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Friday, 30 October 2009

Understanding the nature of Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan - By Ayesha Siddiqa


The nature of the beast
By Ayesha Siddiqa
Friday, 30 Oct, 2009 - Dawn
Soldiers keep guard on top of Kund mountain near Kotkai village. The state has buried its head in the sand by arguing that while there is a problem in Waziristan, there is hardly anything to worry about in Punjab. –Photo by Reuters/Faisal Mahmood
The series of recent terrorist attacks call for a close analysis of the militant threat and the formulation of a strategy to ward off such tragedies. At the moment, we seem to be jumping from one target to another, fighting some enemies and denying the existence of others. Hence the plan lacks strategic depth as the state appears to pursue one type of enemy leaving out others.

It will help to explain that the state of Pakistan is confronted with three enemies that are closely intertwined. Firstly, there is Al Qaeda, which comprises Arabs, Uzbeks and a select group of Pakistanis. Then there is the Taliban who consist of different branches including the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter are ideologically connected to the group known as the Pakistani Taliban who, although they consider Mullah Omar their ameer-ul-momineen, are engaged in fighting a battle inside Pakistan to capture the state.

This is considered essential to establish a system that could then be taken to the rest of the world. A glance through Farzana Sheikh’s recent book Making Sense of Pakistan demonstrates that some modern Muslim thinkers such as Abul Ala Maududi and Allama Iqbal also considered the state as a forum. However, this is not to suggest that these two thinkers advocated using violence in the same way as the Taliban.

Then there are the Punjab-based Salafi-jihadi groups wrongly termed as the Punjabi Taliban. Actually, Taliban is a term that has a certain historical context and can only be used in the case of the Afghan Taliban. Nevertheless, the Punjabi jihadis are ideologically-driven and keen to take on the state.

The various Punjab-based groups or those connected with Punjab assist others in Waziristan and Swat. They even use the tribal areas as a hideout. For example ‘Commander’ Ilyas Kashmiri, who heads the 313 Brigade of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (Huji), took refuge in Waziristan in 2005 after he developed problems with Pakistan’s military. Then there is the Amjad Farooqi group, which was also involved in the assassination attempt on Pervez Musharraf.

The above description is meant to demonstrate that since the enemy is diverse, it cannot just be seen through the single lens of the Taliban. Unfortunately, the state has buried its head in the sand by arguing that while there is a problem in Waziristan, there is hardly anything to worry about in Punjab. The Punjab government in particular seems to deny the fact that there are Punjabis involved in religious militancy. The Punjabi jihadis, in fact, are crucial because they mingle easily with the crowd in places where the attack is to be carried out.

The attackers must reconnoitre the target in advance before chalking out a plan. An outsider can be spotted easily. Thus the dependence on Punjab-based militants to carry out attacks in the capital or Lahore. Recently, it was claimed that the mastermind of the Marriott bombing and the GHQ attack was caught from Bahawalpur.

Reading such reports one wonders why the Punjab government is going on the defensive, withholding information about the presence of militants in Punjab, especially southern Punjab. Naming southern Punjab as a possible place for jihadi recruitment does not mean that youth from other places such as Faisalabad, Gujranwala or Lahore are not involved. However, the concentration of religious militants is in this region.

This fact is logical because of the link between three major militant outfits in southern Punjab. One could argue that the government might not want people to concentrate on this region because of the presence of outfits which do not fight the state, such as Jaish-i-Mohammad or Lashkar-i-Taiba, and that the problem is only with the breakaway factions, as ISPR spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas recently argued. But the fact is that no one can control individuals or groups breaking away from the mother organisation and linking up with the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

It is amazing the extent to which the government can go to withhold information about the seemingly ‘friendly’ groups. For instance, recently during a television programme Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah went out of his way to suggest that the Jaish-controlled madressah, which is also the outfit’s headquarters, is not a no-go area. He even tried to make a lame excuse when informed that a team from a local channel was attacked when they tried to take shots of the area from the outside.

More interestingly, the minister immediately accused me of using a western lens to look at the situation, an accusation also made by Jaish-i-Mohammad in its weekly magazine Al Qalam. The article was written with the specific purpose to incite people against me. The writer had twisted words and facts from one of my previous articles and presented them in a way that made me appear as an enemy. This was immediately brought to the knowledge of the interior ministry, which promised to provide help. Intriguingly, it took the Bahawalpur DPO more than three hours to make the first contact. The lapse might have been at either end but considering that I could survive for three hours I declined their help.

In any case, one does not expect sympathy from a district administration that has lately been going out of its way to hide the activities of an outfit. The game is that you are not allowed an opportunity to prove anything because the evidence suddenly disappears once you raise a hue and cry.

The Punjab government’s attitude reflects political expediency. A lot of big traders in southern Punjab and other parts of the province who are constituents of the different factions of the Muslim League are believed to finance the outfits both directly and indirectly. This is not to suggest that other political parties are any better.

However, the bottom line is that while as an individual one feels unprotected by the state, it is sad to think that the authorities believe they can deal with religious militancy on a piecemeal basis. A holistic strategy is necessary, not to protect western interests but to safeguard the state and its citizens.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst. ayesha.ibd@gmail.com

And the obvious corollary: how can we expect to win this war if we aren’t fighting all the pieces in the militancy jigsaw? Have a look at the names and domiciles of the militants blamed for the current wave of violence in the country. At least half, if not a majority, of them are Punjabi, not tribal.

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