Roots of terror

The terrorist violence in Pakistan can be traced to the tight U.S. security embrace of the Cold War days, which gave birth to several “mujahideen” groups that have turned into Frankenstein’s monsters post-9/11.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud flanked by his colleagues in the Orakzai tribal region of Pakistan, a November 26, 2008 photograph. The flamboyant Hakimullah, who succeeded Baitullah Mehsud as the leader of the Haqqani group, was eliminated in a drone strike in November 2013.

Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud flanked by his colleagues in the Orakzai tribal region of Pakistan, a November 26, 2008 photograph. The flamboyant Hakimullah, who succeeded Baitullah Mehsud as the leader of the Haqqani group, was eliminated in a drone strike in November 2013.

THE PESHAWAR MASSACRE of the innocents could be a turning point in Pakistan’s history. At least for the moment, all the important stakeholders seem united in their determination to confront the scourge of terrorism, which has been mercilessly stalking the country for more than a decade now. At this juncture, there is a consensus in the country that the time has come to crush the militant groups that have been running amok since the overthrow of the Taliban government and the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. The political and military establishment will have to bite the bullet and cut off their ties with militant groups which it tacitly supports or supported, such as the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

The Pakistan government on its part, at least until recently, tried to differentiate between the “good” and “bad” Taliban. In a recent interview, Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz told the BBC that Pakistan would not unnecessarily target militant groups that do not pose a threat to the country’s security. “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become our enemies?” he said. Aziz went on to add that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which is one of the Pakistani Taliban factions, were fighting against the government in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Foreign Office was quick to state that Aziz, who is the de facto Foreign Minister, was quoted out of context. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson clarified that Islamabad was committed to taking action against all groups “without any distinction or discrimination”.

The Pakistani Taliban was never a unified group. It was founded in 2007 by Behtullah Mehsud and those within its ranks were mainly fighters who were with the Taliban and earlier with the U.S.-supported jehadi groups fighting the Afghanistan government in the 1970s and 1980s. They fled to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Joining them in their exodus were Chechen, Uzbek and Uyghur fighters and members of Al Qaeda and other extremist, separatist groups. With the U.S. authorising increasing drone attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Pakistani military bases being used for these launches, many in the Tehereek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, turned violently against their erstwhile sponsors and patrons. The TTP comprises several factions. In 2010, the U.S. State Department declared the Pakistani Taliban a terrorist organisation. The U.S. has been targeting the Taliban leadership with drone attacks for several years now. Baitullah Mehsud, the first leader of the Haqqani group, was killed in a drone strike in August 2009. The flamboyant Hakimullah Mehsud, who succeeded him, was eliminated in another drone strike in November 2013. During his first term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama more than tripled the number of drone attacks on Pakistani territory. According to Pakistani estimates, 50 to 60 per cent of those killed in American drone attacks were civilians and this in turn resulted in higher recruitment for militant groups. Widespread U.S. drone attacks contributed to the anti-American feelings in Pakistan and weakened the cooperation between the two countries in counterterrorism operations.

A ‘double game’

U.S. and Indian officials have been accusing Pakistan of playing a “double game” by taking U.S. aid money and weaponry while supporting and encouraging various Taliban and other extremist groups such as the LeT to destabilise neighbouring Afghanistan and India. They accuse the Pakistani security establishment of glossing over the danger posed by these groups to the government in Islamabad. Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai openly accused Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban and facilitating terror attacks. It is not a secret that many in the top Afghan Taliban leadership, including its leader Mullah Omar, are protected by Pakistani intelligence services. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden must have had the help of sections of the Pakistani intelligence apparatus to go on living for years in a house in Abbottabad, located next to a military base.

In early December, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif visited the U.S. According to reports in the media, during his talks in Washington, the Army chief gave an assurance to the Obama administration that Pakistan would give up its policy of protecting militant groups it considered important for achieving its strategic goals in the region. The Haqqani group has been responsible for staging attacks in Afghanistan in coordination with the Taliban there. In a testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to the Haqqani network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI]”. After 2001, many Al Qaeda fighters found refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan. They played a big role in radicalising people there. The Pakistan Taliban consists mainly of Pashto-speaking recruits from the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan also represents the same ethnic group—the Pashtuns.

The LeT and some other groups have been held responsible for terror attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, the worst in Indian history. Both the Haqqani group and the LeT are said to be close to the Pakistani security establishment. The LeT is on the banned list of organisations in Pakistan but it has resurfaced as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). LeT leader Hafiz Sayeed was quick to make the outlandish claim that India was involved in the Peshawar bloodbath. A few days after the Peshawar incident, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who is alleged to have played a key role in planning the Mumbai attack. The decision has come in for scathing criticism in India. The Pakistan government was quick to announce that it would challenge the bail order of the Lahore High Court.

What the U.S. sowed

It was arm-twisting by the Obama administration that made the Pakistan Army launch its all-out assault on the militant groups in the tribal areas in June 2014. For the first time, the Pakistan Air Force was deployed extensively to target militant hideouts. A lot of collateral damage, in the form of civilian casualties, resulted in the wake of the military assault in North Waziristan. Many analysts, in fact, are of the view that the formation of the Pakistani Taliban was in response to the first military assault ordered by the then military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2004. FATA is an area of 27,270 square kilometres, but this small territory hosts around 45,000 fighters from many militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed, the LeT and the Pakistani Taliban.

Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that the majority in Pakistan are of the view that it was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that led to the rise of terrorism in their country. The cycle of violence and terrorism can be traced back to the tight security embrace between the U.S. and Pakistan, which dates back to the days of the Cold War. In the 1980s, the U.S. played a key role along with its proxies such as Saudi Arabia in arming and training the “Mujahideen” forces in Pakistan to fight against the Soviet-backed progressive government that was in place in Afghanistan at the time. Out of the “mujahideen” emerged the rapacious militias controlled by warlords and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban itself was formed with the covert backing of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the ISI. Washington was also unwavering in its support of the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. He was the man responsible for encouraging a Wahhabi version of Islam in the country. He injected religious bigotry and sectarianism into many aspects of daily life in the country. It was his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, though, who first formalised the role of religion in the country’s Constitution and banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. The U.S. and the Saudis funded Zia liberally as he built new madrasas (religious schools) across the length and breadth of Pakistan.


Pakistan had come a long way since Independence. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of state,” Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam, had said in his inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947. Today, sectarianism has become a factor fuelling terrorism in Pakistan. Militant groups have been busy targeting Shia mosques and businesses and bombing churches. The notorious blasphemy law, which came into being during the days of General Zia, has been widely misused. Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was shot by his bodyguard, an extremist in police uniform, for speaking out against the law. “Pakistan’s self-inflicted suffering comes from an education system that, like Saudi Arabia’s system, provides an ideological foundation for violence and future jehadists,” the scholar and commentator Pervez Hoodhbhoy noted in an article.

According to Hoodhbhoy, “militant jehad” became part of the culture on college and university campuses. Armed groups had started openly recruiting students for jehad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It was only after the events of 9/11 that the Kashmir issue faded into the background with the focus almost completely shifting to Afghanistan. If the Afghan Taliban is successful in once again wresting power in Kabul or completely destabilising the country, Kashmir could once again figure prominently on the radar of the “jehadi” groups. As long as the emotive Kashmir issue remains unresolved, it will continue to remain a cause célèbre in the country. After all, India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir. There is also a Punjabi Taliban, whose focus is more on the Kashmir and sectarian issues than on Afghanistan. It has carried out attacks in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Despite the recent events, it will be difficult for the Pakistani political establishment to distance itself from the mainstream Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan still adheres to its “doctrine of depth” and views the Afghan Taliban as a “strategic asset”. Pakistan does not want countries such as India and Iran to have too much influence in Afghanistan. There is also a lurking fear in the corridors of power in Islamabad that a resurgent Afghan Taliban could in the long run side with its counterpart across the border. All the Pakistani Taliban factions have pledged their loyalty to Mullah Omar. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban espouse the Deobandi sectarian theology.

The Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar looks destined to play an important role in Afghanistan’s politics after the departure of the U.S. forces from that country by the end of 2014. Already, they have made steady advances on the ground. Islamabad wants the “good” Afghan Taliban to share power with other stakeholders in the post-occupation scenario in Kabul. This view also, until recently, had the support of the Obama administration. The Afghan Taliban issued a statement condemning the perpetrators of the incident in Peshawar. “The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basic tenets of Islam and this criterion has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” the spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said.

The Afghan Taliban has repeatedly criticised the attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces on previous occasions. The Afghan Taliban, as of now, is not against the goal of overthrowing the Pakistani state. The TTP and other Pakistani Taliban groups reject the Constitution of Pakistan and want the introduction of Sharia.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment