Did the Taliban Get Swatted?

by Joshua Foust on 5/26/2008 · 1 comment

Over at Abu Muqawama, Kip appears to discount the history of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in looking at the latest cease-fire:

The most recent agreement in Swat, however, between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban cedes the territory to the Taliban and removes the Pakistani Army without gaining significant benefits even for Pakistan. Swat is a territory over which the government has traditionally had more control than the other areas of the North West Frontier Province. The people and the government there were both unhappy and surprised when the Taliban moved in violently over the last couple of years. (Swat is a resort area of the country including Pakistan’s largest ski resort. It was until recently visited by many Punjabi and local tourists. The Taliban takeover’s American equivalent might be an Army of God violent takeover of Flagstaff). It, along with much of Waziristan, has now been ceded without much in return…

And so on. I jumped in on the comments section, adding the usual points about how this is an ancient institution, and how they’re much more aware of their history than we are. Curiously, Kip also accused Benazir Bhutto of “strongly supporting” the Taliban in the 1990s, and from this draws the conclusion that her husband, Ali Zardari, is now doing the same—a charge that does not hold up well.

More interesting than any of this was a commenter’s point that the previous generations of agreements did not have the same geopolitical context. This is not a new argument: there are many respectable writers who feel that the presence of al-Qaeda means there is something historically unique there, and thus worthy of operating outside the traditional center-periphery framework of Pakistani politics.

I respectfully disagree. Outsiders holding the Pakistani government responsible for territory it cannot control is not constructive, and has led to serious miscalculations of force—from the 2004 assassination of Nek Muhammed Wazir, Baitullah Mehsud’s predecessor, to the probable Chinese insistence on storming Lal-Masjid (which broke the most recent cease-fire with the Mehsuds)—and have not contributed to a peaceful settlement of the FATA.

Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of assumption involved in the immediate denouncement of the government’s negotiated settlement. For starters, the groups negotiated with in Swat are not the same groups in Waziristan: Swat is controlled by Maulana Fazlullah, who, truth be told, respected the previous cease-fire and only resumed hostilities when it expired. Students of the region’s history (and to be fair I am a recent) know that this behavior is standard, and not worthy of the high alarm being slung about. And since the government is not giving up control of the roads—the militant groups all agree that those belong to the government—it is unclear exactly how this is a concession akin to France ceding Alsace and Lorraine.

The agreement in South Waziristan is problematic, however, and bears close attention. While it must be repeated that so far Baitullah Mehsud has not attacked American or Afghan targets (his focus so far has been Pakistan), and that he has not broken two of the cease-fires—when a U.S. missile killed his predecessor, and when the Pakistani government stormed the Lal-Masjid mosque—there is every reason to think that this agreement will probably create problems for Afghanistan. This is not, however, because of the agreement itself, but because of the security arrangements being made by the U.S. in the region, specifically our agreement to arm and support Maulvi Nazir in his rivalry with Mehsud. The two both claim to be Taliban, but violently hate each other (they hail from competing tribes). They also both have violently conflicted with Fazlullah. Why the U.S. decided to consider Nazir, who has pledge fealty to Mullah Mohammad Omar and has ties to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Dadullah’s regiment, over Baitullah Mehsud, who is much more explicitly focused only on Pakistan though no less loyal to the Taliban leadership, is a serious mystery. The way this is panning out strikes me as inherently prone toward violence.

Furthermore, none of these groups are al-Qaeda, and none really have ambitions beyond their local tribal needs. While this sometimes crosses the Afghan border—by design, thanks to Mortimer Durand—it should be distinguished from al-Qaeda’s expansionist fantasy of a global caliphate. Viewing their current collaboration in terms other than a short-term opportunistic one is, I think, a mistake.

The Afridis, Mehsuds, and Ahmedzai Waziris all have a long history of restive relations with the central government — not just in the 19th century, but in the 1900s, 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and so on. The biggest difference isn’t the Internet or international terrorists (which we had as far back as the 1920s), but the speed at which the cycles of violence and restitution repeat themselves. That creates much more insecurity, as there is no one situation to which one can adjust, thus making effective coping mechanisms that much harder to come by.

Missing, too, in writing this all off as “ceding territory to the Taliban” is an honest look at what, exactly, the Taliban is. I highly recommend Ashley Tellis’ analysis (pdf) of how the Taliban has splintered into several groups, all of which claim the same name but have separate, and sometimes violently opposed leadership, and varying goals (ranging from a global caliphate to local autonomy). A brief excerpt:

Several distinct elements can be identified in the current Taliban coalition: the leadership council centered around Mullah Omar, other war councils, Taliban cadres, tribal networks of former mujahideen commanders, and “Pakistani Taliban” commanders. Moreover, many drug lords in eastern and southern Afghanistan are either taxed or willingly contribute revenues that are indispensable for the Taliban war against Kabul. Sundry former anti-Soviet commanders control small groups of fighters and are engaged primarily in criminal activities while offering their services as guns for hire. Disaffected Afghan Pashtun tribes, most conspicuously the rural Ghilzai, feel disenfranchised in the current governing arrangements and subsequently continue to support the Taliban with manpower and sanctuary within Afghanistan. Finally, al Qaeda, although distinct from all of the foregoing groups in that its focus of operations remains the global jihad, nonetheless collaborates with the Taliban to assist the latter in recovering control of Kabul while continuing to preserve a sanctuary in the FATA in the interim.

By keeping discussion of these agreements in a relatively simply political and historical context, I think the wrong idea gets reinforced. The agreements certainly bear close scrutiny, but they are not the unmitigated disaster they’ve been made out to be, and the ideological diversity within the Taliban movement indicates they are a long way off from having a single unified ideological movement ready to overrun the border at a moment’s notice.

That is to say, stop freaking out.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Rabia May 27, 2008 at 9:35 am

Have you read Akbar Ahmed’s book about his time as the federal government’s political agent in Waziristan? It’s a really interesting read for background about Waziristan and its relationship with the federal government.

I think the ANP should be given more credit for their attempts at negotiation than they are being given. At the very least, at least their actions are much more transparent than what the army appears to have unilaterally done in Waziristan. I agree with you that people need to have a better understanding of the nature of politics in the NWFP. The mainstream Pakistani press is pretty bad too, because most Pakistanis have not really had any interest or understanding of FATA until 2004.

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