Good and Bad Taliban in Pakistan

April 7, 2011 Topic: Terrorism Region: AfghanistanIndiaPakistan

Good and Bad Taliban in Pakistan

The Pakistani counterinsurgency campaign has been both brutal and effective. But what happens when the army leaves?


The Pakistan Army’s counter-insurgency campaign in Swat has been undeniably successful, not least in comparison to our own efforts in Afghanistan. Though until the spring of 2009 the district was one of the centers of militancy in Pakistan, the last suicide bombing there was in July 2010. The leadership of the Pakistani Taliban and their local allies have been killed, captured or driven out. The main leader, Fazlullah, has reportedly taken refuge in Kunar province of Afghanistan, where he was based as a leader of Pakistani volunteers against the Soviets back in the 1980s.

In the lower Swat valley at least, reconstruction has also gone well – astonishingly well, given that on top of the damage caused by the Taliban and the war against them came the floods of August 2010, which hit the narrow Swat valley especially badly. On the whole, I was very impressed by what I saw in Swat when I visited it last month for the first time since the summer of 2009.


That said, there are also grounds for concern about the future. The first is that while the operation has not been very brutal by South Asian standards, it has nonetheless been brutal. To judge by the accounts I heard from a local journalist and a lawyer (on top of interviews when I visited the valley in August 2009), the report by Human Rights Watch on extra-judicial executions by the military was completely accurate. I was told that between 400 and 500 of these have taken place since the end of the full-scale military operation in 2009, and that they are still continuing at a rate of between one and six a week – though to be fair, some of these are genuine “encounters” between military patrols and armed militants trying to filter back through the hills.

So far, however, these killings do not seem to have caused as much resentment in the valley as might have been expected. For this two things are responsible. Firstly, by the time the military launched their counter-offensive in the spring of 2009, the local militants had made themselves thoroughly hated among much of the local population by their cruelties and oppressions; and the Pakistan Army does take a good deal of care that the people it shoots are in fact hardcore militants, and not vaguer supporters or innocent bystanders. In this, the military is helped by the fact that several of the units they have deployed have a high proportion of Pashtun soldiers, which improves relations with the local Pashtun population. In more than nine-tenths of cases, I was told by locals, the soldiers do therefore kill the right man. This may seem a hard equation, but then this is a hard country and a hard region.

As a local journalist told me,

I myself am divided 50:50 on killings by the military. After all, the militants did have to be defeated. By 2009 no educated person in Swat was safe from them. But now the killings should stop, or they will cause a long-term desire for revenge and a sympathy for the terrorists if they start to come back. Already you can see this in the families of men who have been killed.

The second question hanging over the success of the counter-insurgency operation in Swat is what happens when most of the Army leaves – which it is very anxious to do, since the deployment of the whole of one division and elements of another is a serious drain on resources. Most of the local population seems to want a return of the police, viewing them as locals, and less ruthless than the army. The problem is that with the police comes the whole rotten apparatus of the Pakistani political, judicial and administrative systems, whose abuses did so much to create mass support for the Taliban in the first place.

I spoke to two low-level Taliban detainees, whom the military were putting through a re-education and de-radicalization program called mishal (beacon) at a center near the town of Barikot (a very good program by the way, with vocational training to give the detainees a better chance in life when they emerged). One, Habib-ur-Rehman, had been a low-level religious teacher in a local mosque, while the 37-year-old Ataullah had been a laborer. Both stressed how the Taliban had used class appeals to gain support: “They said that the poor should fight against the rich, because only the poor are good Muslims, because the rich have been oppressing the poor, and because land and wealth belong to everybody.”

The local landowning class in Swat – the khans – had made themselves widely hated in Swat in recent decades for their aggrandizements vis-à-vis poor farmers, though part of the reason for agrarian tension would also seem to have been simply the vastly growing population in a narrow strip of cultivatable land. The Taliban killed a number of them and chased the rest out, thereby destroying their prestige. Military officers with whom I spoke were worried that the khans might use violence to re-assert their authority, and were in consequence determined to keep a close eye on the anti-Taliban “village defense committees” that have been set up in Swat, for fear that they might be used for private vengeance and oppression by the elites. But as to what to do about elite domination in itself, that was of course beyond them – even though the contempt of middle class officers for hereditary landowner politicians was much in evidence.

The face of the military as that of (highly relative) modernity was literally in evidence when I visited a vocational training center that the army had set up near the town of Matta, to teach sewing, embroidery and handicrafts to local women so as to integrate them into the market economy and diminish local poverty. By way of inspiring them, the military had hung on the walls photographs of women cadets in the army, and of Pakistan’s five female fighter pilots. This impression of modernity was reinforced by some of the officers whom I met – especially a Lt Colonel commanding a battalion most of whose family were in Canada, and who in terms of education and intellect could have served in any military in the world.

But – and it is a big but – the colonel suffered just as much as anyone from the central obsession and motivation of the Pakistani military, which is hostility to India. Indeed, to judge by conversations with him and other officers, it seems that to a considerable extent, the military has only been able to motivate its men to fight against the Pakistani Taliban by convincing them that India is backing the Taliban in an effort to destroy Pakistan. This line has worked: it is believed implicitly by most soldiers of my acquaintance and indeed by most of Pakistan’s population.

As the colonel told me:

Initially, our morale in the fight against the militants was poor. A large number of officers resigned their commissions rather than fight against fellow Muslims and fellow Pakistanis on behalf of the US, which is how things were seen in the army. The change came in 2007-2009 as a result of Indian backing for the TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and because of TTP atrocities both against civilians and soldiers – we saw how soldiers they captured were tortured, beheaded, mutilated.

But still there is a problem in the home communities from which the soldiers come. In my own village a neighbor asked me when I went home on leave, ‘Why are you killing good Muslims who only want to bring the Sharia? It is not the Taliban who are carrying out these terrorist attacks.’

People are very confused. There is a belief that a man who prays, wears a beard, says he is a good talib [religious student] cannot really be killing Muslim women and children. Hence the attempt of ordinary people to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban, which has done so much to undermine public support for military action against the Taliban. And then, there is the problem of distinguishing between the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. As you yourself have said, most Pakistanis have some sympathy for the Afghan Taliban as people who are resisting American occupation of their country.

Nonetheless, belief in Indian support for the Taliban, and irrefutable evidence of TTP atrocities, has meant that military motivation to fight against the Pakistani Taliban now seems very high. To this extent, I suppose that belief in “the Indian hand” is to be welcomed. However, this belief brings with it two major drawbacks. The first is that it almost certainly isn’t true, or at least that there isn’t a scrap of real evidence for it, and it seems to put it mildly counter-intuitive that India would support a force in league with terrorists who have carried out dreadful attacks on India. The belief in Indian backing for the Taliban therefore goes to swell still further the mass of paranoid, irrational conspiracy theories that corrode the Pakistani intellect and dominate the world view of so many Pakistanis. And indeed, the most virulent hostility to India expressed to me in Swat came not from the military but from a local lawyer.