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Feb 16, 2010 | 21:53 GMT

18 mins read

A Border Playbill: Militant Actors on the Afghan-Pakistani Frontier

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — the focus of much attention in the U.S./NATO campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban — is a unique region unto itself. The control of territory here is much more byzantine than it is elsewhere, based on intricate understandings that are very local and fluid. These informal interests supersede those of far-away governments in Kabul and Islamabad and pay little heed to an official line drawn on a map. The players in the region are also fragmented, without a clear mandate of control over their respective territories, which complicates counterinsurgency efforts in the region.

Over the course of the U.S./NATO mission in Afghanistan, much attention has been paid to the Afghan-Pakistani border, a very porous demarcation line transited at many points by hundreds of people, if not thousands, every day. The border area reaches north to the Hindu Kush and southwest into the arid Balochistan plateau. The border itself is poorly defined, cutting through mountain chains and ungoverned territory out of the reach of Islamabad and Kabul. In Pakistan, a large portion of the territory along its northwestern border — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — enjoys special autonomous status, in no small part because Islamabad has never been able to effectively extend its writ into this area and has, until just recently, never had the strategic need to do so. The Durand Line, the actual demarcation that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, was drawn by Great Britain in 1893 to form the border between British-owned India and Russia's sphere of influence in Afghanistan. When Pakistan was partitioned from India, it inherited the Durand Line and viewed the mountainous territory as a buffer zone from Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan has never formally recognized the line as an administrative border and, over the ages, has considered it not a buffer but an invasion route. Before the Durand Line, regional warlords based in what is now Afghanistan would come down from the mountains to invade the Indus River valley in what then belonged to India. In fact, the Mughal dynasty that ruled India from approximately 1526 to 1707 came from Afghanistan, as did its predecessor, the Sultanate of Delhi.


Additionally, the ethnicity of the population along the border is mostly Pashtun, a largely tribal society that shares connections across the border and has a history that far predates any national partitions. The modern state system of territorial control and boundaries simply does not work here. Instead, the control of territory is much more byzantine, based on intricate understandings that are very local and fluid. Successfully navigating in such a region requires an intimate knowledge of ever-changing local politics. The Afghan-Pakistani border area, then, can be seen as its own region, with allegiances and interests that supersede those of far-away, centralized governments in Kabul and Islamabad and pay little heed to an official line drawn on a map.


During the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, Pakistan used the fluidity of the border region to its advantage. Along with the CIA and the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, the Pakistanis used the FATA as a staging ground for conducting operations in Afghanistan against the Soviets, running people and supplies over a border that the Soviets were unable to control. Toward the end of the war, Pakistan started seeing competition from Arab-led international militants for influence in Afghanistan when the Soviets pulled out. These Arab fighters established relations with local Afghan fighters and became what is now al Qaeda prime. Following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda pulled back into the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been hunkered down there ever since. The arrival of al Qaeda on Pakistan's frontier turned the tables on Islamabad, making the borderland more of a liability than an asset. The United States was quick to enlist Pakistan as an ally in its war against al Qaeda and its supporters in the border area. After the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan, and as part of a deal with the United States, then-Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf largely disassociated Pakistan from the Afghan Taliban and later banned a number of Pakistani militant groups that it had been supporting. Turning on these groups triggered a militant backlash that has led to the current insurgency challenging Islamabad. However, Pakistan continues to have the best networks for understanding the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. With little hope or capability of establishing a human intelligence network of its own in the area, the United States has relied on Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate for intelligence on the region and the people who inhabit it. The ISI, in turn, relies on its network of jihadist forces that it created to give the region some sense of cohesion and project power in Afghanistan (though in the last three years a large portion of that network has been waging war against the Pakistani state).

Major Militant Players

The larger jihadist community in the border area consists of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have carved out territorial niches, many of which overlap political boundaries and each other. For the sake of simplicity, we have broken militants operating along the border into three main groups: the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose leadership is currently in flux, and the Afghan Taliban regional command in eastern Afghanistan, led by the Haqqani family. Dozens of other groups operate along the border, but few of them are able to claim any significant territorial control or play as meaningful a role in the fighting as the three main groups. They contribute fighters and materiel when they can, and occasionally they are credited for attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the three main groups are the most powerful when it comes to influencing events in the border region and, as such, are the focus of Western and Pakistani military efforts. The map below is a very general representation of the situation on the ground, based on a limited amount of credible information from Afghan, Pakistani and Western military sources. Territorial control in the border region is difficult to illustrate, since such sources view the terrain and define control in terms of political boundaries, when in reality such boundaries are not so clear-cut.


(click here to enlarge image) Before discussing the various groups that operate in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, we should outline the geographical differences along the border between north and south. The northern border area is defined by difficult-to-access mountain ranges that have made this area almost impossible for any kind of central government to control. Conversely, the southern border is a plateau, making up the province of Balochistan on the Pakistani side and Nimroz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces on the Afghan side. On the Pakistani side, the northern border is dominated by the FATA and a stretch of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the north. Islamabad has very little presence in the FATA, and while the area belongs to Pakistan in name, much of it is under the de facto control of local tribal warlords. The Pakistani military has managed to take control of an area in South Waziristan, but it remains to be seen how effectively the military can control Pakistani Taliban elements in other FATA districts like North Waziristan, Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur. As a general rule, the Pakistani Taliban are stronger the farther west one goes in the Pashtun areas of northwestern Pakistan. The farther east one goes, the more the central government has a presence.


(click here to enlarge image) This devolution of power to the tribal leaders in the FATA, many of whom are now militant commanders, allows for much more unmonitored cross-border traffic through the mountains. This fluidity allows militants fighting Western forces in eastern Afghanistan to work much more closely with militants in the FATA. In a region where few roads exist, inhabitants are very comfortable negotiating mountain paths that were created over centuries of use. Whether they are large enough for a motorized vehicle or barely wide enough for a human on foot, these primitive arteries inextricably link the FATA to its neighboring provinces in Afghanistan. It is unreasonable to expect the Pakistani military to patrol all of these paths — even if they could effectively do that, locals have a superior knowledge of the landscape and can quickly adopt alternative routes. The unregulated, unmonitored flow of goods and people across the Afghan-Pakistani border in the north means that counterinsurgency efforts on either side of the border are going to be frustrated by the cross-border support of the insurgent network.

The dominant militant group in the FATA is the TTP, which is a largely indigenous force that has been escalating its insurgent activity against Islamabad since 2007. The group also boasts a large number of foreign fighters from the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia (e.g., Uzbekistan). Opposite the FATA is the Afghan Taliban regional command in eastern Afghanistan, led by the Haqqani network. This network — the single largest militant grouping within the Afghan Taliban movement — has a significant presence in the FATA that supports operations against Western troops in Afghanistan. The TTP emerged as a result of the relocation of al Qaeda from Afghanistan into northwest Pakistan, Islamabad's alignment with Washington in the war against the jihadists and Pakistan's inability to balance its commitment to the United States with its need to maintain influence in Afghanistan. The TTP has carried out attacks in Pakistan's core and has been escalating the frequency of its attacks since the security operation against militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007. In recent months it has spread its presence down to Sindh province and Pakistan's strategic city of Karachi. The TTP has also been weakened, having lost its principal sanctuary in South Waziristan and at least two of its principal leaders.

In October 2009, the Pakistani military launched a ground operation in South Waziristan to deny the TTP sanctuary and the capability to train and deploy fighters into Pakistan's core. The success of this mission remains to be seen as the long-term challenges of actually holding territory and controlling and preventing militant forces from returning become all too obvious. The rugged geography and distance from Islamabad (exacerbated by poor infrastructure) will certainly play to the advantage of the local insurgents. Separate from the TTP are militant commanders such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, who operate in North and South Waziristan respectively, drawing support from foreign fighters and providing support to Afghan Taliban elements west of the border. These are Pakistani Taliban forces that are focused on the Afghan front and are not interested in fighting Islamabad. At times, the Pakistani military has tried to reach neutrality agreements with such commanders in an effort to isolate the TTP.

Although they have not always been successful, current efforts to manage these actors are bearing fruit, and the neutrality understandings seem to be holding. To the southwest in Pakistan is the province of Balochistan, which is far different from the FATA in the sense that it is a full-fledged province of Pakistan with multiple layers of governance, including a strong federal presence. Northeast Balochistan province is slightly different, in that it has a large Pashtun population, which links the province ethnically to the FATA, NWFP and neighboring Afghanistan. This section of the province does provide limited opportunities to militant groups operating in the border region. However, the Afghan Taliban in southern Afghanistan, adjacent to Balochistan, do not rely as much on the border area as Taliban elements to the north do. Southern Afghanistan, particularly the province of Kandahar, just across the border from Quetta (the provincial capital of Balochistan), is the birthplace of the Afghan Taliban movement and remains its stronghold. Mullah Omar's Taliban movement originally began in Kandahar in response to the lawlessness brought about under Soviet rule and the resulting civil war after the Soviets left.

The Taliban eventually expanded to rule 90 percent of Afghanistan but were pushed back to their southern heartland after the U.S./NATO invasion. Unlike in northern Afghanistan, where Western forces are constantly applying pressure to Taliban forces, the Taliban continue to control large swaths of territory in the south. When foreign forces do conduct offensives in the area, Taliban forces can very easily melt into the local countryside. While Taliban activity is concentrated closer to the border in the north, the border has less strategic value for the Taliban in the south, in part because the insurgents continue to control southern territory that Western military forces have been unable to wrest away. Thus they are able to operate much more openly there and do not have the same need to escape across a border when the pressure is applied. Moreover, the Taliban's territorial control in southern Afghanistan does not extend to the border, as it does in the north. The Taliban are largely a Pashtun phenomenon, with the most reach among Afghanistan's Pashtun population, which does not extend to the border in the south.

For the Afghan Taliban, fleeing across the southern border is a long and harrowing trip to a region of Pakistan kept under close watch by the Pakistani military — far different from the situation in the north. The Afghan Taliban, however, do maintain a presence in Pakistan. Their political leadership is believed to be somewhere in the greater Quetta area, where they have sought sanctuary from Western military forces in Afghanistan. They do not directly cause violence in Pakistan, though, and since they are in Balochistan, an official Pakistani province, they have not been subjected to the kind of pressure from U.S.-operated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes that are frequently conducted against militants in the FATA. Afghan Taliban leaders in Balochistan do not cross back and forth over the border but remain much more sedentary, blending in with fellow ethnic Pashtuns and staying away from border areas where Western and Afghan forces have much more freedom to target them. The largest Taliban regional command structure under Mullah Omar is led by the Haqqani family in eastern Afghanistan (essentially serving as the Afghan Taliban's eastern "wing"). The Haqqani family has been a powerful force in eastern Afghanistan since well before the Taliban started their rise to power. The Haqqani family also teamed up with al Qaeda and foreign militants in the region before the Taliban did. They assimilated under Mullah Omar's rule when the Taliban took over in the 1990s, but because of the group's special status, the Haqqani family was able to maintain a large degree of autonomy in conducting its operations. The Haqqani network also has a significant presence in the FATA — especially in North Waziristan — and has frequently been the target of coordinated U.S. UAV strikes there.

A Fluid Insurgency

None of these groups is monolithic. Just as the border region is fragmented in ways that make it difficult for central governments to control it, so are its main insurgent groups, which do not have clear, hierarchical control over their territories. Rather, they are engaged in a medieval web of allegiances in which various factions are either united against a common enemy or quarreling over territorial control. In Pakistan, we saw a tumultuous struggle over leadership of the TTP after its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a suspected U.S.-operated UAV strike. We also saw independent warlords like Maulvi Nazir reach oral neutrality "agreements" (more like informal understandings) with the Pakistani government to make it easier for the Pakistani military to move into South Waziristan during its offensive there. Similarly, in Afghanistan, we saw regional commanders continue to carry out suicide bombings in civilian areas despite calls from Mullah Omar to limit civilian casualties by requiring approval for such acts. The Afghan Taliban appear to be unified because they face a common enemy, the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, just as the various elements of the Pakistani Taliban seem to be in concert in their fight against Islamabad. But these groups must be pragmatic in order to survive in a geography that prevents any single power from dominating it completely — and this requires shifting alliances quickly and often, depending on who offers the most benefit for the group at any given point. Any insurgent force usually has two kinds of enemies at the same time: the foreign occupying or indigenous government force it is trying to defeat, and other revolutionary entities with which it is competing for power.

While making inroads against the former, the Taliban have not yet resolved the issue of the latter. It is not so much that various insurgent factions and commanders are in direct competition with each other; the problem for the Taliban, reflecting the rough reality that the country's mountainous terrain imposes on its people, is the disparate nature of the movement itself. Its many factions share few objectives beyond defeating Western and Afghan and Pakistani (in the case of the TTP and its allies) government forces. Far from a monolithic movement, the term "Taliban" encompasses everything from old hard-liners of the pre-9/11 Afghan regime to small groups that adopt the name as a "flag of convenience," whether they are Islamists devoted to a local cause or criminals wanting to obscure their true objectives. The multifaceted and often confusing character of the Taliban "movement" actually creates a layer of protection around it. The United States has admitted that it does not have the nuanced understanding of the Taliban's composition necessary to identify potential moderates who can be separated from the hard-liners.

The main benefits of waging any insurgency usually boil down to the following: Insurgents operate in squad- to platoon-sized elements, have light or nonexistent logistical tails, are largely able to live off the land or the local populace, can support themselves by seizing weapons and ammunition from weak local police and isolated outposts and can disperse and blend into the environment whenever they confront larger and more powerful conventional forces. The border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ideal terrain for insurgents to play off of three national powers in the region; militants fighting against Islamabad can seek refuge in Afghanistan, and militants fighting the Afghan government can just as easily seek sanctuary in Pakistan. U.S. and other Western forces are then left with the challenge of distinguishing between and fighting the various factions, all the while recognizing (for the most part) a political boundary their adversaries completely ignore.

Conflicting Interests

Of course, the two major actors in the border area are the United States and Pakistan. Pakistan's objective in the region is to eliminate domestic threats that challenge the state and national security. This objective puts Pakistani forces squarely at odds with the TTP and its allies that have a sizable presence in the FATA, which have increased attacks across a larger part of Pakistan over the past two years. However, it is in Pakistan's interest to maintain influence in neighboring Afghanistan in order to shape the political environment and ensure that pro-Islamabad factions hold power there. This means that Islamabad largely supports the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, including his key subordinates, the Haqqanis, as well as the Taliban assets and allies in Pakistan who support them without stirring up trouble for Islamabad. Other examples of these "good Taliban" are the factions led by Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and other lesser commanders in the FATA.

Meanwhile, the United States is focused on weakening the Afghan Taliban elements and their central leader, Mullah Omar, in order to weaken the network of support that allowed foreign jihadists to mount transnational terror campaigns from Afghanistan. Although this strategy goes against key Pakistani interests in the region, recent statements by U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus indicate that the United States is shoring up support for Pakistan. On Feb. 3, Petraeus lauded Pakistan's counterinsurgency efforts over the past year and suggested that the United States will rely on Pakistan to negotiate any kind of peace deal with Taliban elements that the United States finds agreeable. This would put Pakistan in a solid position to have more influence over the outcome of events in its neighboring country. The fact remains that the Afghan-Pakistani border is not a geographical reality.

It is an unnatural political overlay on a fragmented landscape that is virtually impossible for a central government to control. In peaceful times, regional powers can afford to ignore it and let the tribal actors tend to their own business. When the stakes are raised in a guerrilla war, however, the lack of control creates a haven and a highway for insurgents. As the United States continues to have a presence in Afghanistan, it will not be able to control the border lands without the assistance of Pakistan, which naturally has its own interests in the region. Negotiations among the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nearby powers are challenging enough. Factor in an assortment of disparate actors that exist in a separate space and the challenges grow even greater.

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