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Same militants, different aims

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By Abdul Hai Kakar

THE link between military operations against the Taliban and subsequent retaliation against Pakistani forces and citizens can always be taken as a given. But there are variations. Military operations against the Taliban in Swat since 2007 elicited no serious reprisals outside Malakand division.

However, whenever Pakistani forces have gone into the tribal regions, retaliatory strikes have ensued across the country. We have seen the political and military leadership eventually opt for dialogue with the militants. To understand the situation, we must examine the organisational structure, political affiliations, ideological basis, aims, objectives and sectarian leanings of all the extremist groups that operate under the umbrella of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In Malakand division, the most active Taliban network was that of Mullah Fazlullah’s in the Swat valley. In Upper and Lower Dir, Buner and Shangla, the network was not that effective. By linking the Bajaur, Khyber and Mohmand tribal regions with the Malakand division, a clearer picture of Talibanisation emerges. These regions are geographically connected to each other. For this reason, the ideological, political and religious factors leading to Talibanisation here are different from those in the tribal regions, especially South and North Waziristan.

There are four political parties which have a strong presence in Malakand division. Going by the traditional vote bank in the area, the secular ANP and PPP lead with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) — which did not contest the 2008 polls — in third position, followed by the JUI-F. Both the ANP and PPP are committed to ideologically uprooting extremism from the region and are working towards that end. While the JI and JUI are against any such move, it is the former which is vociferous.

in its opposition to any operation against the Taliban in Malakand or adjoining Bajaur. It is considered the most powerful party in the district of Dir.

However, it was Sufi Mohammad’s Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) which provided the most fertile ideological and political ground for the growth of extremists. This organisation has been engaged in a militant struggle for the Sharia law in Malakand division since 1994. All the extremists, now part of Mullah Fazlullah’s Taliban, were ideologically nurtured by the TNSM.

Ideologically speaking though, militants in the Malakand division and Bajaur and Khyber tribal region are heavily influenced by the Punjpiris of Swabi district next to the Malakand division. Following a local version of Saudi Wahabism, the Punjpiri sect was planted in this region by Maulana Tahir, the father of the former ISI officer Major Amir who was involved in Operation Midnight Jackal. The names of those who studied at the madressah at Punjpir is like a list of who’s who of Pakistan’s major extremist leaders. They include TNSM chief Maulana Sufi Muhammad, Bajaur Taliban commander Maulana Faqir Mohammad and Mangal Bagh. Fazlullah is himself part of the Punjpiri sect. The militants in Malakand division and the Bajaur, Khyber and to a lesser extent Mohmand tribal regions have different aims and objectives to those in North and South Waziristan. In Malakand division, the militants tried to impose their version of Islam on a largely unwilling population and implemented ‘Sharia-based’ punishments such as whipping young girls accused of having affairs, banning music and girls’ education, shaving beards and attacking and blowing up shrines.

On the other hand, militants in North and South Waziristan are not so concerned about changing society or implementing the Sharia. Instead, due to the presence of fighters from different regions and nations, this is more the land of ‘international jihad’. When I visited this region two years ago, in the part of South Waziristan controlled by Maulvi Nazir, I saw girls going to school. There was no ban on music. I also saw many young men who were clean-shaved. Last year, when Baitullah Mehsud was getting married, Taliban fighters danced to the beat of drums to celebrate.

Only the JUI-F, a Deobandi sect, has a strong presence in this region. Baitullah Mehsud, Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Mufti WaliurRahman and many more second- and third-level commanders have all formerly been JUI activists. This is the reason that the JUI-F rather than the JI, raises a hue and cry when any operation is launched here. It is also always in the forefront of any negotiations with the militants.

Besides the local Taliban, there is the presence of foreigners. It is because of this reason that there is severe retaliation every time an operation is launched. The international contingent consists of Arabs, Uzbeks, Afghans, Turkmen, Chechens and militants from China’s Xinjiang.

The local brand consists of militants from Kashmiri and other sectarian and jihadi organisations. The presence of the foreign jihadis has led to growing concerns from the US, the EU, China, Iran, India, Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. While there may be sectarian and ideological differences within the contingent, all the groups are united on two points: to dislodge Nato and US forces from Afghanistan, and to break the alliance between Pakistan and these forces in the war on terror.

The current situation seems to suggest that the militants are headed towards success both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The great debate within the Obama administration about the deployment of more troops in Afghanistan and the apparent failure of Pakistani security agencies to stem the tide of extremism bolster this view.

Whenever an operation is launched in South Waziristan, a wave of bomb blasts, suicide attacks and high-profile target killings begins. This is because the only choice foreign militants in South Waziristan have in case of a military onslaught is to kill or be killed. Thus the TTP’s organisational and military structure has been adapted to act as a ‘buffer’ and ‘strike force’ for the foreign militants.

After the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP has graduated from the influence of the JUI-F and has entered the ambit of Pakistan’s banned extremist groups, particularly the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jaish-i-Mohammad. The prevalent view about these groups is that they are better planners and implementers of military strategy than the foreign militants. Due to this, the organisation’s militant activities are set to be more effective and penetrative than before.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist associated with the BBC.

Courtesy: DAWN