Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pakistan v. Taliban: Part One

Here is the first of a two part analysis of Pakistan's conflict with the Taliban. I submitted this to my class tonight, so I have no idea what I got on it. There may be some errors in it, but I hope not. This first part looks at the conflict as an intrastate conflict. Part two will be a view from the interstate perspective.

Pakistan v. Taliban: An Intra/Interstate Conflict Part One

    There is a movie playing in theaters right now called It's Complicated. No, it is not a film about the enormity of what it going on in Southwest Asia. However, that would be a great title. Pakistan finds itself today embroiled in a conflict that extends beyond borders, impacts daily life, opens the door to threatening neighbors, exposes nuclear capabilities, affects the very future of its stability, and has become front and center in the global terrorism fight. Complicated? Just a bit. So what is this conflict taking place within the borders of Pakistan? This is the first of a two part analysis of Pakistan's conflict with Taliban and militant groups. Within Pakistan's borders, the Taliban have quickly become the country's deadliest threat. As India and the dispute over Kashmir appears to take a back seat to the now present and frequent Taliban attacks, how has the Taliban threat risen in priority? What may have caused this conflict and what might the impact be for the near future?


    Pakistan is located in Southwest Asia sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iran to the west and India to the east. It is a Muslim state that gained independence from Britain in the late 40s. The separation of India and Pakistan by Britain never fully resolved the disputed northern territory of Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan claim a hold on the territory and since the late 40s have fought three major wars over it. The tense relationship these neighbors share has resulted in both becoming nuclear armed states. Both have positioned hundreds of thousands of troops along their border and tested their nuclear capabilities. This demonstrates both countries' commitment to go to extremes (Khan, 2002).

    Until recently, a large part of Pakistan's international interest rested in resolving the dispute with India. Today, that interest has been overshadowed by the growing threat of destabilization by Taliban and militant groups. As the U.S. led coalition war against al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist extremists, continues, Pakistan finds itself caught in the middle of protecting itself from both India and Afghanistan. What further complicates Pakistan's neighboring threats is the fragmented control the central government has on the western regions bordering Afghanistan. It is there tribal rule reigns, and it is from there trouble begins.


    The Taliban is a militant organization known for its association with the terrorist network, al Qaeda. After the Mujahidin forced the former Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, a governing void remained. That void was eventually filled by a radical Islamist movement known as Taliban, quite literally "students" (Rashid, 1999). A largely ethnic Pashtun organization, these "students" of radicalism seized control of the Afghan government and in the late 90s and set out to seize control of all portions of the country. Their Pashtun origins extend beyond the border of Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan. Their radical views and often harsh brand of rule paved the way to establish relationships with other interested radical organizations such as al Qaeda. It was from Afghanistan that the Taliban harbored hundreds of militant al Qaeda training camps. And, it was from these camps that the al Qaeda head, Osama bin Ladin, planned and carried out attacks, most notably the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001.


    On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States. These horrific attacks, which killed over 3,000 Americans, launched the U.S. into a new era of warfare against terrorists and radical extremists. In October of 2001, the U.S. and coalition forces began an offensive in Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government. The Taliban were effectively overthrown and al Qaeda was nearly dismantled. However, elements of Taliban and al Qaeda leadership and fighters fled to the uncontrolled border region of Pakistan. Because of the sovereign control of Pakistan and a relative friendly relationship with Pakistan, the U.S. and coalition forces have been minimally engaged in prosecuting Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

    This has partly contributed to the Pakistan government's inability to control its western border areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) (Innocent, 2009). It is there, in the largely tribal controlled areas of western Pakistan, that the Taliban have been able to take further root. Their ethnic Pashtun history along with sympathetic tribal relationships fostered a breeding ground of sorts with local populations. Now, this relative no-man's-land poses serious problems to not only the ongoing coalition fight in Afghanistan, but also the very stability of Pakistan.


Ahmed Rashid, who has written some the most definitive books and essays on the Taliban, foretold a grim situation. In 1999 he said, "An already fragile nation in the midst of an identity crisis, economic meltdown, ethnic and sectarian division, and suffering under a rapacious ruling elite unable to provide good governance, Pakistan could easily be submerged by a new Islamist wave – one led not by established, more mature Islamist parties but by neo-Taliban groups" (p. 27). He wrote this two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and eight years before the famed, Red Mosque incident in 2007. His insight back then is a very clear glimpse into what is going on now.

Taliban and al Qaeda continue to battle coalition forces in Afghanistan. But, their strategy has grown to include destabilizing Pakistan from within. What is interesting about this aspect of the Global War on Terror is that Pakistan may have never envisioned this kind of internal conflict. In the late 90s as the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan, Pakistan actually favored the Taliban and in many cases supported them (Rashid, 1999). The Pakistan government even went so far as to establish so-called treaties with tribal factions governing the uncontrolled western border regions (Innocent, 2009). This region of the country as mentioned above is the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) which is to say limited of Pakistani governmental control. The relationship the government established with tribal rulers, however, has become strained as pressure builds from the U.S. and coalition forces for Pakistan to deal with the Taliban. Why? It is from these uncontrolled tribal areas that the Taliban seek refuge. And it is from these sympathetic tribal areas that the Taliban control grows (Curtis, 2006).

Willingly or not, Pakistan is engaged in uprooting Taliban leaders and fighters. As a result, Taliban factions have set their sights not only on coalition forces in Afghanistan, but on the government of Pakistan itself. It is difficult to say to what end. Pakistan does have nuclear capabilities. To destabilize the country could expose nuclear capabilities. Whether that is the goal or whether it is something else, the security situation inside Pakistan has changed dramatically since 2001. Malou Innocent points out in her Cato Analysis paper (2009), "The security situation in each of FATA's seven tribal agencies has grown worse in the past few years" (p. 9). "Worse" is an understatement. The effect of the Taliban on Pakistan seems, at the moment, out of control.


So what happened? As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, calls for Pakistan to step up offensive actions in the FATA increased. The hope was that doing so would further destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda elements and help Afghanistan regain control of itself. The Pakistani government began to crack down on the Taliban. Somewhat tit-for-tat exchanges continued until July 2007 when the Pakistan military attacked the Lal Majid mosque (the Red Mosque) (Innocent, 2009) which was under Taliban control. This incident poured fuel on the already burning fire of violence. The result, Taliban elements began staging dramatic attacks against the Pakistani government. Also, by proxy, they threatened the government by attacking civilian populations.

The conventional fight Pakistan has been engaged in against the Taliban and other militant groups is also very costly. Just from a military perspective, thousands of troops have been killed as Malou Innocent indicates (Innocent, 2009). What's even more devastating is the loss of civilian life. Since October 2009 there have been over 600 civilian deaths (Pakistan Data Sheets, 2010). The total number of civilian casualties is far greater. These include scores of women and children. In one particular suicide bombing in Peshawar market over 100 people were killed; almost half were women and children (al Islam et al, 2009).

In April when Malou Innocent said the situation, the civilian death toll at that time had already surpassed thousands. We are not even two weeks into January 2010 and already over 100 civilians have been killed by suicide bombings. Since 2007 when the first significant spike occurred, there have been nearly 6,000 civilian casualties as a result of terrorist attacks (Pakistan Data Sheets, 2010). These attacks produce unreal death tolls. A partial list includes the following (Pakistan Data Sheets, 2010):

  • Karachi, October 18 2007 – 143 killed
  • Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), December 21 2007 – 60 killed
  • Punjab, August 21 2008 – 70 killed
  • Islamabad, September 20 2008 – 60 killed
  • FATA, October 10 2008 – 85 killed
  • Peshawar, March 27 2009 – 83 killed
  • Baluchista, October 28 2009 – 117 killed
  • NWFP, January 1 2010 – 90 killed
These are only a few of the major attacks. It is clear from these attacks that a huge internal struggle is going on inside Pakistan. By any definition, what is going on inside Pakistan is in intrastate conflict to the extreme. The Pakistani government is engaged in a battle against militant extremist groups, namely factions of the Taliban. The big question is what caused all this?

    On the surface, the clear indicator is that the influence the fight in Afghanistan has on Pakistan has been tremendous. The reasonable conclusion that one can draw is that U.S. and coalition efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan have spilled into the border region of Pakistan. By first pushing Taliban and al Qaeda members east into Pakistan and then by pressuring Pakistan to engage those members, it is reasonable to assess the cause as a function of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan was initially somewhat supportive of the Taliban and tribal rulers (Rashid, 1999). Now Pakistan is forced to engage these very elements. The effect appears to be one of revenge. But revenge to the tune of thousands of civilian deaths does not make sense. So there must be more to the battle. Rashid warned of Pakistan's Taliban friendliness in 1999 when he said (1999), "The Pakistani government's support for the Taliban is thus coming back to haunt it, even as Pakistan's leaders remain oblivious of the danger and continue their support" (p. 28).

    Other influences may also be lurking. The dispute for Kashmir has certainly taken a back seat to present threats, but Kashmir still remains a primary concern. Again Rashid foreshadowed this concern as a reason Pakistan was willing to support the Taliban. Rashid said (1999), "Islamabad considers support for the Taliban necessary because of its dispute with India over Kashmir" (p. 28). What may seem farfetched but not unreasonable is India's influence over the Taliban against Pakistan. To a certain extent one could wonder if India has leverage over Pakistan vis-à-vis Pakistan's present engagement with the Taliban. If so, concerns from Islamabad that India could be behind the violent Taliban surge may valid. In a recent news report from the Pakistan daily newspaper, Dawn News, Pakistan's Foreign Minister suggested (2009), "that Pakistan was 'compiling hard evidence of India's involvement and interference in Balochistan (sic) and Fata'" (Dawn News, 2009). At the moment this allegation cannot be proved, but the implication is very real. Could India be fanning the flames of an already out of control fire? If, as Colonel Khan indicates in his Stimson Center report (2002), "Kashmir is considered to be the 'nuclear flash point' in the region" (p. 1), then it is not unreasonble to think India could be in some part behind the scenes of Pakistan's intrastate conflict.

    Whether the fight in Pakistan is solely against the Taliban and militants or whether it includes something else, it is true that Pakistan is in a fight for its life. It is also in a fight for the lives of its citizens. As casualties continue to mount, the struggle from within only grows stonger. The fight in neighboring Afghanistan has likely caused the rapid rise of Taliban violence. But, one should be careful to accept that exclusively because the cause is not simple. It is very complicated.


al Islam, N., Habib, N., Desta, S., & Sayah, R. (2009, October 29). CNN World: Survivors recount narrow escape. Retrieved January 9, 2010, from CNN:

Curtis, L. (2006, October 26). Issues: Denying Terrorists Safe Haven in Pakistan. Retrieved January 8, 2010, from Heritage Foundation:

Innocent, M. (2009). Pakistan and the Future of U.S. Policy. Cato Institute. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Khan, C. R. (2002). Pakistan and India: Can NRRCs Help Strengthen Peace? Washington, D.C.: Stimson Center.

Pakistan Data Sheets. (2010, January 10). Retrieved January 10, 2010, from South Asia Terrorism Portal:

Qureshi accuses India of aiding insurgents. (2009, November 23). Retrieved January 8, 2010, from Dawn News:

Rashid, A. (1999, November/December). The Taliban: Exporting Extremism. Foreign Affairs , 22-35.

The World Fact Book: South Asia - Pakistan. (2009, December 23). Retrieved January 9, 2010, from Central Intelligence Asia:


  1. History and politics are barely on my radar so my ideas and comments are probably naive at best. I am, however, enjoying the papers and learning, if anything, your view point, that no doubt is based on first-hand knowledge and years of seeking information. So, my first question goes back to one posted on Dec. 23. Indeed, what does the US have to offer Pakistan, other than more military man-power? Is more military force a viable solution for Pakistan, if their own intrastate structure is under collapse? As for UN's ability to help, I personally do not think that Pakistan, or any of these countries under militant/Taliban/al Quaeda influence, can or even wants any effective support from the UN, or any 'Western' outside influence. You hit it on the nail that it is complicated...probably like our govenment's attempt at reforming our healthcare system...everyone is so focused on their own it becomes impossible to get a grip on the whole. Anyway, great information! I look forward to more.

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Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your interest in the topic. It adds a little more to how we understand our world.