The coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis

And the battle for supremacy within the military-jihadi complex

Yesterday, it was Peshawar again. Not a day passes without a major terrorist attack in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these attacks are attributed to the “Taliban” as if it were a monolithic entity, clouding our understanding as to who might have carried out the attacks and why.

As The Acorn has previously argued, the radical Islamist faction within the Pakistani military establishment gained critical mass around April 2007. It has only strengthened since then. (See these posts)

It is inevitable that this should happen, given that both the officer corps and the rank-and-file of the post-Ziaul Haq Pakistan army have been raised on a diet of Islamic fundamentalism. Pressed by the United States after 9/11, Generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani could well remove some, sideline others from the radical faction, but given their numbers and the popularity of their cause, but couldn’t completely purge them from the army. Yet given the international environment, the radical faction—that we like to call Gul & Co—cannot take over.

Now, Kayani & Co who wield power at the GHQ are hardly the sort who will pull the shutters on the use of cross-border terrorism to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and India. But given the choice, they are unlikely to want to impose a Taliban-like regime over Pakistan. They depend on the US largesse, which is available to them only when they play along with Washington’s demands. They also must continue to demonstrate that they—and not any other political actor—are the United States’ ‘indispensable allies’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So, on the one hand, General Kayani has every reason to use his proxies in Afghanistan—the taliban of the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura—to destabilise that country until the United States hands Kabul over to them. It is this faction that is fighting the US-led international forces in Afghanistan. (Similarly, Kayani & Co use the Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry out attacks against India).

On the other hand Gul & Co—General Kayani’s doppelgänger—won’t stop attacks on the Pakistan army until the latter stops doing Washington’s bidding. This faction uses the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Punjabi jihadi groups to carry out attacks within Pakistan, and on the Pakistan army. Kayani & Co are retaliating against these attacks through Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan by selectively targeting the taliban belonging to the Hakeemullah Mehsud group. Like all operations against jihadis, the Pakistan army will find it impossible to sustain such operations for too long—eventually soldiers will begin to ask why they are fighting their ‘innocent’ co-religionists and compatriots.

Despite their principals in the military establishment being at loggerheads, the proxies themselves have so far not attacked each other. Shared ideology, old boy networks and management by the ISI on the one hand and by the al-Qaeda leadership on the other have prevented a large scale fratricidal war among the jihadis. While a hot conflict between the jihadi proxies of the GHQ and Gul & Co factions is unlikely, it is not impossible. If the management mechanisms come under stress, the jihadis could train their guns against each other.

The longer Pakistan army proceeds on its current course—appeasing Washington without eliminating the jihadi element—the greater the chance that this will happen. Pakistan is no stranger to wars between sectarian-political militias. If the security situation continues to worsen—as it will unless the military establishment decides to co-operate with the civilian internal security machinery—Kayani & Co might well decide use their jihadi proxies to target their adversaries. Indeed, the popular agitation that ejected General Musharraf from power is still fresh in people’s minds, making the imposition of martial law (less a military coup) less likely. Thus, for Kayani & Co, the jihadi proxy becomes relatively more attractive as an option.

If the United States bails out of Afghanistan, it is possible that Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and other Gul & Co proxies will all make a play for power in Kabul. The power struggle there will have repercussions in Pakistan. Even in this case, Kayani & Co might have to employ their own proxies, in Pakistan, to fight for their interests.

In recent weeks, a sustained terrorist campaign has thrown Pakistan into turmoil and enveloped its citizens in an atmosphere of fear. The situation could get much worse if jihadi groups start targeting each other. Given its weakness, it is unlikely that civil society—as Pakistani optimists argue—will be able to forestall a fratricidal jihadi civil war.

Unless Kayani & Co eliminate both Gul & Co and their own jihadi proxies this is the way things will go. General Musharraf blew his chance in 2002 when he could have acted against Gul & Co and the jihadi groups when they were relatively weak in number. He chose not to. It’s much harder now. Just how does General Kayani demobilise several tens of thousands of functionally illiterate, combat-hardened, thoroughly radicalised men? That’s not all, these fighters are backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters and millions of sympathisers. This is one of the most important policy challenges for international security in the first half of this century.

Tailpiece: It is time to stop referring to the “Taliban” with a capital “t”. That term correctly refers to Mullah Omar’s regime, remnants of which are currently hosted by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex at Quetta. The groups that refer to themselves by that names are largely inspired clones and copycats. It is more informative to refer to them as jihadis or “taliban” (with a lower-case “t”) in general and cite the specific group they belong to. For instance: the Haqqani taliban, the Hakeemullah Mehsud taliban etc.

16 thoughts on “The coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis”

  1. Well written. While it is debatable about the clear lines that demarcate factions in Pak, your argument that a power struggle is bound to happen is a valid one. I assume that the inspiration of this piece is the post-Soviet civil war that happened in Afghanistan.

    -Pradeep

  2. Given that Pakistani Army will never act against Taliban (with capital T), Lashkar and to some extent against Al-Qaeda, what shud India and US be doing? Just strive to protect our territories and stay away from Af-Pak? What do you think?

  3. Much food for thought. Great insight. Ties together well – and finally makes some sense to this reader – along with Rohde’s insider account in NYT.

  4. If When the United States bails out of Afghanistan, it is possible that Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and other Gul & Co proxies will all make a play for power in Kabul.

    FIFY.

  5. Good article!
    I think change will have to start with the millions of sympathizers you mention, and then work towards the more proximate actors in this sordid drama. Sadly, that is going to take more bombings and loss of life. Much of Pakistani upper/middle class and it’s breathless press is so drunk on the theory that India, Israel and the USA are constantly scheming to discredit and/or anihilate the Land of the Pure (and that the pre-eminent superpower China is their only friend) that it will need something of breathtaking scale to shake them out of that inebriation. I sincerely believe that once that change of will happens or is forced to happen, everything else will fall in place, and then the details of ISI management, principals and proxies will matter less. The many thousand talib churned out by the frontier madrassa assembly line will of course need some effective occupation, and (just wishful thinking) maybe they will turn on the military-feudal complex when they realize how badly they’ve been had and bring about real change there. India of course will continue to be recepient of much transference angst from such evolving pains, but should try it’s best to refrain from providing the MF complex the diversion they are constantly seeking.     

    Regards.

  6. Unless the Pakistani state takes the following steps to undo all the brainwashing done during the cold war, there is no chance of the average Pakistani seeing the light. In order of decreasing importance w.r.t. getting a handle on this problem, the focus has to be on rolling back the violent ideology that trains so many Pakistanis on a daily basis.

    For an average pakistani, all of this ideological foundation is provided by the logic of the local Mullah, which implies that after bringing the Pakistani army to its knees (since the Army plays the clerics against each other to maintain their supremacy, and will not allow any dilution of the jihad ideology of these clerics).

    With such a focus, the following steps seem like an obvious choice:
    1. Bring all clerics under a re-education program to stop preaching hate and follow guidelines, like the deoband clerics in India already do.
    2. Change all textbooks at all leves, especially those taught in Madrass
    control of the clergy and what they preach to the public

    All sounds fine in theory so far. Now, the problem is that the clerics possess the divine authority to override any one else in Pakistan, so they cannot be challenged by non-clerics or non-muslims. By definition, such non-believers cannot challenge any muslim cleric on his or her ideas — any challenger to the ideology must be a Hafiz or higher in the hierarchy of islamic scholars. The only such people with that background are the Indian islamic scholars and clerics who can argue with the Pakistani clerics in their own language.

    One possibility is to try a debate in the islamic format between Indian and Pakistani clerics on mass media in Pakistan, in order to erode the “divine sanction” that the pakistani jihadi terrorists pretend to have while spreading hate and mayhem. Anything else will allow the clerics to claim that “islam is in danger” to reap the paranoia of a poorly informed public as a wall around the cleric and his ideology.

  7. “For an average pakistani, all of this ideological foundation is provided by the logic of the local Mullah, which implies that after bringing the Pakistani army to its knees (since the Army plays the clerics against each other to maintain their supremacy, and will not allow any dilution of the jihad ideology of these clerics).”

    I wanted to edit the post to fix this, but the above should read as

    For an average pakistani, all of this ideological foundation is provided by the logic of the local Mullah. However, influencing the mullah can only be done after bringing the Pakistani army to its knees and essentially remaking the army into a professional army that does not try to kill all civilian leaders on a regular basis.
    This is because the Army plays the clerics against each other to maintain their supremacy, and will not allow any dilution of the violent jihad ideology espoused by these clerics.

  8. 1. Bring all clerics under a re-education program to stop preaching hate and follow guidelines, like the deoband clerics in India already do.
    2. Change all textbooks at all leves, especially those taught in Madrass
    control of the clergy and what they preach to the public

    Which universe are we talking about? Surely not the one we inhabit.

  9. libertarian,

    “Which universe are we talking about? Surely not the one we inhabit.”

    So what exactly is your objection? That it is not possible today? In that case, I did preface those two points with the precondition that the Army’s pernicious influence on Pakistani politics needs to be eliminated today.

    The larger point is that just physical violence against the jihadis is not a long-term solution. There are enough and more to replace the ones that are taken out. The real key is to undercut the ideological basis.

    The other alternative is to strengthen public institutions so that jihadis can actually be prosecuted without the Army intervening on their behalf or the courts playing “revolving door” with convicted terrorists.

    Both options are not workable in today’s pakistan, but that does not mean conditions that will make them work cannot be created.

  10. If the jihadis can get brainwashed one way on the influence of the mullahs, then surely the mullahs can also brainwash them in a positive way, but first the mullahs need to have their head screwed on straight.

  11. @., Maybe I misunderstood what you meant. Did you mean that the Indian deobandi mullahs themselves are not very forward looking? That is also true — in fact, only Maulana Syed Kalbi in the AIMPLB speaks rationally and sensibly all the time. The deobandi/sunni maulanas are just as bad as the pakistani mullahs when it comes to having a progressive outlook for this century.

  12. @srm: my point was about the futility of any prescription requiring long-range planning in Pakistan – especially involving abandoning of “cherished” ideals. When you call for “bringing the Pakistani army to its knees” – seems like Pakistan will be on it’s back before the army is brought to its knees; it will be the last institution to collapse. And talking of reforming mullahs is missing the point: a sufficient chunk of the population is radicalized enough that reformed mullahs will provoke mullah-lynchings. The cancer is too widespread in society – it’s a society that’s rotten from the inside out. Between their feudal underpinnings, hyper-religious society, overarching military, jihadi factories, and absent political institutions they’ve got enough problems to overwhelm the best-intentioned efforts. So why even bother with prescriptions? Better to concern ourselves with managing the toxic fallout while Pakenstein is committing sepuku in slow motion.

  13. libertarian, Agree with you on all points. The Pakistani Army’s worst enemy is itself, and taking care of our own problems first is a better plan for now.

  14. However, I am not too worried about Pakistani Taliban coming to power. I think that is a pretty good outcome for India — the punjabi Taliban and Lashkar jihadis are equal-opportunity haters (who will have their hands on nukes at that point).

    On the balance, Indians can rest easy that a country that is no longer under the control of the Army would consider India just one of many targets to hate in this wide world. The situation today is a whole lot worse, where India is the sole target of Pakistani nukes purely because the Pakistani army and educated elite are in control.

  15. Recent history in Pakistan is similar to events in Iran during the rule of the Shah. Both leaderships were strongly backed by the US, and were involved in widespread repression or attacks on their own people. Both regimes followed policies that were deeply unpopular domestically. In Iran, this led the revolution of 1979 which created an Islamic Republic. Could something similar happen in Pakistan?

    http://watching-history.blogspot.com/2009/10/future-of-pakistan.html

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