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Why Pakistan’s Embrace of Jihadism Is Deadly

Taliban police patrolling the streets of Herat in a pickup truck - Wikipedia

In the aftermath of the December 16th, 2014 tragedy in Peshawar, Pakistan which saw the Pakistani Taliban systematically massacre 145 people, most of them students, many in the West asked themselves how this could have come about. What would make the Muslim militants set teachers on fire and methodically execute screaming students, some as young as seven, at point blank with assault rifles. Striving to understand the origins of the bloodbath, several pundits used the words “historic” and “unprecedented” to describe the seemingly senseless massacre of innocent students.

A journey into the Pakistani government’s complex relations with the Taliban, which have see-sawed from years of covert support to the recent full-scale war against the Pakistani Taliban in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agency) of North Waziristan, however, demonstrates that this event was far from unprecedented and is firmly rooted in recent history.

Pakistan’s History of Exporting Jihad

Muslim Pakistan, along with Israel, was one of the only two states founded explicitly on the basis of religion in the 20th century. It was created in opposition to Hindu-dominated India and from its founding in 1947 has been at war with India over the disputed province of Kashmir. It was at the time of its founding that Pakistan began the policy of using Islamic militants to wage proxy jihad in Kashmir. Thousands of tribal jihadists were trained to cross the border into Kashmir and fight against Indian jawans (security forces) in a failed effort to conquer this disputed Indian province.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Pakistan government of President Zia ul Haq similarly sponsored the Afghan mujahideen rebels in their struggle against the Soviet invaders. The most prominent recipient of Pakistani support was the fanatical Islamist extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whose followers were known for throwing acid in the face of unveiled women.

In the aftermath of the fall of Communism in 1992 and resulting civil war, the Pakistani ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) began to sponsor a new fundamentalist force in Afghanistan that sought to create a harsh Islamic shariah-law based theocracy known as the Taliban. Recently declassified documents in the National Security Archives show that the CIA knew that the ISI sent convoys of fuel and ammunition as well as non-commissioned officers across the border to bolster the Taliban in their war against more moderate ethnic groups in the north. In the Pakistani ISI’s Machiavellian worldview, backing the Taliban extremists as they brutally transformed neighboring Afghanistan into a Medieval-style religious prison camp would give Pakistan theoretical “strategic depth” (i.e. a fellow Muslim country to act as a fallback zone/Islamist jihadi ally) should Muslim Pakistan ever wage an existential war with its long-time foe India.

In addition to providing the Taliban (who belonged to the Pashtun ethnic group which is found in south-eastern Afghanistan and the neighboring tribal lands of Pakistan the FATA or Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) with financial and logistical support, the ISI encouraged thousands of Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen to cross the border and join the Pashtun Taliban in their summer offensives in Afghanistawebsiten. This experience of waging holy war in neighboring Afghanistan radicalized thousands of Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen from the FATA and would ultimately led to “blowback.”

As Pakistan was sponsoring the Taliban’s brutal jihad in Afghanistan, it simultaneously supported the creation of paramilitary groups who were trained to wage terroristic jihad against India. These groups, including the Jaish e Mohammad (Army of Mohammad), Lashgar e Jangvi (Army of Jhangvi), the notorious Lashkar e Toiba (Army of the Pure) sent fedayeen (suicide bombers and suicide fighters) across the Line of Demarcation to kill Indians in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s policy of exporting jihad into Afghanistan, however, came to an abrupt halt after 9/11. The US declared war on the Taliban hosts of the Arab Al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and declared the GWOT (Global War on Terror). President George W. Bush famously declared that nations had to decide whether they were “with” or “against” America as it launched a war to destroy the terrorists and those who sponsored them. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan put his finger to the wind and sensed that his country’s Taliban proxies would be no match for the US and its powerful NATO allies and jettisoned his alliance with the Taliban. Additional incentive for joining the Americans came in $10 billion dollars in Coalition Support Funds to reward Pakistan for joining the war on terror.

In return, the US was given basing rights for helicopters and drones at Jacobabad and other airfields in Pakistan and the Pakistanis promised to arrest fleeing Al Qaeda Arabs should they try to cross the border from Afghanistan. As many as 600 Arabs were subsequently captured by the Pakistanis, including Khaleed Sheikh Muhammad the 9/11 planner, and given to the Americans. Pakistani generals who spoke out against the new alliance with the US were purged by Musharraf at this time.

But Musharraf’s volte face was far from complete. As it transpired, the Pakistanis made a decision not to arrest thousands of fleeing Taliban who crossed into Pakistan’s remote FATA tribal region to escape Operation Enduring Freedom. The Afghan Taliban were given melmastiia (sanctuary) by the local Pashtun tribes who had long been sending volunteers to fight alongside their Pashtun Taliban kin in Afghanistan. These Taliban refugees then openly reorganized in their FATA sanctuary under the eyes of the Pakistanis who did not disturb them. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the “Commander of the Faithful,” reestablished his shura (ruling council) in the town of Quetta which lies to the south of the FATA. Thus Pakistan proved to be both “with” the Americans and “against” them when it came to protecting their former Taliban assets.

But the Taliban proved to be hard to control and quickly joined with their local Pashtun allies to seize control of several of the FATA tribal agencies, most notably North Waziristan and South Waziristan. There they brutally enforced Taliban style shariah law (closing movie theaters, forcing men to the mosque, burning girls schools, cutting the hands of criminals, killed local leaders known as maliks etc.) and turned much of FATA into what became known unofficially as “Talibanistan.” Mullah Omar’s harsh theocracy had simply been reestablished inside the remote zones of Pakistan that were an autonomous tribal region inside of Pakistan. The Pakistani army had never entered this region which was ruled by autonomous tribal leaders and officials known as agents.

From this sanctuary the Taliban began to launch raids against the small number of US and Coalition troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan (there were only 6-10,000 troops in Afghanistan as the US was involved in a much larger war in Iraq at this time which ultimately caused the deployment of 148,000 US troops). To compound matters, several top Al Qaeda operatives, including number two Ayman al Zawahiri, were given sanctuary by the Taliban in the FATA. This infuriated the Americans who compelled the Pakistani military for the first time to enter the FATA and close down Al Qaeda’s remaining sanctuaries. But the Pakistani military stirred up the hornet’s nest and the pro-Taliban tribesmen fought back and defeated the Pakistani military in their rugged mountains. On one occasion they humiliated the Pakistani military by capturing an entire Pakistani unit and beheading its commanders. The Pakistani army was forced to sign two face saving peace treaties with the emboldened local militants who saw them as capitulations.

The man leading the pro-Taliban militants was a Pashtun warrior who previously fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban named Nek Mohammad. He vowed to wage war against the Americans and expel them from Afghanistan. Then in June 2004 Nek Mohammad was assassinated in what was to be the first of America’s drone strikes on the militants and terrorists in the FATA. His role as leader of the local Pashtun militants in the FATA was taken over by Baitullah Mehsud who organized the loose bands of FATA militants into the TTP or Pakistani Taliban.

Such developments did not unduly bother most average Pakistanis who had never identified with the Pakistani army’s invasion of the traditionally autonomous FATA region at the urging of the distrusted American “infidels.” In fact there were reports in the Pakistani media at the time of Pakistani Army soldiers who were slain in fighting the FATA militants being denied proper burials because they were “bad Muslims.” Anti-Americanism soared to new heights in Pakistan as average Pakistanis came to see their own president as a puppet of the pro-Israeli Americans. The Islamist parties led protests against the war in FATA and blamed all their country’s problems on the “unholy alliance” of Israel, India and the USA.

As the newly formed Pakistani Taliban spread its power throughout the entire FATA region, it came to the conclusion that it had the means to wage war against the very secular state founded in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father. This fact became obvious to all Pakistanis when Pashtun militants from the FATA seized a mosque in Islamabad in the summer of 2007 and threatened to send suicide bombers across the city if shariah law was not enforced nationally. As the militants fanned out into the city from the mosque known as the Lal Masjid, Red Mosque, it seemed Pakistan’s policy of cynically sponsoring militant jihad against its neighbors had finally come to haunt it.

Forced to act by this brazen threat to the Pakistani government, Musharraf ordered an attack on the mosque in July 2007. Scores of militants and soldiers died in the subsequent bloody battle and this infuriated the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. He then declared a terror war on Pakistan and sent hundreds of suicide bombers into Pakistani cities from his terror statelet in South and North Waziristan. His followers also poured out of the FATA and conquered the scenic valley of the Swat (home to Malalai Yousufzai the school girl who was shot for standing up to the fanatic Taliban and fighting for her right to get an education). This resort valley was less than a hundred miles from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s Taliban jihadi chickens had come home to roost and it would seem that Islamabad was at war with this threat that the new US president, Barack Obama, called a “cancer.” But the Pakistani ISI and military was only at war with the newly formed Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban faction led by Mullah Omar that was waging a terror campaign against neighboring Afghanistan was still seen as a “strategic asset.” The Pakistanis had cynically divided the Taliban into “good Taliban terrorists” (the Afghan Taliban whom they covertly supported) and “bad Taliban terrorists” (the separate Pakistani faction headed by Baitullah Mehsud). It bothered the Pakistanis not at all that their Afghan Taliban surrogates were creating exactly the sort of carnage in neighboring Afghanistan (including beheading school teachers, throwing acid in the face of school girls, burning schools, sending suicide bombers into crowded markets to slaughter innocents etc.) that Pakistani Taliban were inflicting in Pakistan. As up to 3,000 Pakistani died per year in Pakistani Taliban terror attacks and scores of schools were attacked and burned, the Pakistanis also continued to turn a blind eye to their anti-Indian jihadi terror groups, including Lashkar e Toiba which killed 154 people (including 6 Americans) in the infamous 2008 Mumbai terror attack in India. In fact Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar e Toiba, continues to operate freely in Pakistan and to openly lead large rallies even though he is a terrorist wanted by the US and India.

As hundreds of Pakistani schools burned and Pakistani civilians died in the thousands, the Islamist parties called for “dialogue” with the terrorists and vocally condemned the CIA drone strikes which ultimately killed Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, his successor Hakimullah Mehsud, and thousands of rank and file Pakistani and Afghan Taliban (at a very low death toll to civilians, according to my own study on this issue found in my book, Predators. The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda).

No leader was more vocal in condemning the CIA’s withering drone war on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in FATA than Pakistani cricketer-turned politician, Imran Khan. Khan led anti-drone protests and called for discussions with the Taliban who he felt had been galvanized into attacking Pakistan by the USA’s actions. Protestors from Imran Khan’s party called the Americans “terrorists” and claimed they were acting in conjunction with India and Israel to destroy Pakistan. By contrast, Imran Khan and the Islamist parties, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (the Community of Religious Scholars) failed to label the Taliban terrorists and pressured the new president, Nawaz Sharif, to hold peace talks with the Taliban in the spring of 2014. As the pressure mounted, Sharif forced the Americans to cut back drastically on their effective drone strikes on the Taliban and he began negotiations to end the war with the Taliban.

The peace talks ended on June 8, 2014 when the Taliban launched one of their boldest assaults to date, an attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi which killed 27 people and humiliated Sharif. Once again Islamabad’s policy of appeasement had been seen by the Pakistani Taliban maximalists as a sign of weakness and they had used the truce to prepare for the audacious airport attack. Sharif realized that he now had a freer hand to move against the Pakistani Taliban’s headquarters in North Waziristan despite the continuing pressure for him to resign from Imran Khan and the Islamist parties who equated CIA drone strikes on the terrorists with terrorism.

In June 2014, the Pakistani army launched a full-scale offensive into the Pakistani Taliban’s lair in North Waziristan. This campaign was more determined than the previous offensives, which had usually ended in “peace treaties,” which the Taliban defined as capitulations. Moving systematically through North Waziristan, the Pakistani army bombarded Taliban holdouts and compounds with artillery and aircraft in the summer and fall of 2014.

But the Pakistani army offensive was less surgical than the CIA drone strikes which pin pointed terrorists for laser-guided missile assassination strikes which rarely created civilian “collateral damage.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled the brutal fighting and many more died as the Pakistani army clumsily carried out its campaign known as Zarb e Azb (Zarb e Azb was a sword used by the Prophet Muhammad). As the Pakistani Taliban sustained unprecedented losses and the overthrow of their Taibanistan “emirate,” they faced the prospect of defeat and the end of their dreams of creating a shariah Islamic law state of the sort also favored by several Pakistani Islamist parties.

As many terrorists do when cornered (recall the Beslan School siege in Russia at the hands of cornered Chechen terrorists), the Pakistani Taliban decided in response to strike at a “soft target” that would hurt their enemies. Thus was born the now notorious December 16th attack on the military school in Peshawar that was home to the children of many of the very Pakistani soldiers engaged in rooting out the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan. Peshawar lies right next to the FATA tribal region and is home base for many Pakistani army units fighting in the hills of North Waziristan.

Loud condemnations of the slaughter of school children came from India and the US, both of which are seen as enemies by many Pakistanis who had previously failed to look themselves in the mirror and define their own Taliban as terrorists. It remains to be seen if the Taliban have finally crossed the threshold of tolerance of those Pakistanis who saw the terrorists as fellow Muslims at best, and at worst, as misguided. A former Pakistani ambassador to the US, however, seems to have summed up the new feeling among many in Pakistan when she stated: “There have been national leaders who been apologetic about the Taliban. People will have to stop equivocating and come together in the face of national tragedy.”

Perhaps the most important message for the Pakistani’s who have long ignored the vipers they have nursed in their bosom came from former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who visited Pakistan in 2011 and warned, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbors.” There are signs that, having been “bitten” by the jihadi snake partly of their own making, that the Pakistanis have a newfound resolve to tackle the extremists who seek to destroy their secular society. It remains to be seen whether this newfound determination will translate it into an all out war on all the Taliban factions, including the Afghan factions still be protected as assets by the ISI.