Pakistan’s Jihadists are Nationwide

America’s foremost concern regarding terrorism in Pakistan has, again, been the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — seven districts, bordering Afghanistan, that are ruled by a federally appointed political agent in consultation with “tribal elders” appointed by the government. A secondary concern has been the reported presence of the Afghan Taliban leadership in Baluchistan, as well as alleged recruitment of fighters from refugee camps there. In recent months, the role of the Pashtun “Pakistani Taliban,” comprised, like the Afghan Taliban, of Pushtu-speaking fighters, has been the subject of increased American interest. But non-Pashtun Pakistani Islamist militant groups have figured less prominently in briefings on terrorism given by American officials and in the American media.4

Several Islamist movements from the plains of Pakistan, particularly from the populous state of Punjab, have flourished over the last 20 years. One such group, the Jaish-e- Muhammad, was linked to the abduction and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl. Most dramatically, the “Red Mosque” in central Islamabad, only a short distance from the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters, became a refuge of heavily armed Islamist fighters in 2007.

A violent government crackdown on the Red Mosque in July 2007 unleashed a backlash that included suicide bombings aimed at the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. By the end of the year, there had been nearly 60 suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan, including the December 27 explosion that killed Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, as she campaigned for her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections. Bhutto was the most prominent Pakistani politician to argue that Islamist violence posed a threat to Pakistan’s existence. While these attacks abated after the February elections, they have since resumed.

A significant question in our interviews was whether the problem of Islamist extremist groups could be resolved through talks, or whether a military solution was necessary. Ambassador Haqqani argued forcefully that the elected government could succeed in disarming militants by a process of dialogue along the lines of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. He said talks had been initiated first in Swat, a “settled area” outside the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas that was overrun by Islamist fighters in 2007, because there was “less fire power” there. He argued that the tribal areas would be addressed “stage by stage.”

We encountered support for a political approach in territory where Islamist militant groups hold sway, including from the newly elected representative of North Waziristan in parliament, the 26-year-old Kamran Khan. “The last government wanted to change things by the gun, but that is never possible,” said Khan, who before the election was reportedly allied with the Taliban. “Without peace, how can you build roads, schools, and factories — how can you have the basic requirements of being human?”

Hasham Baber, a spokesman for the Awami National Party, the secular political party that won control over the provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province in the recent elections, was also optimistic about the capacity of elected civilian leaders to reach effective agreements. Still, his party has complained that the army has made its own deals with militants aimed at temporary cease-fires.

The army’s chief spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, director general of Inter- Services Public Relations, told us that, in the tribal areas, the army’s role now is to restore order. While “there are times when the army over engages in law and order operations,” he said, “henceforth it should be the political prong.” But many experts dispute these official characterizations.

When the use of force against Islamist violence is framed in terms of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the fight against armed Islamists is deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Few Pakistanis see their country as the source of Islamist violence; almost universally, they see its origins in the history of U.S. support for anti-Soviet Islamists in the 1980s. “The roots are in Afghanistan and the solution is also in Afghanistan,” Owais Ahmed Ghani, North-West Frontier Province’s governor, whom Musharraf appointed in January, told us. His remark was a neat reversal of conventional wisdom in the United States about how our setbacks in Afghanistan have their source in Pakistan.

Many in Pakistan’s security forces are not convinced that fighting their fellow coreligionists and countrymen is the right thing to do and this attitude feeds displeasure with U.S. insistence that the Pakistan’s army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency should sever ties to the Taliban. The U.S. government should press hard also for a verifiable divorce between the I.S.I. and Pakistani jihadi groups, in addition to its insistence on a cutoff of ties with groups operating in Afghanistan. Demonstrating that the United States equally opposes Islamist groups that operate in Pakistan could win sympathy for our demands that Pakistan eliminate safe havens for those that operate in Afghanistan.

While the Federally Administered Tribal Areas provide terrorists a base of operations, any lasting solution must undermine the impetus to jihad throughout Pakistan. A U.S. policy that addresses Pakistan’s need for effective counter-insurgency — that aligns our interests in fighting terrorism with Pakistani aversion to jihadi violence — could win us allies among the public. Additionally, the United States should immediately begin to deliver emergency relief to the growing number of Pakistanis who have become refugees within Pakistan as a result of anti-terrorist military operations. Estimates of the number of internally displaced people now reach into hundreds of thousands.

Previous: Terrorism Is a Shared Threat

Next: Nuclear Pride

4 On July 31, Reuters reported from Washington: “Some of the more effective fighters in Afghanistan’s Kunar province have proved to be members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Punjab-based groups with a long record of violence in Indian Kashmir, a senior defense official said.” See

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest scoop right to your inbox.
Loading ...