Killing the ‘Good Taliban’
The death of Mullah Nazir exposes why Pakistan's love affair with jihadis is likely to end in tears.
On Thursday morning, Pakistani militant Maulvi Nazir met his end in a U.S. drone attack on a car traveling in Angor Ada, South Waziristan. It was not first time the United States tried to kill him, nor was the United States the sole entity that wanted him dead.
Nazir’s story displays the complexity of the militant challenge in North and South Waziristan, the mountainous, tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. It is a place where jihadist groups opt to fight the United States, the Pakistani state, or even one another, and use the patronage of al Qaeda or the Pakistani military. And it is a place the Pakistani military will face great difficulty in stabilizing, let alone mainstreaming, if and when a political settlement with the Taliban is reached in Afghanistan. Nazir represents the Pakistani military’s Catch-22. For three decades, Pakistan has used jihadists to exert influence in Afghanistan and India, consuming thousands of lives in Pakistan and strangling its economy. The military now relies on non-hostile jihadists like Nazir to counterbalance anti-state jihadists, but its proxies all-too-often morph into foes. Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, is unable to wean itself off of the jihadist double-edged sword.
Nazir’s was a peculiar case. He was allied with both al Qaeda and the Pakistani military, focusing his fight on coalition forces in Afghanistan. But he was at times like a child caught in a messy divorce, pulled in a tug of war between al Qaeda and the Pakistani military. He reached his first truce with the Pakistan Army in April 2007, a month after his group clashed with militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU, based in Waziristan since 9/11, has fought against both the Pakistani and Afghan states. In 2008, Nazir paired up with Hafiz Gul Bahadur — who, like Nazir, was a Pakistani Waziri and was inclined to restrict his fight to Afghanistan — to form the Maqami Tehreek-e Taliban, or the Local Movement of the Taliban. This move was clearly part of a Pakistani military strategy to isolate the original TTP, which was founded seven months earlier by Baitullah Mehsud with the goal of overthrowing the Pakistani state.
Nazir’s group has remained at odds with the IMU, perhaps the most radical and sociopathic of the jihadist outfits in Waziristan. The Nazir organization has also had troubled relations with the TTP, which has not only been closely tied with the IMU, but also has a leadership core from the Mehsud tribe, historic rivals of Nazir’s Ahmadzai Wazir.
Notwithstanding these differences, Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur temporarily defected from the ISI’s camp in February 2009, pairing up with the al Qaeda-linked TTP to form the Shura Ittihadul Mujahideen. This was an alliance of convenience made not only as both Nazir and Gul Bahadur suspected the ISI of being complicit in the rising CIA drone attacks, but also as the TTP spread deeper into settled areas in Pakistan’s northwest.
At the time, Nazir not only chose the stronger horse, but the horse that perhaps more accurately reflected his long-term vision. In July 2009, he appeared in a video produced by al-Sahab, al Qaeda’s media arm, declaring that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was based on kufr or disbelief. Its educational system, in his view, was an alien design, a vestige of Lord Macaulay’s 19th-century reforms in British India. Nazir condemned the ISI for creating rifts between the various, and between the Wazir and Mehsud tribes. And he called upon other jihadis to "renounce their servitude to the ISI." Nazir’s objective, he said, was not simply to evict the Americans from Afghanistan, but to establish sharia and make it supreme in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond.
Nazir’s alliance with the TTP would not last long. By the fall of 2009, after the Pakistani military ousted the TTP from Swat and ahead of its operations in South Waziristan, Nazir once again completed a non-aggression pact with the Pakistan Army. Nazir’s forces were spared in Operation Rah-e Nijat (Path to Salvation), which was aimed at clearing South Waziristan of the TTP and IMU and establishing government control over the area.
The pact with the Pakistan Army allowed Nazir to maintain his hold on the Ahmadzai Wazir-populated areas of South Waziristan and continue his fight against coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. For all his hard talk against the Pakistan Army, Nazir seemed most preoccupied with his local vicinity and Afghanistan. He was educated at the Central Madrasah in Wana, South Waziristan. There’s no indication he traveled elsewhere aside from Afghanistan during the 1990s, where he fought alongside the Afghan Taliban. He once told an interviewer that his father took part in the jihad against the Soviets and received inspiration from his tribe’s fight against the British over a century ago. Nazir explained that the fight against the Pakistan Army was not initially one of choice, but one that was imposed on him, due to Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas post-9/11.
Nazir’s killing is nothing more than a tactical success for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His forces have been a major target of the U.S. drone campaign. His brother was killed in a drone strike in October 2011. With the absence of Nazir and some of his deputies, his network’s ability to conduct operations in the Greater Paktia region of Afghanistan might be far reduced. But the strategic balance in Afghanistan remains with the Afghan Taliban. And Nazir was nothing more than an accessory to Mullah Omar’s fight.
A greater impact from his death will be felt in Pakistan, where the TTP is resurging and the Pakistan Army cannot count on Nazir to stabilize the Ahmadzai Wazir portions of South Waziristan. Nazir’s successor might decide to hold the Pakistan Army accountable for his former leader’s death. At the very least, Nazir’s organization will lack the ability to push back against the TTP. To survive, it might be compelled to realign itself with the TTP, joining hands against the Pakistan Army.
Many in Pakistan have viewed Nazir as one of the "good Taliban" — militants who focus on ousting the U.S. from Afghanistan, but refrain from targeting Pakistan. Nazir was vital to the Pakistani military’s strategy of countering the TTP and promoting the insurgency in Afghanistan. His absence will be felt as TTP terrorist attacks continue nationwide and the army has yet to have fully cleared South Waziristan.
Over the long term, Nazir would likely have become a source of trouble for the Pakistani state, especially if a political settlement were reached in Afghanistan. Nazir would probably have sought to hold on to his fiefdom or partner with other jihadists to impose their brand of sharia on the rest of Pakistan. For the Pakistani military, Nazir’s exit from the scene was ultimately necessary, but with the TTP still active in South Waziristan, his departure was a bit too soon.
The government of Pakistan desperately needs to rid itself of the jihadist Frankstein monsters its military has created. How exactly it does that is the million-dollar question. While the Pakistan Army is pushing for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it lacks a political strategy to deal with its own Taliban. With some militants in Pakistan, there will be no political solution. The case of Maulvi Nazir demonstrates the Pakistan Army’s dependence on pitting old proxies against new proxies. But the thousands killed in Pakistan in the years after 9/11 show the grim reality that for the Pakistani Army, today’s friends all too often become tomorrow’s enemies.