Is The Taliban–Pakistani Alliance on the Rocks?

By J. Millard Burr*
Monday, January 5th, 2015 @ 12:05AM

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The bloody attack on an army–run school in December 14, 2014, is considered the most vicious attack ever carried out by the Taliban Movement in Pakistan. Seven Taliban suicide bombers attacked an army-run school auditorium in Peshawar, where children were taking an exam, killing at least 132 children and nine adults.  The terrorists “turned a place of learning and community into a place where children as young as 12 were shot in the head, where corpses lined the halls and where a teacher was burned alive.”

Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) jihadists carried out the attack — almost certainly with the assistance of the Haqqani network.  The Haqqani is centered in North Waziristan and it operates both there and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The attack is said to be in reprisal for Pakistan military operations intended to cleanse North Waziristan that has long been home to Islamist terrorists. The TTP was founded in December 2007 and is led by Maulana Fazlullah.  Its numbers are estimated to exceed 25,000 actives.

The “Haqqania”, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, whose 15,000 members are led by the aging Jalaludin Haqqani and his immediate family. The Haqqani network is tied to both the TTP and al-Qaeda and remains a major security threat to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Its allies include a plethora of terrorist organizations including the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

North Waziristan is a generally ungovernable mountainous region located west to southwest of Peshawar.  It borders Afghanistan and is included in Pakistan’s FATA with Miranshah as its capital.  Peshawar itself serves as the capital of what is now an utterly chaotic Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province), and borders the equally chaotic Waziristan. Throughout the Northwest Frontier civilization does battle with barbarity; tribe with tribe; city with village; the intolerant Sunni Muslim with Shia, Hazara, Baluch and Christian; Salafist Muslim and the radical Deobandi sect with the Sufi and other moderates; civilian society with the military; the police with a widespread gangster element.  In sum there now exists a Hobbesian war where life is much too often nasty, brutish and short.

Ironically, the attack on a military-supported school united — at least for the moment — a gaggle of political parties traditionally antagonistic to one another.  Likewise, it boosted support for Pakistan’s powerful army, which is seen as the only element of Pakistan’s society that could possibly bring an end to the terrorism.  The military, which finally decided that the Taliban terrorist networks in Waziristan actually threatened their predominance in the North, had been on the attack in North Waziristan since June 2014.  The success of that air operation can only be guessed given the blackout of anything but military approved news from the region.  The media has already conceded that should the military operation succeed in imposing military dominance along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, it will feel even less shackled than usual in imposing its will on South Asia’s most fissiparous nation-state.

Peshawar – Background

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the Pakistan entrepot at Peshawar served as the heart of the jihad.  It served as the center of operations for the tens of thousands of so-called Arab-Afghans who arrived to join the handful of Afghan mujahideen determined to expel the Soviet invaders.  The “Prince” of the Arab-Afghans was Sheikh Abdallah Azzam.  He arrived in Peshawar very shortly after the Soviet invasion.  The Palestinian Muslim Brother was backed by Saudi funding and soon created a mujahideen center of operations (the MAK) that was functioning even after the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1988. However, the MAK influence did not long survive the assassination of Azzam in Peshawar on 23 November 1989.  Many blamed the bombing that took the war’s most famous mujahid (and two of his sons) on the Al Qaeda movement, which had emerged as a rival to Azzam after its founding by Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan, in August 1988. (The likely culprit was Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was quite familiar with bombings and assassinations.)

The bombing in Peshawar broke a decade-long truce that had made Peshawar an oasis of peace in a region dominated by gangs of violent mujahideen.  Over the next decade there were sporadic tit-for-tat assassinations in Peshawar as four important Afghan mujahideen movements did battle with the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban movement for supremacy in Afghanistan.

After the 9/11/2001 attack in America, Peshawar reassumed its role as the nexus of Islamist operations. This time, the Islamists fought against a new invading force, the United States.

As usual, the Pakistan military (through its Inter Services Intelligence unit, or ISI) played both ends against the middle. Under Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq the ISI influence was cemented as the most powerful entity in the Pakistan military.  Its influence in government was later made manifest following the arrest of Habib Bank’s Sindh office director Yunus ibn Habib in March 1994.  Habib admitted having turned over Rs140 million to Pakistan Army Chief and dedicated Islamist General Mirza Aslam Beg to be used by the ISI in the 1990 elections.  The untouchable Beg admitted that he had received the money and then had delivered it to the ISI, which then used it for election purposes.  Beg, the ISI, and the military were tarnished but in the end escaped unscathed.

Despite pervasive corruption in and well known narcotics trafficking by Pakistan military in the post-9/11 years, it still managed to secure billions in Washington funding.  It did so while continuing to support the Taliban movements — its Frankenstein Monster — in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.

Recent Developments

Peshawar began to be torn apart politically, economically, and religiously, by a series of bombings in 2010, nearly all of which could be attributed to the Tehreek-e-Taliban.

On 5 April 2010 scores were killed and wounded in the suicide car bombing of the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar.  The attackers used grenades and automatic weapons during their failed attempt to enter the facility.  In addition, three explosions occurred within minutes in a heavily traveled avenue located near the American Consulate and the Peshawar headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence agency.  Within hours a TTP spokesman claimed responsibility for the assault claiming, “Americans are our enemies. We carried out the attack on their consulate in Peshawar. We plan more such attacks.”

Two weeks later, a suicide bombing occurred in the busy Qissa Khawani marketplace in Peshawar that killed at least 25 people including one Dost Muhammad the local leader of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Founded in 1941 in British India, the JI is an Islamist political party with historically close ties to the international Muslim Brotherhood.  The more radical Pakistani elements consider the movement far too political and insufficiently Islamist for the times.

On 12 June 2011, shortly after CIA Director Leon Panetta arrived in Peshawar for a meeting with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, two bombs went off in the city killing 34 and injuring 100.

A powerful bomb exploded in a marketplace in Peshawar on 10 January 2012, killing at least six people, wounding more than 30.  It destroyed about 30 shops — an especial Taliban target as they sold music and cassettes that the Islamists considered forbidden (haram).  It was a wonder that there were not more casualties as the remotely-exploded bomb was said to contain 10 kilograms of explosives.

On September 4, 2012, there was a second suicide attempt on a U.S. Consulate target.  A suicide bomber killed himself and two others when he drove a car bomb into a US consular vehicle injuring two Pakistani staff.  Some twenty Pakistanis were injured in the explosion.  A report on the event noted that Peshawar was linked with “the volatile tribal areas bordering Afghanistan with the rest of Pakistan.  Taliban and al-Qaeda militants operate in the area and the city has been targeted frequently in bombings in recent years, although US officials are said to be protected by extensive security measures.” 

On September 4, 2013, the Jundullah branch of the TTP managed to pile horror on horror’s head when it blew up the beautiful and historic All Saints Anglican church in Peshawar.  More than 80 people were killed and more than 100 injured as congregants filed out of the church directly into the face of the explosion.  It was the worst attack on Christians since Pakistan’s independence, although in numbers killed constant attacks on Pakistan’s Shia and Baluch communities have caused much higher casualties.

All Saints, built in 1883, was the cultural center of the small Christian community to be found in the city.  For more than a hundred years the church had been what observers called a “symbol of interfaith harmony.”  In reviewing what had occurred, reporters noted that the Taliban had vowed to kill non-Muslims until the U.S. cancels its drone strikes in Pakistan.

Finally, the Peshawar school bombing was preceded by bombing attacks on at least two movie houses in February 2014, and followed by a rocket attack on Peshawar airport in April.  A number of assassinations followed, and the police claimed the TTP and its allies were plotting even more savage attacks following the start of a military offensive kicked-off in June and directed against the jihadist safe-haven in North Waziristan.

In October a bomb exploded in a passenger van killing seven.  Acting quickly, the police reportedly halted eight bombings set to explode seriatim and whose casualties would have been enormous.  By year’s end more than twenty-five police had been killed in Peshawar in 2014.

The press in Islamabad and Karachi has generally criticized the activity of Imre Khan.  A famed cricketer and founder in April 1996 of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”), Khan’s party dominates the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Peshawar itself.  Khan was a member of the National Assembly from November 2002 to October 2007, and I May 2013, was elected to the National Assembly, along with 25 party members.  Khan is said to be popular in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because he reportedly has worked out a modus vivendi with the PPT and supports the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Taliban Influence in Peshawar

The recent arrest in Kabul of a potential suicide bomber has fingered the large and well-funded Peshawar’s Darul Uloom-e-Haqqania school and Islamist seminary, as a center of jihadist activity.  The school is located at Akora Khattak on the road between Peshawar and Nowshera and the main road to Islamabad.  It was founded by Maulana Abdul Haq (father of known jihadist Maulana Sami ul Haq) in 1947. It has provided an education to thousands of students, and is now the second largest, and by all accounts the most radical Islamic religious seminary in Pakistan.  Its radical curriculum is based on the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam.

Maulana Abdul Haq found especial favor with Pakistani President and military leader Zia ul Haq when he declared a jihad after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.  His fatwa issued to that effect was issued by the Darul Uloom-e-Haqqania he had founded near Peshawar. His son, Sami ul Haq (18 December 1937- ) carried on his father’s work and as a noted religious scholar and politician is considered the “Father of the Taliban.”  While chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary, Sami ul Haq has presided over the graduation of many alums who have attained leadership positions in the Taliban Movement.  He personally is known to have maintained close ties to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Thus far a political untouchable, Sami ul Haq is the leader of a faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) political party, known as JUI-S.

The JUI is determinedly Islamist, insisting on the predominance of Islamic law (shari’a).  Since the war with the Soviet invaders the JUI has established thousands of madrasahs in Pakistan, and more than any other religious movement.  Recently, the JUI has split into two factions, that of Maulana Sami-ul Haq (JUI-S) and that of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F). Both serve as members of the National Assembly of Pakistan and form part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, an alliance of religious parties that in the past accounted for approximately eleven percent of the popular vote and gained twenty percent of the elected members of parliament.

For elections held in 2013 Sami ul Haq formed the Mutahida Deeni Mahaz (United Religious Front), an alliance of “religio-political” parties.  The political platform demanded that all senior officials, including the president, prime minister, chief justice and armed forces commanders be Sunni Muslims.  In addition the movement called for an end to co-education, and would require the training of all adult Muslims to take part in jihad.

By its own admission, Sami ul Haq’s Darul Uloom-e-Haqqania seminary has educated thousands of students to follow the Islamist mission in Afghanistan, Pakistan and abroad.  As the school’s website puts it, many of its pupils have “earned fame in the religious and political fields.”  A large number of Afghan Mujahideen leadership have been inspired by the teachings of the ul Haq, and “received inspiration…for the sublime cause of preserving the Islamic character of Afghanistan.”

An Alliance Shattered?

In December 2013 Sami ul Haq, representing his JUI-S Party, was named by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to initiate peace talks with the Pakistani Taleban.  The effort was made after the Sharif government opened preliminary contact with the Taliban leadership in September. That initiative had been truncated after the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by a US drone strike in November.

The initiative lasted less than two months and ended after Sami ul Haq’s letter to the AFP news agency was published on 22 January 2014 claiming, “The government does not seem serious and concerned. I had requested them to avoid a military operation and use of force but yesterday it started bombing in North Waziristan and tribal areas.” As a result at least 40 people in a tribal district were killed.

What led the military to open a campaign in Waziristan is still open to debate.  It is said that the military responded to two major Taliban attacks on military targets in the North.  But that seems a single brushstroke on a larger canvas.  What remains certain is that Sami ul Haq no longer serves the government as an emissary to the Taliban.  As for the Taliban, after the death of Mehsud, they replaced him with the fanatical Maulana Fazlullah.  And it was Umar Mansoor, a “close aide” of the Maulana Fazlullah that carried out the attack on the army school in Peshawar.

In conclusion, one is left to wonder whether the Peshawar school attack and other recent events have opened a wound in the historic Pakistani military-Taliban alliance.  If so, it might result in a rapprochement involving the military leadership and the “secular” political polity.  Such a result, long overdue, might be the first suturing of a wound that has been allowed to suppurate for more than thirty years.

* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow with the American Center for Democracy. 

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