The South Asia Channel

Muddying the ‘Taliban’

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan means more in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul than in Miram Shah, Khost, or the Tirah Valley. Tribes straddle the border seamlessly, and trading relationships that have existed for millennia shape local cultural and political sensibilities more so than the vagaries of internationally accepted maps. This is one main reason ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan means more in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul than in Miram Shah, Khost, or the Tirah Valley. Tribes straddle the border seamlessly, and trading relationships that have existed for millennia shape local cultural and political sensibilities more so than the vagaries of internationally accepted maps. This is one main reason why distinguishing between "Afghan Taliban" and "Pakistani Taliban" is misleading, even if it is useful shorthand. The leaders of the former Taliban government of Afghanistan are now called the Quetta Shura after the Pakistani city where they are based, and Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, was captured in the Pakistani city of Karachi, 350 miles from the Afghan border.[i] Likewise, the Haqqani Network, often considered "Afghan Taliban" because of its tribal roots and operational capacity in Afghanistan, has deep roots in Pakistani territory. The network’s current operational leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was raised outside of Miram Shah in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency and studied at a madrassa, or religious school, outside Peshawar. His father, Jalaluddin, had decided to fight the Soviet-backed communist government in Afghanistan at a meeting in Miram Shah in 1978.[ii] More recently, Sirajuddin has intervened in Pakistani tribal squabbles to prevent militants from being distracted from the fight in Afghanistan.[iii]

The third group often called "Afghan Taliban" is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami (HIG).[iv] The HIG remains an important player in stoking cross-border violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but lumping it into the same category as the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network is misleading. Hekmatyar was exiled from Afghanistan during the Taliban’s reign in Kabul, and despite long ties to al-Qaeda and reconciliation with Mullah Omar since 9/11, he now seems more focused on political reconciliation than violence.[v] The HIG does not have a major presence in the FATA, though it has extensive bases in Afghan refugee camps in the NWFP outside of Peshawar.[vi]

In an environment where all of the major Taliban groups are headquartered in Pakistan and virtually all of them cooperate to support operations in Afghanistan, the distinction between "Afghan Taliban" and "Pakistani Taliban" is unhelpful. Moreover, the terminology reinforces the counterproductive fiction perpetrated by some in Pakistan that the Pakistani state is responsible for countering only certain elements of the Taliban — those with the "Pakistani" designation. In practice, the term "Pakistani Taliban" is often used interchangeably with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the pan-FATA militant coalition that engages in brutal violence against the Pakistani state. The terminology usefully distinguishes such anti-Pakistan fighters from the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network — "Afghan Taliban" — that avoid confrontation with Pakistan. But delineating this strategic difference in geographic terms enables those in the Pakistani establishment who support using militants against Pakistan’s enemies to excuse their behavior by arguing that they are fighting against the "Pakistani Taliban" and that the "Afghan Taliban" are someone else’s problem. When critical policy decisions are being made in Washington and Islamabad, the terminology favors those who do not want to take comprehensive action against militants in the FATA.

Throughout its existence, the TTP has also supported violence in Afghanistan and provided suicide bombers to bolster Haqqani Network and Quetta Shura operations there. Likewise, there are a host of FATA-based militants, including Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan, who have not embraced the TTP’s anti-Pakistan ideology and occasionally have clashed violently with the group. The terminology also obscures geographic and strategic differences within the TTP itself. For example, the TNSM movement in Swat is grounded in religious politics, not the tribal structures that guide the Mehsud fighters from South Waziristan.

Some might counter that the "Afghan" and "Pakistani" distinction is really a function of the tribal background of various militant groups. After all, the Haqqanis are from the Zadran tribe, which lives primarily in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. But the Haqqani Network, Quetta Shura, and TTP all cross tribal boundaries, and the TTP in particular has aggressively sought to destroy tribal hierarchies in favor of ideological association. In any case, the blunt "Afghan" and "Pakistani" terminology simply fails to capture the complexity of these movements. Muddying important differences with imprecise terminology leads to imprecise analysis and imprecise policy.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. This is excerpted from his longer paper "Militancy and Conflict Across the FATA and NWFP," part of the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative’s ‘Battle for Pakistan‘ series.


[i] Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins "Secret Joint Raid Captures Taliban’s top Commander" The New York Times February 15, 2010

[ii] Mustafa Hamid "Jalal al-Din Haqqani: A Legend in the History of the Afghanistan Jihad" Al-Sumud Magazine. English version available: http://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=20201

[iii] Anand Gopal, Brian Fishman, and Saifullah Khan Mehsud "The Battle for Pakistan: Militancy and Conflict in North Waziristan" The New America Foundation April 19, 2010

[iv] Stanley McChrystal "Commander’s Initial Assessment" August 30, 2009

[v] "support bases" see: Omid Marzban "Shamshatoo Refugee Camp: A Base of Support for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar" Terrorism Monitor May 24, 2007; "exiled from Afghanistan" see: Ahmed Rashid Taliban: Militant islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2000 p. 26-27; "reconciliation with Mullah Omar" see: "Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami Expresses Solidarity with Taliban" Afghan Islamic Press April 1, 2005; "focused on political reconciliation" see: "Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: Ruthless Warlord, Karzai Ally, or Both" Voice of America March 24, 2010

[vi] Omid Mazban "Shamshatoo Refugee Camp"

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