Pakistan Taliban shift focus to Afghanistan
By Amir Mir
ISLAMABAD - With the Pakistan Taliban finally holding peace talks with a
government in Islamabad that is increasingly seen at odds with the United
States in the aftermath of the November 26 North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) air strike that killed 25 soldiers, Pakistani suicide bombers seem to
have shifted the focus of their deadly attacks from their homeland to
Afghanistan has seen a sharp increase in suicide bombings in recent months, the
latest being the December 6 attack targeting Shi'ite worshippers at a Kabul
mosque, killing 56 people.
It was the first major anti-Shi'ite attack in Afghanistan since the fall of the
Afghan Taliban a decade ago in 2001. The bombing took
place on the concluding day of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan that was
boycotted by Pakistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has blamed the Pakistan-based sectarian jihadi
group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) for the Kabul attack, demanding justice from
Islamabad. Pakistan has responded by asking Kabul to provide evidence to
support allegations that the LeJ was responsible. "Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a
banned organization. We would encourage Kabul to share with us evidence through
official channels," Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said.
The fact, however, remains that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almi - an offshoot of the
LeJ, an anti-Shi'ite sectarian-cum-jihadi group, has already claimed
responsibility for the attack.
A spokesman for the LeJ (Almi) claimed the Kabul attack in a phone call to
Radio Mashaal, a Pashto language radio station in Afghanistan.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almi is reportedly based in Pakistanís tribal areas on the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border and is considered a radical offshoot of the LeJ.
Both groups act as surrogates for al-Qaeda.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban - TTP) has its roots in
anti-Shi'ite violence, with the LeJ acting as a training ground for many of its
anti-Shi'ite leaders, including Hakeemullah Mehsud and his first cousin, Qari
The LeJ was launched in 1996 by a breakaway faction of Sunni Deobandi
extremists, including Ishaq, Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori, who walked out of the
outfit after accusing the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) leadership of deviating
from the ideals of its founder, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was killed by
Shi'ite rivals in February 1990.
But many terrorism experts believe that the SSP is in fact the mother
organization that has provided human fodder to the cauldron of the region's
multi-layered violence in the name of Islam.
Having ideological affinity with the Taliban, the SSP aims at restoring the
caliphate system and has declared the Shi'ite minority to be non-Muslim. The
SSP and the LeJ, which is considered to be the military wing of the SSP, were
once strategic assets of Pakistan and have linked with al-Qaeda as its
ancillary warriors, killing Pakistani citizens and targeting the security
forces to dissuade Pakistan from fighting the "war against terror" as a United
The LeJ still has deep links with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban
and is considered to be the most violent terrorist organization operating in
Pakistan, with the help of its suicide squads.
As with most Sunni Deobandi sectarian and militant groups, almost the entire
LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan with the
backing of the Pakistani security establishment and most of its cadre are drawn
from the numerous Sunni madrassas (seminaries) in Pakistan.
The Lashkar stands out for its secrecy, lethality and unrelenting pursuit of
its core objectives - targeting Western interests in Pakistan and the Shi'ite
community as a way to the eventual transformation of the country into a
Taliban-style Islamic state. It has become the group of choice for hardcore
militants who are adamant in pursuing their jihadi agenda in Pakistan.
According to Interior Ministry circles in Islamabad, the LeJ consists of eight
loosely coordinated cells spread across Pakistan with independent chiefs for
each cell. Headed by a fugitive Punjabi Taliban leader, Maulana Abdul Khalil,
who comes from the central Punjab, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almi is largely
believed to be the international wing of the LeJ which operates mostly in the
central parts of Punjab and the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan
Incidentally, the Kabul bombing (already claimed by the LeJ) took place the day
Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik publicly thanked the Pakistani
Taliban for maintaining peace during the Shi'ite ritual of Ashura and for not
staging terrorist attacks this year. This gives credence to earlier media
reports that the TTP had declared a temporary ceasefire with the government in
Islamabad to pave the way for peace talks. The anti-Shi'ite TTP has frequently
bombed Shi'ite processions in Pakistan during Ashura in the past.
Although the Pakistani authorities have already declared war on the TTP for
targeting the security forces and intelligence agencies' personnel, there have
been unofficial reports in recent weeks of peace talks between the two sides,
which have been refuted by both the Pakistani military and the militants.
But the December 6 statement by Malik indicated that there was more to this
than meets the eye. Talking to newsmen in Islamabad on December 6, Malik
disclosed that he had appealed to the TTP to respect Shi'ite observances this
year and spare their processions.
"And they responded positively to my appeal. This is a good sign and I am
confident that the security situation will further improve in future. I am
thankful to the Taliban who did not carry out any attack on Shi'ites and showed
respect to their rituals. I hope they will also remain peaceful in the future,
lay down arms and work together with us for the security of the country," Malik
Three days after Malik's statement (December 10), a senior Taliban commander
and deputy leader of the TTP, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, claimed that the peace
talks were on between the government and the Pakistan Taliban. He further
claimed that the government had already released 145 members of the militant
organization as a goodwill gesture and halted the military operation in the
Bajaur tribal region.
Pakistan's leading English daily The News quoted Faqir as speaking from
somewhere in Afghanistan by phone:
Our talks with the government are
going in the right direction. If we succeed in signing a peace agreement in
Bajaur, then the Taliban in other places such as Swat, Mohmand, Orakzai, Darra
Adamkhel, Kurram and South Waziristan tribal regions will also ink peace
accords with the government in their respective areas. Bajaur will be a role
model for other areas and if our talks prove fruitful, the same formula will be
applied in all other areas where the Taliban are fighting against the
government and its armed forces.
In Bajaur, Maulana Faqir
Mohammad said the government and the Taliban had already ceased fighting to
give peace a chance and to enable a jirga (tribal council) comprising
notables from the tribal areas and settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
province and some government and security officials to find a peaceful
settlement to the conflict.
He said the government, after a long time, had shown some courage in the
recently held All Parties Conference in Islamabad that helped restore the trust
of the Pakistan Taliban groups in state institutions.
The Taliban, Mohammad added, were earlier reluctant to seriously consider the
peace offers of the government as it had lost its credibility by arresting some
senior Taliban commanders in Swat invited for peace talks:
We have no
wish to fight against our armed forces and destroy our country. If the
government stops killing its own people and pulls out of the US-led war against
humanity, then there is no need for us to fight against the state. There has
been some major development in our previous rounds of peace talks but the
government will have to show flexibility and restore trust of the Taliban
groups by releasing our prisoners and stopping military operations in FATA
[Federally Administered Tribal Areas].
militant commander introducing himself as Mullah Dadullah and claiming to be
the Taliban leader in Bajaur rejected Mohammad's statement and denied peace
talks with the government.
He said it was Mohammad's personal decision to enter into talks with the
government and this should not be considered as a unanimous decision of the
Bajaur Taliban or the TTP. The next one to deny the TTP-government peace talks
was Ehsanullah Ehsan, the official spokesman of the TTP, who said there would
be no negotiations until the government imposed Islamic law, or sharia,
in the country. "Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be
deemed as the Taliban talking," Ehsan told The Associated Press by telephone
from an undisclosed location.
Malik, who often makes controversial statements on key issues of national
importance, spoke on December 11, categorically stating that the government was
not holding any talks with the TTP, adding that negotiations could not take
place until terrorists surrendered themselves before the authorities.
While facing media flak in Islamabad for thanking the Taliban, he denied
reports about negotiations between the government and the TTP, saying:
talked to stakeholders in Bajaur to confirm that there are no talks with them.
If Maulvi Faqir Muhammad wants to hold talks with the government, he should
come down from the hills, lay down his arms and surrender. If the TTP
surrenders, the government will definitely consider talks.
on reports that some Taliban fighters had been released, he said there was no
truth to this and Faqir was spreading disinformation in this regard.
It may be recalled that TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud rejected Malik's November
6 offer of peace talks by vowing to carry out more attacks on the state of
Pakistan. The offer was made in accordance with a resolution adopted at an
all-party conference on October 18 in Islamabad that endorsed peace talks with
But well-informed circles in the Ministry of Interior claim that the TTP had
actually set some pre-requisites to initiate talks with the government, most of
which have been accepted in the aftermath of the November 26 NATO air attack on
two Pakistani check posts on the AfPak border.
Pakistan reacted sharply to the NATO strike by announcing a review of
Pakistan-US ties, suspending NATO supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan
and giving a 15-day deadline to the Americans to vacate the Shamsi air base in
All three Pakistani actions correspond closely with the November 19
pre-conditions made public by a TTP spokesman for entering into peace
negotiations with the federal government. Therefore, unlike in neighboring
Afghanistan where a suicide bomber killed more than 50 Shi'ite worshipers on
December 6, the Ashura observances passed peacefully in Pakistan without any
terrorist activity, resulting in the interior minister publicly thanking the
Taliban for responding to his appeal.
Government circles in Islamabad say following the deaths of TTP founder
Baitullah Mehsud and the chief of the group's suicide bomb squad, Qari Hussain
Mehsud, the TTP are relatively weakened and are ready to hold peace talks with
a government that has increasingly been at odds with the US since the May 2
Abbottabad raid in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US
As a result, the rhythm of suicide attacks has changed dramatically in
Pakistan, which has not experienced any major attacks September 15 when a
suicide bomber killed 46 people at a funeral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,
with the Pakistani human bombs shifting the focus of their deadly attacks to
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books
on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The
Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.
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