Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The long-term dangers for Pakistan of believing in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban

As the Peshawar hospitals were still coping with casualties from an attack that left 132 school children dead, Pakistan’s military began carrying out revenge airstrikes on militant hideouts.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
To go with Afghanistan-unrest-police-militia by Anuj Chopra
In this photograph taken on May 23, 2015, an Afghan Local Police (ALP) member keeps watch in Kasab village in Kunduz. A peach-fuzzed teenager clad in camouflage fatigues, Mohammad Jawad could be mistaken for a boy scout -- but he commands one of hundreds of Afghanistan's local anti-Taliban police units, accused of stoking insecurity. The US-funded Afghan Local Police (ALP) operate as surrogate village armies to fill a security vacuum in the remote Taliban-infested countryside, supplementing security forces which are stretched on multiple fronts as they face their first fighting season without the aid of NATO troops. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
To go with Afghanistan-unrest-police-militia by Anuj Chopra In this photograph taken on May 23, 2015, an Afghan Local Police (ALP) member keeps watch in Kasab village in Kunduz. A peach-fuzzed teenager clad in camouflage fatigues, Mohammad Jawad could be mistaken for a boy scout -- but he commands one of hundreds of Afghanistan's local anti-Taliban police units, accused of stoking insecurity. The US-funded Afghan Local Police (ALP) operate as surrogate village armies to fill a security vacuum in the remote Taliban-infested countryside, supplementing security forces which are stretched on multiple fronts as they face their first fighting season without the aid of NATO troops. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
To go with Afghanistan-unrest-police-militia by Anuj Chopra In this photograph taken on May 23, 2015, an Afghan Local Police (ALP) member keeps watch in Kasab village in Kunduz. A peach-fuzzed teenager clad in camouflage fatigues, Mohammad Jawad could be mistaken for a boy scout -- but he commands one of hundreds of Afghanistan's local anti-Taliban police units, accused of stoking insecurity. The US-funded Afghan Local Police (ALP) operate as surrogate village armies to fill a security vacuum in the remote Taliban-infested countryside, supplementing security forces which are stretched on multiple fronts as they face their first fighting season without the aid of NATO troops. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

By Faqir Hamim Masoom
Best Defense guest columnist

As the Peshawar hospitals were still coping with casualties from an attack that left 132 school children dead, Pakistan’s military began carrying out revenge airstrikes on militant hideouts. Jolted by the heinous nature of the attack on the military school in December 2014, Pakistan abruptly ended a moratorium on the death penalty and ostensibly abandoned a decade-long customary policy of differentiating between militant factions.

And while the gallows have since witnessed the hanging of dozens of convicted terrorists already on death row, it is important to revisit the question: who are Pakistan’s good Taliban these days? And is it really possible to maintain and police the difference between different militant factions?

Those casually referred to as the ‘good Taliban’ are a select group of militants, whose objectives largely coincided with those of the Pakistan’s security agenda. Pakistan has long acknowledged influence over the Afghan Taliban leadership, but simultaneously says it does not hold enough leverage to control or dictate their operations. This desire to sway, with a distinct lack of control over select armed actors, has led to myriad problems for Pakistan.

In an attempt to understand the challenges faced today, it is important to view how this nexus between state and militant was achieved. Initially fostered in view of its larger geo-political stratagem, Pakistan, as part of a CIA engineered covert operation, extended support to the Mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the country’s frontline efforts in the War on Terror and the soon followed severing of diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime have since led to a surge of terror attacks on its own soil. This blowback effect raises questions about the effectiveness of Pakistan’s affiliation with known terror outfits.

Inherent to their fragmented structure, the Taliban and other armed militant groups remain in perpetual disarray, where they tend to align and realign themselves with different terror factions. Needless to say, when working with such groups, loyalty and trust are rare commodities. ‘Good’ groups have shown a propensity to abruptly severe informal agreements established with country’s security apparatus and align with the ‘bad’ Taliban to hit targets inside Pakistan.

But the challenges faced by Pakistan in maintaining a good/bad Taliban dichotomy are not just limited to its domestic arena. The favored Taliban have also been known to coalesce with foreign militants whose objectives are at distinct odds with those of the Pakistan state. Such opposing interpretations of strategic objectives invariably complicate the relationship between the state and its proxy. These complications have led to questions regarding Pakistan’s role in the global sphere.

For example, the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) is a separatist group active in China’s Xinjiang province along Pakistan’s northern border. Claims of state-sponsored religious oppression by Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims have allowed the ETIM fighters to form close ties with other jihadi groups south of the boarder, thus allowing them to permeate inside Pakistan. This unsavory alliance has apparently led to ETIM training camps being constructed – with glaring similarities to those of the Taliban – in Pakistan’s North Waziristan Tribal region.

As both sides of the Taliban provide refuge and logistics to ETIM in furthering their separatist movement in Xinjiang. This complicates Pakistan’s strong bilateral relationship with China. Pakistan is supportive of China’s position and aggressively pursuing to eliminate ETIM’s terror networks is instrumental in securing China’s $46 billion landmark investment in Pakistan.

Similarly, Pakistan has been able to establish a counter-terrorism partnership with Afghanistan. Assuming the role of mediator, Pakistan is bringing representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government to facilitate an ‘Afghan led, Afghan owned’ solution. Recognizing a degree of influence Pakistan has over the Afghan Taliban, its backing of the peace talks is seen as a pre-requisite for a probable peace deal. Islamabad has exhibited to its Afghan neighbors and the international community its dedication to furthering regional peace by aggressively pursuing diplomatic avenues. Undoubtedly, commitment shown to the peace talks are driven from a realization deep within the security circles that Islamabad has more to gain from an Afghanistan led by Ashraf Ghani, as opposed to it being governed by multiple fragmented power structures.

I believe Pakistan has come to realization that its regional security strategy with Afghanistan and its trade ambitions with China are no longer compatible with its reliance on select militants as ‘strategic assets’. Therefore, it is making good on its promise of targeting terrorists of all ‘hues and colors’.

But this optimistic shift in policy comes with some warning. Just nine months after the school attack, it is irrational to assume that this practice of employing proxies, which was embedded from the time of the Afghan Jihad and in the subsequent three-and-a-half decades has integrated with the overarching security policy, can be overridden in the near future.

Faqir Hamim Masoom has a master’s degree in international relations from the National Defence University (NDU) in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is currently working as a Young Parliamentary Associate (YPA) with the Senate of Pakistan. His views are his own. Twitter at @faqirhamim, email at faqirhamim@hotmail.com.

Photo credit: An Afghan Local Police (ALP) member keeps watch in Kasab village, Kunduz, on May 23, 2015. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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