“For fourteen years, they raised every part of Afghanistan against me,” lamented the country’s Emir, Abdur Rahman Khan, in an 1897 letter to the imperial commissioner in Peshawar, about the network of the mullah of Hadda village, Najmuddin Akhundzada, “both in the plains country and in the hills, till thousands of men perished on both sides.”
“What calamities are there that they have not suffered, and what blood have they not shed, by his senseless commands?” Khan asked.
Two centuries on, the sentiment may seem familiar to the generals in Islamabad who are grappling with their own ‘Hadda Mullah’ — Noor Wali Mehsud, the charismatic cleric who has rebuilt the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) jihadi group from the ashes of defeat into a resurgent force that has shown the resolve to take on the Pakistan Army.
Even as the generals were still gloating about installing a proxy regime in Kabul, expert Daud Khattak reported that the TTP had brought about a sharp increase in jihadi violence in Pakistan. Last year, there were 294 attacks, up 56 per cent from 2020, of which 45 were in December alone. Three hundred and ninety-five people, half of them security force personnel, were killed — numbers much higher than Kashmir. The ‘forever war’ that America has extricated itself from is, clearly, far from done.
This week, Islamabad released a new, measured national security doctrine, calling for, among other things, peace and trade with neighbours. This is good news for countries like India, but offers little guidance on the real national security question: should Pakistan go to war against its jihadis, as it did in 2014, or buy peace, as it tried in 2018?
A gathering storm
Like an onion, the answer to the question of Pakistan’s next move has many layers. The first of these is proximate. In the build-up to the Taliban’s victory, the scholar Antonio Guistozzi had written that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) tried, ineffectually, to rein in its jihadist clients in Afghanistan. “The Pakistani military severely curtailed support — both in funding and supplies — to the Haqqanis, who resisted the United States-Taliban agreement and were widely seen as trying to sabotage it,” he wrote.
Estimated to make millions of dollars from trafficking narcotics and protection rackets targeting everything from mining to trucking, the Haqqanis simply deepened their relationship with Al-Qaeda to make good their military skills-set.
Late last year, in an extraordinary closed-door briefing, Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed warned the political leadership of the gathering storm. As victory neared, they said, the Taliban just wasn’t listening to the Pakistan Army; worse, the TTP was growing in force and influence.
From experience, the generals knew what would come next. In 2004, as the CIA had begun drone strikes against Al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan, retaliatory terrorism escalated. The Army responded by making deals with the TTP, ceding de-facto control of territory. In April 2004, Noor Wali Mehsud’s predecessor, Nek Muhammad Wazir had even shared the stage with XI Corps commander Lieutenant-General Syed Safdar Husain, promising that in a war with India, he would be “Pakistan’s atomic bomb”.
In 2014, the Pakistan Army finally gave up on deal-making and went to war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the bitter fighting that followed before the Army finally succeeded in driving the TTP into Afghanistan.
Friends with benefits
Soon after, though, the ISI again began reaching out to the jihadis, in a bid designed to wean them away from the Islamic State, thus becoming a perpetual terrorist threat to the Pakistani State. Through the Haqqanis, ISI agents succeeded in securing several deals with TTP commanders like Aslam Farooqi — who returned the favour by staging suicide attacks against Indian interests in the region.
The TTP also proved to be a ‘friend-with-benefits’ to the Pakistani generals for their domestic agenda. In the summer of 2018, it coerced the secular-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) out of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province’s political landscape, assassinating key leaders Haroon Bilour and Ikramullah Gandapur.
Like military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1970s, the generals believed in shutting down politicians striving for democratisation and federal autonomy. The Islamists were a logical ally in that cause — even if there was a ‘bill’ for their services.
Yet, things haven’t gone according to the generals’ battle-plan. A much-hyped ceasefire with the TTP, respected mainly in the breach by the jihadis, collapsed in December last year. The Taliban, moreover, flatly refused to rein in the TTP. Negotiations between the government and Noor Wali Mehsud, announced soon after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, have gone nowhere and violence has steadily inched upwards.
Inside the ‘onion’
The core answer to why the TTP has again turned on its patrons, and why the Taliban isn’t willing to bail the generals out, is embedded deep in history. From the 1820s, what is now Khyber Pakhhtunkhwa witnessed an extraordinary clerical revival, which led, among other things, to Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi’s famous, if failed, war against the Sikh Empire — the work of the eminent historian Sana Haroon teaches us.
Sayyid Ahmed’s last stand was at Balakote — an inspiration to the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar Alvi, and many other South Asian jihadis.
Expansion of clerical power was enabled by generous cash subsidies from the regimes of Emir Dost Mohammad Khan and Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, as well as the British, all of whom competed to cajole compliance, purchase tactical leverage, or split adversaries. In the absence of competitive politics, the clerics also emerged as the sole mode of opposition to the often tyrannical rule of the maliks, or tribal chieftains.
Imperial Britain was in a state of almost constant war with the border tribes, as it sought to secure its northern flank against Russian expansion. Independent Pakistan inherited its desire to subject the Pashtun to a central authority; indeed, the mess at the headquarters of the Waziristan Scouts in Wana still displays a portrait of its founder, Lieutenant-Colonel R.H. Harman, who was killed by a Mehsud tribesman in 1905.
The lesson for clerical networks in the borderlands has been simple: War-making is a means of extracting concessions and revenue from both Islamabad and Kabul. The TTP and Taliban have now shown they understand this dynamic well. The TTP is, moreover, driven not just by ideology, but the products of three generations of conflict: Young men with little traditional tribal status but some limited education and, most importantly, a gun.
For the generals, the moment of decision is fast approaching. Noor Wali Khan is now seeking a shari’a-governed mini-State in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a demand that could be granted — but only at the risk of providing safe-havens for future existential threats to the country. The Pakistani State is unlikely to collapse, but a protracted civil war could lie ahead. The other option is to crack down on the jihadists and open the way to democratic political forces, like the ANP or Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. This decision, though, could lead to a sharp, short-term escalation in violence.
Either way, the decision will guide Pakistan’s destiny.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)