The Fight Against the Pakistani Taliban: What Are the Costs?

November 17, 2015
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by Sara Obeidat Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In December of 2014, the Pakistani Taliban waged a brutal assault against an army-run school in Peshawar, leaving 145 people dead — 132 of them uniformed school children.

It was the deadliest single attack in the history of the Pakistani Taliban — known also as the TTP — prompting the government to bolster military efforts to beat the group back.

These military campaigns, however, have brought unintended consequences, as some militants have been driven from strongholds in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and the Swat valley, and taken refuge in the slums of Karachi, a city of more than 20 million people.

This migration has shifted a growing share of the burden of fighting the Taliban from the army, to local police units, often in conjunction with a paramilitary force known inside Pakistan as the Rangers. Police and the Rangers have helped drive down violence against citizens in Karachi, but critics have complained about their tactics, which are alleged to include torture, extrajudicial killings, and the disproportionate targeting of certain ethnic groups.

For more on the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan, FRONTLINE spoke with Hassan Abbas,who served in the administrations of former presidents Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf and is author of The Taliban Revival. Abbas is now a professor of international security affairs at National Defense University and is a Senior Advisor and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.

This is an edited transcript of a conversation held on Nov. 13th, 2015. 

The Pakistani Taliban emerged in 2007 as a unified group in Pakistan. How big of a threat are they today, eight years later?

The Pakistani Taliban emerged as an umbrella group in 2007. They were called the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. It was a new command and control system for about 30 to 40 tribal, criminal, and extremists gangs.

In 2004 and 2005, the number of suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan was maybe one or two. But from 2006 onwards there was a sharp rise. And then from 2007 to early 2014, they had not only expanded the operations, they had actually created havoc in Pakistan, in alliance with Al Qaeda.

The violence impacts Pakistan’s economy. Foreign investment will not come if they see the suicide attacks happening in Lahore, in Islamabad, in Peshawar. In some cases, the Taliban went after judges, they went after lawyers who were prosecuting TTP cases, and journalists as well. Through very targeted fear creation, they were able to create an environment in which people could not speak against TTP.

I think their real success moment came during the 2013 elections, in which they created an atmosphere in which political parties considered relatively liberal or progressive could not go out and campaign. By creating fear in a political sphere, they were able to influence the election results, and that, from a Taliban point of view, was a huge success. Not that it was a pro-Taliban religious extremist group that won the election, but they were able to influence the result.

What differentiates the Pakistani Taliban from the group in Afghanistan?

The Afghan Taliban are mostly the Pashtuns who were living in Afghanistan. Many of them were trained in Pakistani madrasas, but they associate their group with the Taliban government of 1996 to 2001.

The Pakistani Taliban is a separate group living on the Pakistan side of the border, and they emerged much later, in 2007, as a coherent group.

There is one group that connects them, which is the Haqqani Network. They had moved back from Afghanistan after the Afghan jihad, and they were thriving in the Pakistani tribal belt. This is the same area where the Pakistan Taliban operated. But the Pakistan Taliban, by and large, are only targeting the Pakistani army, Pakistani police, Pakistani citizens. The Afghan Taliban were focused on Kabul. The Haqqani group, though they were living among the Pakistan Taliban, they were not looking towards Islamabad; they were always looking towards Kabul. So this categorization is important — they may all look alike, speak the same language, have the same narrative, but on the ground, these are different groups.

In the 90s, the Pakistani defense establishment deemed the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to be pro-Indian. They wanted to use the Afghan Taliban to counter Indian influence. There was a perception that the Afghan Taliban were friends. It turned out after 9/11 that the Afghan Taliban were giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda. But Pakistan continued to deem them “good,” or pliable Taliban. The problem for the military establishment was the later cross-pollination with the Pakistani Taliban, who became the bad Taliban. Unfortunately for the Pakistani security establishment, acquiescence of the good Taliban made the bad Taliban stronger.

Pakistan has stepped up its counter-insurgency campaign, especially in the wake of last year’s Taliban attack on the Peshawar school. How successful has that campaign been?

The operation, to my understanding, has been the first major well-coordinated, planned, thought-out operation against the TTP. The campaign is not only restricted to the tribal areas, but also in Peshawar and Karachi — because the TTP had expanded networks and alliances all across Pakistan.

I was in Pakistan a few months ago and I interviewed security officials, even those who are critical of the military operations, and there was a kind of consensus that [the campaign] has been quite successful, at least in the tribal areas. The TTP’s hubs, which were in two or three important areas, have been cleared. The leadership is on the run. About 70 percent of the infrastructure in the tribal areas has been dismantled.

TTP is not dead — their alliances with other militant groups are still alive and kicking. But it is on the run, and there are no special sanctuaries for them to operate freely. As a result, the number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has significantly declined.

But if TTP hubs in the rural areas have been the target of the campaign, what has that meant for Taliban-related violence in major cities like Karachi?

Violence in Karachi was typically linked to organized crime. In addition, according to a Supreme Court investigation, all major political parties have militant factions in Karachi, and those factions were fighting among themselves for money, crime, and power. But the extremists, the religious extremists were quiet because it was their education hub, and it was also where most of their fundraising was done.

It’s a huge city where security is not that good — you can roam from one area to the other without anyone taking notice. This was a very attractive environment for all kinds of extremist groups, and their presence in Karachi started to grow as the tribal areas became more dangerous.

But it reached a point in the last few years where extremist groups got caught up in gang wars — pro-Taliban groups and traditional politically-backed gangs started to clash.

Without going into Karachi, there could have been no [successful] counterterrorism operation in Pakistan. But Karachi is a thriving city, very cosmopolitan, Pakistan’s largest port city, that contributes to over half of Pakistan’s economy, so an operation might have been destabilizing. But the military and the rangers, controversially, decided to take action.

Of course with the Taliban growing inside Pakistan’s cities, that’s meant that the fight against them is now increasingly falling on forces other than the army. How effective has this model been?

Today, a paramilitary force called the Rangers is fighting the Taliban in Karachi. Constitutionally, they are under civilian rule, but leaders and top commanders get their orders from the army, which tends to be more assertive and less concerned with political backlash. It is the army chief and his strong support to the Rangers that allows them to operate on the level in which they do, and the effectiveness of the Rangers is linked to the nod that they have received from the military.

I do think that the rate of violence, kidnapping and street crime has gone down in Karachi due to the Rangers. However, I do not think these operations are sustainable, because the Rangers lack the capacity to investigate these crimes, as they are not linked to the broader criminal justice system, which is why you need the police to take the lead role in these operations with the Rangers. In my opinion, the military decision to fight the Taliban in Karachi could do a better job in coordination with the civilian side, which is the police.

You’ve previously said that the police could be a better force for counterterrorism operations. Why?

Because of the Rangers, people often forget that the first line of defense against the Taliban was the police. They might have not operated in an organized and cohesive fashion, but they were the first ones who challenged this kind of militancy and violence in Karachi.

The police can be a better body at fighting the Taliban because they operate amongst the people. They are housed in that area and should be able to go after local militant groups. The reason they haven’t done so is because they were never given the political “go ahead,” nor were they given the financial support. The counterterrorism aid that was coming from international donors all went to the military. The police got next to nothing. The police force can be the most effective tool, but it is the one with the least investment.

When the military operates, they operate in a different fashion, where they tend to overwhelm the targets through force. If we have learned anything about counterterrorism from all these groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, it is that military action is not sufficient, and that you usually need to also have the law enforcement approach in order to be able to prosecute these criminals.

Does that explain the low conviction rates for terrorism cases? What does that say about Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy?

The low conviction rate tells you that the criminal justice system is not functioning at all. The biggest missing link in all of this is a witness protection system. People watch a murder taking place in the street and close their eyes because they know that if they do go to court, the prospect of them getting threatened or killed is very real. In addition, there are fewer prosecutors willing to take on these cases.

This is something that neither the Rangers nor the military can do anything about. The military is not trained to undertake such issues. It would have to be the police who undertake these issues, and this is the biggest inadequacy of the [strategy].

At the same time, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has raised concerns that the Rangers have been engaging in torture and other violations for the purpose of collecting intelligence and obtaining confessions. What has the response been to these charges?

These actions have reduced crime levels, so many people in Pakistan are very happy about it. But yes, HRCP is a very credible body. If HRCP is saying it, then that’s absolutely a red flag.

I’m not surprised that this might be happening, because paramilitary organizations without a legal mandate and the capacity for scientific investigations — this is what they tend to do. Because there is no oversight of the process, that opens up more opportunities to go beyond what is allowed under the law.

In that case, how should Pakistan be rethinking its counterterrorism policy?

Pakistan needs comprehensive criminal justice reform. When we say “criminal justice system,” it has three layers. One is the court, second is the whole prosecution system, and third is the police. So the whole process, all three layers of criminal justice system, needs overhaul because courts can only give good judgments and convict people if there’s strong prosecution system. Prosecution system can work only if there is a good witness protections system. That is dependent all on the police investigative work. So these, all three layers, are in a state of a dysfunction in Pakistan.

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