A complex game of smoke and mirrors in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region has come alive with the assassination of the Taliban commander, Mullah Nazir, in an American drone strike recently. Nazir was among the ‘good Taliban’ favoured by the military and intelligence apparatus in Pakistan for prosecuting a prolonged insurgency inside Afghanistan against western and Afghan troops. The fact that he ‘performed jihad’ in Afghanistan against the Americans instead of attacking the Pakistani army set Nazir and his Taliban fighters apart from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is waging war against Pakistani agencies. The support that Nazir’s outfit receives from the Pakistani intelligence apparatus is an open secret in the tribal areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The American drone attacks, which are notorious for killing hundreds of innocent civilians, are thus also controversial within the Pakistani intelligence and military top brass because they scalp major Pakistani assets like Nazir and deliver strategic setbacks to Islamabad’s agenda of regaining control of Afghanistan after the American withdrawal next year. Until now, Pakistan has permitted America to carry out drone attacks in return for billions of dollars of military aid. While verbally venting outrage against the drone warfare as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, not even one American unmanned aerial vehicle is known to have been shot down by Pakistan despite years of operation over its airspace. But the killing of Nazir is bound to raise hackles within the Pakistani army and trigger calls for a long-term solution to deter drones.
According to the Barack Obama administration’s planning, drones and other aerial ‘counter-terrorist’ capacities will remain on the prowl in Pakistan and Afghanistan even after the departure of the bulk of the boots on the ground. Populist rhetoric from civilian politicians like Imran Khan that he would order missile hits on American drones if he comes to power after the upcoming general elections, can mushroom with a nod and wink from Pakistan’s all-powerful military. Because of Obama’s propensity to intensify usage of drones, some in the Pakistani establishment would be itching to deploy Pakistan’s formidable surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets to smash drones.
The motives of Pakistan in propping up and preserving Nazir’s killing machine are twofold. On one hand, he was making life difficult for western forces in Afghanistan through a cross-border guerrilla war operation, and leaving no breathing room for the nascent Afghan State to stand on its feet. On the other hand, Pakistan relied on him and his Wazir kinsfolk to keep the TTP at bay in South Waziristan, particularly to counterbalance the TTP faction led by the Hakimullah Mehsud tribesmen. The rivalry between Mullah Nazir and Mehsud, Pakistan’s most wanted militant, is the stuff of legend and the outcome of a divide-and-rule ploy of the Pakistani military, which has come around to concluding that it cannot blunt the challenge of the TTP without exploiting inter-tribal feuds.
Yet, there is no clear line separating the anti-Pakistani TTP and the Pakistan-sponsored ‘Afghan Taliban’. Mehsud, formally the head of TTP, has proclaimed in a new video that “we are Afghan Taliban and Afghan Taliban are us”. The slain Mullah Nazir also enjoyed the approval of anti-Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) warlords like Mullah Daadullah for imposing Sharia law in his fiefdom of South Waziristan.
In the miasma of a proxy war, where simplified patterns of who is fighting for and against whom are always hard to discern, the bifurcation between ‘Pakistani Taliban’ and ‘Afghan Taliban’ is merely to make sense out of the confusion rather than paint an accurate picture. This applies to India too, where we have assumed that the ‘Afghan Taliban’ who dance to the tunes of the ISI and jointly train with Kashmir-oriented jihadis threaten our security. But when the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ chief Hakimullah Mehsud keeps proposing truces with the Pakistani army, provided it stops aiding the Americans and “focuses on India instead”, we remain vulnerable to blowback from multiple Taliban factions. The war after the Americans leave will be one we cannot avoid.
Sreeram Chaulia is Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal