Paul Pillar

Terrorism and Civil War in South Asia

I testified today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in one of a series of hearings the committee is holding on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was asked to address the terrorist dimension of the conflicts there, with particular reference to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. What follows is a portion of my testimony.

South Asia, and more particularly the portion of it encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan, has come to be associated strongly with extremism and terrorism. That association is understandable, given the connection of the area with one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history. The lines of contention in the region are complex, however. Different dimensions of conflict there, such as between moderation and extremism, or what may pose a terrorist threat to the United States and what does not, do not coincide with each other.

The connection of this region with militant Islamist terrorism is rooted in the insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That insurgency became the biggest and most prominent jihad, attracting militant Muslims from many different countries. Although the anti-U.S. terrorist group we came to know as al-Qaeda did not develop as such until the late 1990s, its connection with Afghanistan and South Asia is based on the earlier effort against the Soviets. When Osama bin Laden left Sudan to take up residence in Afghanistan in 1996, he was returning to the scene of his earlier contribution, which was chiefly logistical, in helping the Afghan insurgents to defeat the Red Army.

There is no intrinsic connection between Afghanistan and international terrorism. In fact, Afghan nationals are conspicuously absent from the ranks of international terrorists. A rare exception was Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in 2009 for allegedly plotting to bomb the New York City transit system. But even Zazi had left Afghanistan with his family for Pakistan when he was seven years old, and he had lived in the United States since he was fourteen.

Pakistan has developed its own connections with international terrorism. This has included groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, with some capability to operate far afield. But the primary focus is still within South Asia, and specifically on the Kashmir dispute and other aspects of confrontation with India.

In short, the link between this region and international terrorism is not based on inherent qualities of the region or of the conflicts that bedevil it. Instead it is more of a historical accident related to an attempt by the Soviet Union to quell an insurgency in a bordering state, with the link greatly enhanced in American minds by the residence in Afghanistan—ten years and more ago—of people associated with the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Current violence in Afghanistan is a continuation of an Afghan civil war that began after a coup by Marxist-Leninists in 1978 and, although the line-up of protagonists has changed from time to time, has never really stopped. After the departure of the Soviets in 1989, the fall of the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime in 1992, and internecine fighting among the warlords who had pursued the insurgency, a new movement known as the Taliban—benefiting from Pakistani backing and the support of an Afghan public disgusted by the warlords' violent squabble—asserted control by the mid-1990s over all but the northern tier of the country. The civil war continued as a fight between the Taliban and a mostly non-Pashtun collection of militias known as the Northern Alliance. The intervention in late 2001 of a U.S.-led coalition, in what we call Operation Enduring Freedom, was a tipping of the balance in this civil war. It was enough of a tip for the Northern Alliance to overrun Kabul and to drive the Taliban from power.

The current phase of the Afghan civil war, although commonly seen as a fight between the internationally-backed government of Hamid Karzai and a terrorist-associated Afghan Taliban, is a far more complicated affair with multiple dimensions. The ethnic element is a large part of the conflict, with the Taliban largely Pashtun and other ethnic groups having a major role in the government forces. Other relevant divides are between Sunni and Shia and between rural interests and the urban elite.

The Afghan Taliban constitute a highly insular, inward-looking movement whose leadership is concerned overwhelmingly with the political and social order of Afghanistan. It concerns itself with the United States only insofar as the United States interferes with its plans for that political and social order. It is a loosely organized movement in which the leadership group known as the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar, is the most important but not the sole point of decision-making.

The motives of the rank-and-file who have taken up arms under the Taliban label are diverse and at least as locally focused as those of the leadership. Those motives include assorted grievances such as ones associated with collateral damage from military operations and resentment over what is seen as foreign military occupation. Probably few of the rank and file are driven primarily by a religiously based desire to remake the Afghan political order, and hardly any of them have perspectives that reach beyond Afghanistan's borders.

The Afghan Taliban are not an international terrorist group. They have not conducted terrorist operations outside Afghanistan. There is nothing in their record or their objectives that suggests that they will.