Muhammad Feyyaz |
The Pakistani Taliban chief was killed in a dramatic drone attack on 13 June in Eastern Afghanistan. The lay or even informed observers seem overwhelmed by the assumption that because he was instrumental in orchestrating a string of some of the most atrocious violence perpetrated in Pakistan that this country had ever witnessed, his ouster will arrest [already diminishing) trajectory of oppositional terrorism in Pakistan. If this is indeed the case, should the purported perception be accepted without further qualification or a more reflective assessment based on a systematic analysis should be undertaken?
Clearly, latter can be more helpful to objectively explore what the occurrence practically means for the domestic security landscape of Pakistan, and whether the upbeat is really justified or otherwise. Terrorism literature is replete with arguments, for or against, about the effectiveness of leadership targeting in achieving quiescence in terrorist activity and restoring order. In the first place, it needs emphasis that Fazlullah’s execution is uniquely complex given the turbulent environment in South Asia in general and Afghan-Pak region in particular.
The emphasis also needs to shift away from the traditional attrition to capture coupled with enhanced attention to disengagement and rehabilitation of the militants by application of persuasive soft power means and measures.
More significantly, he was assassinated being a fugitive but at once and allegedly under the protective cover of a neighborly more often irredentist and historically a hostile country – Afghanistan – toward Pakistan. That brings in sharp focus the principal-agent (or proxy) or simply the state sponsorship of terrorism dimension in this particular situation. In fact, it is this important feature of the subject development and its ensuing implications that separates it from the traditional leadership targeting episodes elsewhere or even from those wherein terrorist elites of Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Pakistani Taliban were decapitated on Pakistani soil.
The main catalyst for the creation of this paradigm – principal- proxy syndrome – was the counter-terrorism campaign by Pakistan Army launched during June 2014, under the rubric of operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. Apart from effectively degrading industrial and organizational infrastructure of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), the military operations imposed cross-border displacement upon the terrorists.
The TTP along with its splinters were thus compelled to seek and eventually found new sanctuary in the border regions of Afghanistan. Pakistan has consistently blamed Afghan and Indian intelligence networks in harboring and providing protection to this organization and its affiliates – a charge which has repeatedly echoed in leading international media outlets including New York Times. Practically, the inflection was of far-reaching ramifications for the TTP i.e., from previously an autonomous group, it became a proxy.
Arguably, the intriguing feature of the changed conditions was that the Taliban had to reconcile the earlier rather extremist goal envisaging the political change in Pakistan with instead more emergent and moderate, the survival needs. The nature of terrorism in Pakistan hence transformed specifically since the beginning of 2016, from conspiratorial or oppositional to disruptive disposition consistent with the whims of the principal(s). To be sure, the latter were (or still are) more keen to perpetuate a permanent state of instability in Pakistan aimed at exhausting its human and financial resources not least its will to fight, than possibly contemplating the sudden collapse of the state.
Clearly, latter can be more helpful to objectively explore what the occurrence practically means for the domestic security landscape of Pakistan, and whether the upbeat is really justified or otherwise.
These geopolitical and security interests are understandable given Pakistan’s assumed support to armed dissidence in Indian administered Kashmir and Afghanistan, and which therefore are directed at its behavioral change by raising cost compared to the benefits for the sustenance of these provisioning. The availability of TTP provided a ready asset to these neighbors, among other means, to settle the score, the efficacy of which has been endorsed by well-known Indian writers e.g., Bharat Kanard.
The departure of Fazlullah remarkably upsets this strategic equilibrium. While the prevailing upbeat in Pakistan presumes it favorable; curiously the belief is counter institutive both by any rate of intellectual measure as well as empirically. We are not clear about the circumstances leading to the drone strike on Fazlullah’s convey, even though Pakistan Army Chief was in Afghanistan barely a few hours prior to the attack, and the American spokesperson at Pentagon as well as of the US-led military coalition in Afghanistan had least certainty whom they had targeted.
Whether or not real-time intelligence was provided by Pakistan and the identity of the target was intentionally kept concealed by the Afghan leadership from CIA drone operatives and for what specific purposes, is a matter best left to time to reveal. The crucial element in the whole scenario is the possible shattering if not the complete severance of principal – proxy relationship i.e., between NDS (Afghan National Directorate of Security as well as Indian intelligence arm, RAW) and the TTP. Where the optimism needs to be moderated is the possibility of Fazlullah’s decease acting as a tipping point, (a) for the further splintering of TTP over leadership and resource feuds which is nothing exceptional and should be expected, although it can cause some problems in the short run.
For instance, cadres in Swat previously loyal to Fazlullah can fragment into loose groupings typified by warlordism phenomenon assimilating the variety of organizational objectives. But more importantly and increasingly ominous for Pakistani security establishment, (b) can be the efforts by mainstream TTP to return to original bases by dissolving themselves into tribal or urban locales as before or reconnecting with the sectarian organizations in the country more likely in Balochistan, the current hotbed of sectarianism.
Unlike in the past, in organizational terms, the progeny might adopt a networked form to ensure survival. A lull should be expected before the emergence of its concrete shape. Another danger accompanying the metamorphosis is the likely reinjection of ideological dynamic into a somewhat previously stabilizing environment by the specter of diffusion of precepts of erstwhile Talibanization, among the susceptible youth, by evoking numerous exploitable sociopolitical vulnerabilities confronting Pakistan.
To be sure, the latter were (or still are) more keen to perpetuate a permanent state of instability in Pakistan aimed at exhausting its human and financial resources not least its will to fight, than possibly contemplating the sudden collapse of the state.
The fact that TTP leadership is assigned to a tribal Mehsud, Noor Wali, whose constituency primarily inheres in South Waziristan Agency or even Karachi metropolis, makes this assertion a real possibility. Instructively, Wali who is the first Taliban leader to have documented a voluminous motivational treatise – ‘Inquilab-e-Mehsud’ – in late 2017, demonstrates incomparable acumen among his progenitors and contemporaries, to rebuild and field an innovative terrorist campaign.
In essence, the threat of terrorism may regenerate embodying a novel incarnation of TTP. The fatal attack on the public rally of a political party in Peshawar on 10 July 2018 may just be the beginning of a coming storm. Reinforced by border security mechanisms, the policy and counter-terrorism practitioners in Pakistan will be well advised to upscale human-int to preempt any potential incubation of the returning fighters. The emphasis also needs to shift away from the traditional attrition to capture coupled with enhanced attention to disengagement and rehabilitation of the militants by application of persuasive soft power means and measures.
In return, this may help to break the vicious cycle characterized by military interventions- terrorists’ retribution that has exacted a huge human and financial loss on Pakistan ever since the onset of the war on terror in this region. Finally, a reconciliatory approach toward Afghanistan and India can prove meaningfully more productive for Pakistan to stem the menace of terrorism through collaborative efforts than remaining mired in traditional blame game syndrome.
Muhammad Feyyaz is a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. He tweets at @faizy681 and can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.