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Good Taliban, Bad Taliban: Pakistan’s Double Game and the US War on Terror

[Maulvi Nazir, a militant leader close to the Pakistani military, was killed in a US drone strike. Image from AP.] [Maulvi Nazir, a militant leader close to the Pakistani military, was killed in a US drone strike. Image from AP.]

The start of 2013 brought a fresh upsurge of US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, killing between twenty-three and forty-four people. Since 2008, when President George W. Bush ordered increased strikes on “militants” and associated “infrastructure targets” in these areas, killings have been a constant occurrence. President Barack Obama not only continued this policy, but escalated it dramatically. Of the 360 total strikes documented by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 308 have occurred since Obama took office. It is no surprise, then, that individual drone strikes no longer cause much of a stir in the international press, except when “high-value targets” are reported—or rumored—to be killed. Other killings, if reported at all, mention some unfortunate “military aged males.”

The drone strike on 2 January was one of the widely publicized variety because it reportedly killed Maulvi Nazir, a militant leader who had survived three previous attempts on his life, two by CIA drones and one by a suicide bomber. The last of these was attributed by many either to the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) or Uzbek militants long established in the region. Nazir’s men had frequently clashed with both groups. 

Nazir, tolerated and supported by the Pakistani military, had acquired the widely reported moniker of a “good” talib, in large part for evicting Uzbek militants from his South Waziristan stronghold and refusing to carry out attacks inside Pakistan. His death by drone is but the latest example of the wildly different priorities of Pakistan and the US. 

Pakistan has winnowed the violently anti-state TTP from other militants who do not pose an immediate threat to the state, and has supported groups like the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Consequently, many commentators opine that Pakistan is playing a “double game”: conducting military operations against groups it considers a threat while protecting its own militant proxies. One can find this ubiquitous phrase dotting mainstream media reports and op-eds on the US-Pakistani relationship. In some instances this line devolves into lurid tales of Pakistan as “an ally from hell.”

What undergirds accusations of this double game is the fanciful imperial assumption that Pakistan’s policies should be strictly aligned with US objectives in the region, without contemplating the consequences of such an alignment for Pakistan. Also absent from these grievance-laden narratives is a proper accounting of the already close alignment of Pakistani policies with US interests, despite overwhelming domestic opposition.      

Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, bargaining with US vice president Joe Biden in the first days of the Obama administration, said “You know this country is awash with anti-Americanism, and they’re going to hate me for being an American stooge. You have to give me economic resources so that I can win over the people.” [1] His fear of being seen as an American stooge was not misplaced; if anything, it was too limited. CIA drone strikes and Pakistani military operations in FATA, heavily subsidized by the US and partly undertaken in response to US pressure, have delegitimized the Pakistani state in the eyes of many who see the government fighting America’s war.

Nothing has spurred militancy in Pakistan more than the US war in Afghanistan and its subsequent spread to Pakistan. Kashmir-oriented militant groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba all faced internal splits after the Pakistan government’s decision to support the US war in Afghanistan. Many members of these groups argue that Pakistan became “a puppet of the Americans” and a legitimate target for jihad. [2] An organization like the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammad (TNSM), which initially emerged in 1994 to redress the legal vacuum in Swat by implementing shari’a, responded to the US invasion of Afghanistan by sending some 7,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban. The group would later join the TTP’s fight against the Pakistani state, clamoring to implement shari’a in all of Pakistan.

Punjab-based sectarian outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi also have grown closer to the TTP. As the Economist belatedly noted: “The [sectarian] violence [in 2012] has been notable not just for its scale, but for what lies beneath it: a growing alliance between established anti-Shia militant groups and the Pakistani Taliban, Sunni extremists who have spun out of the army’s control, allied with al-Qaeda, and are determined to attack the Pakistani state.” [3] Ahmed Rashid also wrote of Punjabi militants' growing conviction that “the Pakistan Army was the lackey of the Americans and an enemy of Islam, so now God ordained them to overthrow Pakistan’s state through an Islamic revolution.” [4]

The TTP itself was only formally established in late 2007 as a result of the Afghanistan war’s fallout in FATA. A report published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center in 2011 acknowledges that US drone warfare and Pakistani military operations inside the tribal areas played “central roles” in the creation of TTP and its violence against targets in Pakistan. 

Those stubbornly fixated on narratives of Pakistan’s double game conveniently elide the devastating effects the US war in Afghanistan has had on Pakistan, quite separately from Pakistan’s support of militant groups. To be sure, Pakistan’s strategy of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, its policy of using militant groups to wage a proxy war in Kashmir, and the nexus of political parties and sectarian groups in the country all remain serious issues. But those who believe or suggest that the solution lies in further alignment of Pakistani policies to US interests are blind or ignorant to all relevant history. In fact, the first step toward any sustainable solution to the problem of militancy in Pakistan must involve a complete disavowal of the US “war on terror.”

It is in this context that the inveterate discussion of Pakistan’s “double game” appears to be what it really is: a complaint that Pakistani policies are insufficiently subordinated to US interests. The killing of Maulvi Nazir in a drone strike, regardless of any consideration about the potential consequences in Pakistan, is in keeping with past US policies—ostensibly aimed at eliminating militants—that have exacerbated the threat of militancy in the country. It is all the more ironic given the now desperate US search for its own “goodTaliban in Afghanistan in order to restart peace talks before its much vaunted “withdrawal” in 2014—one that may still leave 6,000 to 20,000 US troops in the country. Pakistanis, on the other hand, would be left to cope with the aftermath of America’s long war.



[1] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010), 63.

[2] Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 110-112, 122-123, 177-179. Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011), 395-400

[3] Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 38-9, 126.

[4] Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012), 52-3.

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