In November 2001, as the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and their American allies closed a net around the collapsing Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Pakistani planes flew into the Taliban stronghold of Kunduz and evacuated hundreds of Pakistani intelligence officers, Taliban commanders, and al-Qaeda personnel.
This was after then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had pledged support for America’s efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban. The United States knew about the airlift and allowed it to happen. Reasoning that it was better to maintain the fiction that Pakistan was wholly on its side and to cajole whatever assistance it could from Islamabad, Washington declined even to monitor who disembarked from the plane when it landed safely in Pakistan. “It is believed that more foreign terrorists escaped from Kunduz than made their escape later from Tora Bora,” writes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his 2008 book Descent Into Chaos, referring to Osama bin Laden’s mountain stronghold from which he safely fled in December 2001.
For years after 9/11, relations between Pakistan and the Taliban that it had once openly supported followed this pattern. Pakistan would make strident public declarations about confronting extremism, and would indeed hunt down and kill or arrest foreign, usually Arab, al-Qaeda members sheltering within its borders. But the Taliban—either the Afghan or Pakistani variety—were generally unmolested. The Taliban in Afghanistan had provided Pakistan with “strategic depth,” meaning a friendly regime on its rear flank as it faced its mortal enemy, India. The Taliban’s defeat strengthened an Afghan government with close relations with India, leaving Pakistan—in the eyes of its army, and certainly of its spy agencies—caught in a vice.
But Pakistan’s appeasement of the Taliban was akin to feeding a monster that would, inevitably, turn on its master. It did, in 2007, when a bloody confrontation between the Pakistani army and Islamist students and militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad resulted in more than 100 deaths and waves of retaliatory attacks and suicide bombings. Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who had returned to the country to contest the 2008 general election, was murdered in December 2007.
“Al-Qaeda’s focus also shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where it saw a demoralized army, a terrified citizenry, and an opportunity to destabilize the state,” writes Rashid. “For the first time, senior Pakistani officials told me, the army’s corps commanders accepted that the situation had radically changed and the state was under threat from Islamic extremism.” In fact, he says, the Pakistani army was fighting a civil war.
Only months ago, it appeared that this war was on the verge of being lost. The Pakistani Taliban had used a series of truces with the army to consolidate and expand its reach. It had taken over most of Swat district and was moving into Buner, only 100 km from Islamabad, which itself came under attack. “They were really on a roll,” says Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
But today, while it is still far too early to speak of Pakistan defeating the Pakistani Taliban, it has reversed their expansion. A three-month offensive by the Pakistani army in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province has retaken much of Swat and Malakand districts. The fighting was devastating and displaced more than two million civilians, but it has been largely successful. Hundreds of Taliban have been killed, and residents who fled the fighting are beginning to return home. The army has vowed to stay in the territory until local police and security forces can hold it themselves.
The Pakistani Taliban suffered a second serious blow in August, when a CIA drone attack killed their leader, Baitullah Mehsud. They are reportedly now shaken by infighting as rivals manoeuvre to succeed him.
There are several factors that have combined to shift momentum against the Taliban in Pakistan. Most importantly, there appears to be a genuine will on the part of Pakistan’s army and security services to defeat them. “The Pakistani Taliban, when it took Swat and then kept moving on, overplayed its hand,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who, earlier this year, chaired an inter-agency review of American policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan for the White House.
Even the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, Pakistan’s largest and most powerful spy agency, has turned against the Pakistani Taliban. “The ISI is right at the centre of the struggle against Baitullah Mehsud and what they regard as part of the jihadist movement that has gotten out of control and now needs to be brought back under control,” says Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. “They are very actively involved in the business of trying to break the Pakistani Taliban into fractured little bits that can be more easily dealt with.”
Secondly, the army now has the support of the population. Pakistanis were appalled by video footage made public in April that showed Taliban in Swat viciously whipping a teenaged girl who had supposedly violated some aspect of Islamic law. This naked extremism, combined with their seemingly unstoppable spread out of Pakistan’s frontier regions and into the heart of the country, alarmed Pakistan’s citizens. Many had previously believed that the Taliban threat was exaggerated or that they only menaced foreigners in Afghanistan. By this spring they accepted the necessity of a decisive confrontation.
Finally, U.S. President Barack Obama’s refocusing of America’s anti-terror efforts on South Asia has had an effect on the ground in Pakistan. Co-operation between the United States and Pakistan has increased. And while American drone attacks are risky because of the potential for civilian casualties, and therefore public anger, they have also eliminated senior Taliban leaders who would otherwise have been all but untouchable.
But Pakistan’s offensive, while significant, is also limited in scope. The leadership of the Afghan Taliban is still safe in Quetta. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the jihadist group behind last year’s attacks in Mumbai, remains intact. The North-West Frontier Province might be coming back under the control of the Pakistani state, but Waziristan, a stronghold for both the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, is beyond its reach. “What we haven’t seen yet is a decision to go after the entire Frankenstein,” says Riedel. “There is a selective response.”
True, says Hoffman, but he adds: “Only a fool attacks all its enemies at one time. The fact that they’re taking action against the Pakistani Taliban, compared to a year ago, is an important step. If it can be sustained over an indefinite period and kept up at a fairly intense level, it would be a huge step forward.”
The problem, especially for Afghanistan and for Canadian troops fighting there, is that Pakistan isn’t convinced that the Afghan Taliban are their enemies. “I think they still see them as a useful tool,” says Hoffman. The reasons are the same as they have always been: Pakistan worries most about India, and the Taliban are a tool to fight India’s influence in Pakistan’s backyard.
“From a Pakistani point of view, they’re not comfortable surrendering their assets, especially when there’s so much uncertainty about what the United States is going to do in Afghanistan,” says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously worked at the U.S. State Department. “So why surrender their ties to the Afghan Taliban if they’re still useful?”
The result is that Pakistan is trying to separate potentially helpful militants—such as the Afghan Taliban or Lashkar-e-Taiba—from those that endanger Pakistan itself, such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. It’s a risky strategy. “These groups are incredibly networked and can share expertise and personnel when it suits their interests,” says Markey.
Pakistan, in other words, is still playing something of a double game. Jihadists will continue to find sanctuary there, as long as they don’t threaten their hosts.
The Pakistani Taliban did threaten Pakistan. They may do so again. But, for now, they have been knocked on their heels, driven from large chunks of territory that they effectively controlled only months ago. That reversal would have been hard to predict earlier this year. It’s a modest success, but it’s an important one.