Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani problem

Yes, I’m writing this so I don’t have to pay attention to the Republican debate. Sue me.

This is a few weeks old, but I’ve been meaning to flag Dexter Filkins’s January 22 New Yorker piece on the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan or TTP), perpetrators of many terrorist attacks including the December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar and last month’s attack on a university in Charsadda, and its roots in Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI). The ISI effectively created the Pakistani Taliban when it helped birth the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. After the Afghan Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan by the US, they took refuge in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, and their ideology caught on. Instead of working to eliminate all Taliban influence in those regions, the Pakistani military then tried to manipulate American military activity (drone strikes, for example) to target just the Pakistani Taliban while leaving the Afghan Taliban alone. That, well, didn’t work:

For years—indeed, even today—the Pakistani generals imagined they could have it both ways: that they could support the Afghan Taliban while ignoring the Taliban inside Pakistan. The Pakistani military often aided the C.I.A.’s drone campaign in Pakistan, but, while the Americans wanted to go after both groups of Taliban, the Pakistanis typically only helped them with the Pakistani cells. The Pakistani generals were playing a double game inside a double game: they took the Americans’ billions and supported the Taliban fighters who were killing the Americans, and they secretly helped the Americans kill Pakistani Taliban in the C.I.A.’S drone war, letting the Pakistani civilian leaders take the heat.

Not surprisingly, the double-double game was too clever by half. As the Afghan Taliban flourished, the Pakistani Taliban, occupying the same safe havens in the tribal areas, spun out of Pakistan’s control. By 2009, the Pakistani Taliban was so strong that they pulled within sight of Islamabad, the capital.

Pakistan has been far more effective in rolling the TTP back in recent years, and, as Filkins notes, attacks like Peshawar and Charsadda can be seen in light of the TTP’s increasing desperation over its territorial losses.

Since the Pakistani Taliban grew out of the Afghan Taliban, the two groups share an ideological underpinning rooted in Pashtun nationalism combined with Deobandi fundamentalism, heavily influenced by Wahhabism. The Deobandi movement began in India–in Deoband, India, go figure–in the 19th century as kind of Islamic revivalism motivated by resistance to British colonial occupation. A group of religious scholars founded a university, the Darul Uloom Deoband, where their teachings were (and continue to be) propagated.

The Darul Uloom Deoband (Wikimedia | Bakrbinaziz)

In its purest form, Deobandism has some differences with Wahhabism, though even learned Muslims sometimes have a hard time telling these various movements apart (so you can only imagine how easy it is for me). Deobandis are strict supporters of taqlid, which is the belief that all Muslims should adhere to one of the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence (the Deobandis themselves tend to be Hanafi). Wahhabism, though it developed out of Hanbalism, places far more emphasis on the believer’s direct understanding of Qurʾan and Hadith rather than on the received wisdom of an established madhhab. Wahhabism is thoroughly intolerant of Sufis; the founders of Deobandism may have actually been Sufis themselves, though modern Deobandism can exhibit an anti-Sufi streak. Deobandis and Wahhabis do share a strong hostility to anything perceived as Western influence on Islamic society.

One thing that separates the two Talibans, which isn’t surprising if you follow their respective histories, is that the TTP exists to pursue the overthrow of the Pakistani government (or at least Pashtun independence from Islamabad), while the Afghan Taliban sees Pakistan as strictly off limits. The Afghan Taliban wouldn’t exist, or at least wouldn’t have survived, if the ISI hadn’t helped to create it and then sheltered it during its post-2001 struggles, and they understand that implicitly. But because it protected the Afghan Taliban, the ISI bears responsibility for the creation of Pakistan’s own Taliban problem.

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