Geopolitical Diary: Afghan Taliban and Talibanization of Pakistan
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Pakistani Taliban commanders on Thursday tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Pashtun fighters linked to tribal maliks and Uzbek militants linked to al Qaeda. The negotiations come after several days of fighting in the country's northwestern tribal badlands, which has killed at least 135 people. The fighting, which began March 19 after former militant commander Mullah Nazir, who Islamabad says is now on its side, ordered fighters loyal to Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leader Tahir Yuldashev to disarm. The jirga overseeing the negotiations includes Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud (wanted in connection with a wave of jihadist attacks across the country) and Sirajuddin Haqqani (the son of senior Afghan Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani). Meanwhile, Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said the battles between tribesmen and foreign militants underscore the government's success in establishing a policy for the "betterment of tribal people," and in persuading such people to drive-out foreign militants. That the Pakistanis have been able to turn some tribal Pashtuns against transnational jihadists is a significant development. The fact that the Taliban are now trying to mediate between the maliks allied to the government and the jihadists shows that they are worried, which means Islamabad might have had a considerable degree of success in its efforts to drive a wedge between the guests and their hosts. But it remains to be seen whether this is a single event in a limited area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), or whether it will spread across the tribal region. The Taliban's efforts to end the fighting also indicate their own vulnerability. Since they rely on foreign jihadists in their cause, they cannot afford to see the destruction of these allies; they also need to manage their ties to the maliks. The Taliban know that some of the maliks have turned against the foreign jihadists and that these tribal leaders could turn against them as well — the Pakistani Taliban have even challenged the tribal leadership in FATA. The Talibanization of Pakistan's Pashtun areas is a much bigger problem for Islamabad, and not just because of issues that deal with domestic political stability. Pakistan needs to figure out how it can continue to use the Afghan Taliban as an instrument in gaining influence in Kabul without Talibanizing its own territory. The problem for Islamabad is that the Pashtuns are the only ethnic group that Pakistan can use to gain influence in Kabul. What is even more problematic is that, among the Pashtuns, the Taliban is the most powerful movement. This means the Taliban are the only force that can aid the Pakistanis in securing their geopolitical objectives in Afghanistan. But the Taliban are a bad option because of their ideology and because the same Pashtun ethnic medium that Pakistan is using to gain influence in Afghanistan is the one the Taliban are using to gain influence among Pakistani Pashtuns. This explains why the Pakistanis are more concerned about the Taliban in FATA than the Taliban waging the insurgency in Afghanistan, and hence make a distinction between the two. But the reality is not as simple as Islamabad would like to believe. The Taliban cannot be easily bifurcated along nationalistic lines because of both ethnic and ideological reasons. Ethnically both are Pashtuns, and ideologically they both adhere to the same transnational jihadist cause. Though they have different areas of operation, they cooperate. Therefore, Pakistan's efforts to block Taliban activity in its territory while it seeks to use the Pashtun jihadist movement to gain a foothold in Afghanistan are not going to work.