi rejected the claims. She suggested that accusations of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taleban by western analysts reflected a need to deflect blame on the West for what she described as its "failure in Afghanistan".

Mike Kielty is an IWPR intern in London.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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