By Declan Walsh
January 21, 2016
Only a few months ago, Pakistan’s military leaders openly boasted they had the Taliban on the run. A punishing, yearlong offensive had ousted the insurgents from their most prized tribal sanctuary. The movement’s various factions were riven by violent rivalries, and attacks on Pakistan’s towns and cities had largely ceased.
Then on Wednesday four Taliban gunmen mounted a deadly assault on a university in the north-western town of Charsadda, killing 20 people. The attack echoed of a massacre just over a year ago — when the Taliban killed 150 at a school in Peshawar — that prompted the military crackdown in the first place. On Thursday, frustration and concern were welling up across the country.
“We must question how long we can continue to live like this,” said an editorial in The News, an English-language daily newspaper. “We have heard the rhetoric of a ‘fight back’ at all costs. But do we have a guarantee of eventual success?”
Part of the answer lies in the Taliban’s continued resilience even when divided and on the run — and, more broadly, in the difficulties posed by guerrilla insurgencies throughout the region.
The Pakistani military enjoys authority that would be unthinkable in many countries. It has upended hundreds of thousands of civilians in the tribal areas as it has hunted militants and created its own court system that allows the quick hanging of terrorism suspects, all to public acclaim over the past year. But all it takes to restart the cycle of fear is a determined commander, a few willing attackers and a list of accessible targets — all of which the disparate factions of the Pakistani Taliban retain, along with experience in mounting such attacks.
Another major factor hampering Pakistan’s chances against the Taliban is the same one that has bedevilled Afghan leaders for decades: the failure to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the two countries that would prevent militants from using their porous borders to destabilize each another.
“To think that we can have a destabilized Afghanistan and bring peace to Pakistan is just crazy,” said Michael Semple, an expert on militancy at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.
Certainly, the Pakistani Taliban is no longer the tightly unified force that it once was, when the movement was commanded from the snowy heights of Waziristan in the tribal belt by swaggering, publicity-hungry commanders who could call on a seemingly limitless stream of suicide bombers to hit targets across Pakistan, including even the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The nominal leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, was a polarizing figure within the militant movement even from the start. But since the military began clearing his sub commanders and allies out of the North Waziristan tribal area, he appears to have even less authority over the Taliban’s factional leaders, many of them headstrong characters who alternate between cooperation and violent feuding.
Security officials believe that Mr. Fazlullah and other factional leaders have fled across the border into Afghanistan, where they have found sanctuary in remote corners of provinces such as Nangarhar and Kunar.
Terrorist Attacks on Schools
From 2005 to 2014, Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan staged at least 250 attacks on schools.
Pakistani Taliban 143
Afghan Taliban 107
Maoists/Communist Party of India (Maoist) 86
Boko Haram (Nigeria) 77
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Turkey, Iraq) 38
Abu Sayyaf (Philippines) 17
Islamic State (Iraq, Syria) 16
Shabab (Somalia) 10
Figures represent attacks on schools and their faculty, staff and buses, but do not include military schools. Countries in gray represent primary operating areas of each group.
Source: Global Terrorism Database
Less senior Taliban fighters have taken refuge in the region’s towns and cities, where some have sought protection from allied sectarian Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The army’s anti-militant offensive also reached deep into the southern port city of Karachi, where paramilitary Rangers have killed several Taliban commanders who had been hiding in the city’s sprawling ethnic Pashtun slums.
In an interview on Thursday, Faiz ur-Rehman, a Pashtun trader in the city, spoke of his gratitude after a Taliban commander who used to extort $950 in protection money from him every month was killed in a security raid. “I breathed a sigh of relief,” he said.
But the Taliban’s Afghan bases have also provided a new mode of operation for determined commanders such as Khalifa Omar Mansoor, the architect of both the Peshawar attack in 2014 and this week’s shootings at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda.
A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Mansoor, 37, was in many ways an archetypal Taliban commander. Schooled in a religious seminary, he worked for a time as a labourer in Karachi before signing up to the Taliban in the north-western tribal belt. He struck out his own; forming his own group after the Pakistani military drove the Taliban from Darra Adam Khel, a tribal town known for its artisanal gunsmiths. Later, he fled to Afghanistan.
A photograph that Mr. Mansoor released of himself after the Charsadda attack showed a pudgy-faced man with a tangled beard and a woollen cap, seated between fighters cradling battle-worn Kalashnikovs. His nickname is “Slim,” and, according to reports, his favorite sport is volleyball.
Little is known about the strength of his forces, but Pakistani officials believe that he shares resources, including suicide bombers, with some of the other militant groups. But one Taliban commander, speaking by phone from Waziristan, said Mr. Mansoor’s high-profile attacks had riled other groups and caused him to be seen as a threat to the pre-eminence of the group’s overall leader, Mr. Fazlullah.
Those tensions appeared to surface this week when Mr. Mansoor’s claim of responsibility for the shootings at Bacha Khan University prompted a public rebuke from a spokesman for the Taliban’s central command, which criticized his actions and threatened to bring him before an Islamic court.
Pakistani security officials said they saw the duelling statements as little more than a cynical public relations ploy on the part of the Taliban. Speaking of their frustration at Mr. Mansoor’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, they said they had tried covertly to lure him across the border so that he could be detained or killed.
Afghan leaders have for years voiced similar frustrations about the freedom enjoyed by Afghan Taliban militants to organize attacks on Western and Afghan soldiers from their bases in Pakistan. Now, though, there is a new push to try to reach a resolution that involves better cooperation by the neighbouring countries.
Last week, Chinese, American, Pakistan and Afghan officials met in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to discuss how to renew the stalled Afghan peace process. And at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State John Kerry urged the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan to bridge their differences and work for peace.
“The Pakistani military recognize that they need to make peace, but they aren’t sure if they can persuade the Afghan Taliban to sit with the Kabul government,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, a defence analyst in Lahore, Pakistan.
“But with the Chinese and Americans behind it, it might convince the leadership to get a group ready for talks.”
Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan; Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad, Pakistan; and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.