Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. Taliban-style militias are spreading rapidly out f

"You must understand," says Maulana Sami ul-Haq, "that Pakistan and Islam are synonymous." The principal of Darul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a tall and jovial man. He grabs my hand as he takes me round the seminary. Maulana ul-Haq laughs when I ask his views on jihad. "It is the duty of all Muslims to support those groups fighting against oppression," he says.

The Haqqania is one of the largest madrasas in Pakistan. It produces about 3,000 graduates, most from exceptionally poor backgrounds, every year. The walls of the student dormitory are decorated with tanks and Kalashnikovs. A group of students, all with black beards, white turbans and grey dresses, surrounds me. They are curious and extremely polite. We chat under the watchful eye of two officers from Pakistan's intelligence services. What would they do after they graduate, I ask. "Serve Islam," they reply in unison. "We will dedicate our lives to jihad."

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. For more than two months, the capital, Islamabad, has been held hostage by a group of burqa-clad women, armed with sticks and shouting: "Al-jihad, al-jihad." These female students belong to two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid, a large mosque near one of the city's main supermarkets. I found the atmosphere around the masjid tense, with heavily armed police surrounding the building. Though the students were allowed to go in and out freely, no one else could enter the mosque. The women are demanding the imposition of sharia law and the instant abolition of all "dens of vice". Away from the masjid, Islamabad looked like a city under siege.

A new generation of militants is emerging in Pakistan. Although they are generally referred to as "Taliban", they are a recent phenomenon. The original Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan briefly during the 1990s, were Afghan fighters, a product of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were created and moulded by the Pakistani army, with the active support of the United States and Saudi money, and the deliberate use of madrasas to prop up religious leaders. Many Taliban leaders were educated at Haqqania by Maulana Sami ul-Haq. The new generation of militants are all Pakistani; they emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan and represent a revolt against the government's support for the US. Mostly unemployed, not all of them are madrasa-educated. They are led by young mullahs who, unlike the original Taliban, are technology- and media-savvy, and are also influenced by various indigenous tribal nationalisms, honouring the tribal codes that govern social life in Pakistan's rural areas. "They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar-based columnist on the News. "But they are totally Pakistani, with a better understanding of how the world works." Their jihad is aimed not just at "infidels occupying Afghanistan", but also the "infidels" who are ruling and running Pakistan and maintaining the secular values of Pakistani society. "They aim at nothing less than to cleanse Pakistan and turn it into a pure Islamic state," says Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Lahore-based Post newspaper.

The Pakistani Taliban now dominate the northern province of Waziristan, adjacent to Afghan istan. "They are de facto rulers of the province," says Yusufzai. Waziristan is a tribal area that has historically been ruled by the tribes themselves. Pakistan has followed the policy of British Raj in the region. The British allowed tribal leaders, known as maliks, semi-autonomous powers in exchange for loyalty to the crown. Pakistan gives them the same power but demands loyalty to the federal government. They have been sidelined by the Taliban, however. Pro-government maliks who resisted the onslaught of the Taliban have been brutally killed and had their bodies hung from poles as a lesson to others. The Taliban have declared Waziristan an "Islamic emirate" and are trying to establish a parallel administration, complete with sharia courts and tax system.

Taliban-type militias have also taken control of parts of the adjacent NWFP. In Peshawar, one of the most open and accessible areas of the province, one can feel the tension on the streets. There are hardly any women out in public. The city, which has suffered numerous suicide attacks, is crowded with intelligence officers. Within an hour of my arrival in Peshawar, I was approached by a secret service official who warned that I was being watched. It is practically impossible for outsiders to enter other NWFP towns such as Tank, Darra Adam Khel and Dera Ismail Khan. In Dera Ismail Khan, outsiders - that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country - need police escorts to travel around. You are allowed in only if you can prove you have business or relatives there. Girls' schools have been closed, video and music shops bombed, and barbers forbidden from shaving beards. The religious parties have passed a public morality law that gives them powers to prosecute anyone who does not follow their strict moral code. Legislation to ban dance and music is being planned. Even administration of polio vaccination campaigns has been halted amid claims that it is a US plot to sterilise future generations.

Why is the ostensibly secular government of President Pervez Musharraf not taking any action against the Taliban militants and the parties that support them? Part of the answer lies in the militants and religious parties having served the military regime well. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf used them to neutralise the mainstream political parties - Benazir Bhutto's People's Party and the Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif. "The military and mullahs have been traditional allies," says the Islamabad-based security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa. "The alliance of religious parties that rules NWFP came into power through his support." Musharraf also used the religious militants to destabilise Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. He encouraged extremists preaching jihad to infiltrate India for acts of sabotage.

The same is true of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have been a useful ally against unfriendly governments in Kabul. Even though Musharraf has been forced to go against them under pressure from the Americans, his strategy has been to try to contain them, rather than defeat them. He tried to regulate the madrasas in NWFP and elsewhere in Pakistan that provide recruits for the Taliban, seized their funds and banned them from admitting foreign students. But that's about as far as he wanted to go. Constant US pressure has forced him to send in the army, with grave consequences. Every time the Pakistani army enters Waziristan, it takes heavy casualties. Since 2003, when Pakistani troops first entered the tribal regions, more than 700 soldiers have been killed. Not surprisingly, Musharraf signed a hasty peace agreement on 5 September 2006 allowing the Afghan Taliban to get on with their business. "The military regards the Taliban as an asset," says Siddiqa. "So why destroy an asset? Particularly when the asset could be useful in the future."

That future may not be too far off. Pakistan's foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on the assumption that the Nato forces there will withdraw sooner rather than later, leaving Hamid Karzai's regime to fend for itself. The Karzai government is strongly anti-Pakistani. But the Pakistani army needs friendly rulers in Kabul who would be willing to run the oil and gas pipelines that will serve the newly established port at Gwadar through Afghanistan's provinces (see page 32). So Pakistan needs the Afghan Taliban to exist as a force strong enough to establish the next government in Afghanistan.

Moreover, a pro-Islamabad Taliban-type government in Afghanistan would help establish peace in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, most of the people in power in Kabul are Tajiks, a minority tribe. A sizeable majority of Afghans belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which ruled Afghanistan for centuries. The position of Pakistan's military is that this imbalance "against the political history and tribal culture of Afghan istan", as one army officer told me, is not going to last. Most of the Pakistani Taliban - that is, the vast majority of people in Waziristan - are also Pashtun. And they will not rest until their brothers across the border hold the reins of power. As such, peace in this part of Pakistan depends on who rules Afghanistan.

Musharraf's strategy is to contain the Taliban of Afghan and Pakistani varieties alike, while weeding out al-Qaeda jihadis, or "foreign elements", as they are known in Pakistani military circles. The foreigners are a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war. When the war ended, many of the central Asians who came to fight the Soviets were not welcomed back in their countries. For want of an alternative, they settled in Pakistan. Most of these foreign jihadis are Uzbek. Musharraf has simply bribed the local tribes to attack and eradicate the Uzbek jihadis. The battle between Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qaeda in Wana, southern Waziristan, in which more than 200 al-Qaeda fighters and some 50 tribal fighters were killed a fortnight ago was a product of this policy.

Musharraf's problem is that the Taliban cannot be contained. The Pakistani Taliban have now acquired enough confidence to break out of Wazi ristan and NWFP into other parts of the country. "What's happening at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is a trial run for the rest of the country," says Rahman. "If the Taliban succeed in Islamabad, they will turn Pakistan into Talibistan."

Lawyers in uproar

While Musharraf continues to placate the Taliban, the rest of Pakistan is standing up against Talibanisation. Huge demonstrations have been held in Lahore, Karachi and other cities throughout Pakistan. To begin with, the protests were held to support Chief Justice Iftikhar Moham med Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf in March. Chaudhry, who has become a national hero, tried to prevent the army from selling the national steel mill for a song. The affair was the latest in a long list of scandals involving the military. The openly unconstitutional act caused uproar, leading to countrywide protests by lawyers. But the lawyers have now acquired a broader agenda. They have become a national resistance movement, supported by all sections of society, against military rule and the Taliban.

Musharraf's response to the demonstrations and the Taliban challenge is to try to entrench himself even more deeply. While the country buckles under the pressure of suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, his main concern is his own survival. Constitutionally, he must hold elections some time this year - something he has promised to do, but the whole exercise will be designed to ensure that he continues as president for another five years.

His plan to get "re-elected" has two strands. The simple option is to get the current hand-picked parliament to endorse him for a second term and try to manipulate this vote, which the present sham constitution dictates, to ensure a healthy two-thirds majority. The heads of intelligence, the security services and the police have already been primed to ensure "positive results".

Bhutto to the rescue?

The other option is a bit messy. It involves making a deal with the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto, who has been ousted from power by the military twice, is desperate to get back into power. She has a great deal in common with the general. She runs the People's Party as her personal property, and her social and economic policies - rooted as they are in feudalism and opportunism - are not far removed from those of the army. Her foreign policy would be the same as that of Musharraf; indeed, she is even more pro-American than the general.

So Bhutto and Musharraf, who have been negotiating with each other for almost three years, are an ideal couple. "The problem," says Rahman, "is that Musharraf does not want to give up his military uniform. It is the source of his strength. And the idea of Musharraf remaining military chief is anathema to Bhutto."

But the state of the nation, on the verge of political and religious collapse, may force Musharraf's hand. A deal between the general and the self-proclaimed "Daughter of the East" in which Musharraf retains most of his power as civilian president and Bhutto serves as prime minister may be acceptable to both. Rumours abound in Islamabad that a deal is imminent.

Bhutto's return from the cold would do little to stop Pakistan's slide into anarchy, however. The Taliban sense victory and will not be easily satisfied with anything less than a Pakistan under sharia law, or wide-ranging bloodshed. As Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, makes clear, the country cannot survive its "deep-seated rot" unless the "unrepresentative organs of the state - the military, the mullahs and the all-consuming intelligence agencies - are brought under control". It is hard to disagree with her assessment. But it is even harder to see how these "unrepresen tative organs" can be stopped from dragging Pakistan further towards the abyss - with dire consequences for the rest of the world.

Pakistan: a short history

1947 Muslim state of Pakistan created by partition of India at the end of British rule

1948 First war with India over disputed territory of Kashmir

1965 Second war with India over Kashmir

1971 East Pakistan attempts to secede, triggering civil war. Third war between Pakistan and India. East Pakistan breaks away to become Bangladesh

1980 US pledges military assistance following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

1988 Benazir Bhutto elected prime minister

1996 Bhutto dismissed, for the second time, on charges of corruption

1998 Country conducts nuclear tests

1999 General Pervez Musharraf seizes power in military coup

2001 Musharraf backs US in war on terror and supports invasion of Afghanistan

2002 Musharraf given another five years in office in criticised referendum

2003 Pakistan declares latest Kashmir ceasefire. India does likewise

2004 Musharraf stays head of army, having promised in 2003 to relinquish role

2005 Earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir kills tens of thousands of people

2007 Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering nationwide protests

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

***

The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

***

The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink