by Ahmed Humayun
(This is the first post in a series on Pakistan's struggle against militancy).
Almost a decade in, the rebellion by the Pakistani Taliban against Islamabad shows no signs of flagging. Tough, savvy, and agile, the insurgents have expanded their campaign from the isolated northwestern tribal regions all the way to urban centers in the south such as the port city of Karachi. Their declared agenda has grown with each success: they first demanded acceptance of their control over large swathes of the tribal areas; they then denied the authority of Islamabad across Pakistan altogether; today, influenced by Al Qaeda's rhetoric, they boast of sending fighters to wars in Arab lands and attacking the United States.
We need not accept all their grandiose declarations at face value. When it comes to global terrorism, in particular, there is a chasm between their rhetoric and their capacity. The only terrorist plot on American soil they can claim is of the failed Times Square Bomber in 2010. The evidence of Taliban involvement in Middle Eastern battlefields is ambiguous at best. And their operations are constrained by an overall pool of fighters that is small: estimates vary because data is hard to collect and the definition of an active fighter is murky but at any given time there may only be between ten and twenty thousand rebel fighters.
But the insurgents have substantially expanded their campaign within Pakistan itself. They have strategic clarity where Islamabad does not and their aspirations have been whetted by the confusion of the state. In recent years the rebels have complemented their fight against Pakistani armed forces in the tribal areas with a systematic campaign of terrorism in towns and cities across the country. To this end the insurgents have leveraged and expanded a vast ‘infrastructure of extremism', which originates in decades of state sponsorship of non-state militant groups.* The network includes combat trainers, militant recruiters, funders, suicide jacket makers, indoctrinators and foot soldiers who have access to training camps, safe houses, telephone getaway exchanges, madrassahs (some, not all) and highly sophisticated media communications facilities across the length and breadth of Pakistan. The insurgents are not cave dwellers: they are adept organization builders who have institutionalized the production of terrorism as one weapon in their broader war against the state.
It is easy to get ensnared in the web of this sprawling infrastructure. This past November, I interviewed a former senior Pakistani police officer who has investigated terrorism cases for over twenty years. He told me about a 16 year old caught with two hundred and fifty kilograms of explosives in a failed assassination attempt on former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. When he asked the boy why he became a suicide bomber, the boy replied: “Maybe all of you are right when you say ‘madrassah students hate us' but we are your kids. Our maulvi told us that killing Musharraf would send us to heaven but no one told us any differently.” Some would-be-bombers (and their families) are true believers; some are coerced; some are brainwashed; some are mentally ill; some are paid off; some are poor, some are middle class; some see no place in society for themselves and find they can play a role as a martyr. There is no one defined, predictable route to militancy but the insurgents have shown flexibility in sucking potential recruits in.
The insurgent advance has been aided by the significant disparity between their capabilities and experiences relative to the civilian security forces. Insurgents are battle tested and have far more advanced weaponry than the demoralized policemen who, at the frontlines of the urban war, have effectively become cannon fodder in any confrontation. The rebels also tend to be much better paid. The owner of a security services company in Lahore that provides armed guards, many of whom are former police officers, told me his information suggests that the rank and file Taliban fighter gets paid at least twice the monthly salary of a low-grade police officer. The late Hakimullah Mehsud, who sat at the top of the rebel chain of command before being dispatched by a U.S. drone strike, owned a luxurious eight room compound in the tribal area of North Waziristan where his family resided and which was valued by one estimate at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, a significant sum in Pakistan.
It is unsurprising, then, that state control in Pakistan's cities is eroding. A series of recent jailbreak videos released by the insurgency's propaganda arm show armed assaults on outgunned, overwhelmed prison authorities in cities such as Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The rebels have eviscerated many governance structures at the local level through assassinating government officials, local power brokers, and civil society activists; manipulated election outcomes by selectively targeting political parties; leveraged alliances and partnerships with an assortment of non-state groups outside the tribal areas, whether on the basis of shared ideology or short-term expediency or both; and participated in a vast range of criminal enterprises that have filled their coffers with proceeds from drug trafficking, kidnapping, bank heists, and racketeering.
The degree of insurgent infiltration varies by city. An editor at one of the country's largest dailies told me that of the one hundred and seventy eight local union councils (the administrative unit of local governance) in Karachi, perhaps in as many as sixty or seventy the police could not enter because of de facto control by non-state actors, of whom the Taliban form a rapidly growing constituency. History and geography matter here: where the state is weaker, opportunities for insurgents are greater.Local mafias, drug lords and crime bosses, often allied with local political parties, inhibited the state's writ in Karachi long before the Taliban showed up. The situation in Karachi is not therefore analogous to, say, the city of Lahore in the province of Punjab, where the provincial government has a tighter grip, due in part to greater investments in civilian law enforcement and service delivery. Nevertheless, Karachi is the country's largest city and its financial hub, and its ongoing subversion provides a template for the escalation of urban war elsewhere.
The insurgency's ability to overthrow the state faces some basic barriers. Pakistan is a big country of more than one hundred and eighty million people and outright insurgent control outside the border areas, which have a unique history of semi-autonomy, is still limited. The Pakistani state can claim the seventh largest army in the world which has in recent years launched a series of offensives that have wrested back some territory in the northwest. And the Taliban model has limited ideological appeal —most of all where citizens have actually experienced rebel rule.
Nor is the Pakistani Taliban a monolithic movement. It is best understood as a loosely organized coalition of like-minded factions alternately cooperating and competing for recruits, funds, and credibility. Groups sometimes pay allegiance to high ranking rebel commanders and sometimes declare independence; they are often engaged in fierce turf battles with each other. Individual gangs may have strong leaders but these do not necessarily exercise day-to-day operational control. These entities are decentralized networks rather than rigid top-down structures: after terrorist attacks individual factions often do not claim immediate responsibility because they have to ask around to make sure who carried out the operation. Limits on the insurgency's capacity for coordination and divisions among its factions can create an opening for effective state action.
But even if the full on 'failed state' scenario seems implausible at this time, the fact is that the rebels do not have to overthrow the state to win. They are attenuating the relevance of an already-weak state and they are aggravating divisive trends in Pakistani society. The country has sustained enormous damage already: Over the last decade, tens of thousands have died at the hands of insurgents; millions have been displaced due to clashes between insurgents and government forces; the country's Ministry of Finance estimates direct and indirect economic costs upwards of sixty five billion dollars since 2001 as a result of conflict; even foreign cricket teams don't tour the country anymore.
Equally important, the insurgency's successes have had a wider demonstration effect. Many militant groups in Pakistan that are not in revolt against the state have their own private, sectarian agendas. In a general atmosphere where it is perceived that violence can be committed with impunity, the operations of these organizations have expanded. As a result the country is turning into a theme park of religious and political violence. Pakistan may not be a failed state but it is certainly a fracturing society, the fissures beginning to widen between Deobandi and Barelvi, Sunni and Shia, an indication of the general tendency towards polarization.
If these trends are not arrested in the coming years a new social and political order may emerge. The Pakistani state will still exist and it will still be the single strongest player across the country’s territory, but its monopoly over force will gradually be reduced to scattered cantons. Divided sectarian communities will live under multiple, conflicting sovereignties that alternate between the state, insurgents, and criminals, the balance between them constantly renegotiated, region by region, through a combination of guerilla war, urban battle, targeted assassinations, backdoor political deals, and protection payoffs that purchase the peace, if only for a time.
*‘infrastructure of extremism': This was the characterization used in the report by the Abbottabad Commission (leaked by Al Jazeera) which was constituted by Islamabad to inquire into the circumstances leading to Bin Laden's assassination by American special forces.