Which Taliban?

March 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

Once we’ve set aside the horror and revulsion one inevitably feels in the wake of these latest attacks in Pakistan, I’m more inclined than ever to think there’s some truth to the Terrorists-Are-Dumb theory of international politics. I mean, if your idea of jihad is striking a possibly fatal blow to your country’s favourite sport, I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to suffer a major recruitment problem.

Beyond that, I think it’s important to avoid either jumping to rash conclusions, or merging Pakistan’s many militant factions into one slimy gloop called ‘Taliban’, as a guest contributor to Harry’s Place seems to do here. Shiraz Maher links the tragedy in Lahore with the recently-brokered ceasefire between the national government and the thugs who control the North-Western Province (or Swat Valley).

I think this is a mistake. According to the BBC, Indian and Pakistani security forces currently believe the perpetrators were Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same group responsible for the attacks in Mumbai, and a bunch of cranks who seem to possess an almost limitless ambition for blood. In Swat, however, the dominant group is the pompously-named Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, and there isn’t – at the time of writing – any suggestion that this group has played a role in these attacks. If it turns out they didn’t have a role, then their ceasefire with the Pakistani government has held (so far), and Maher’s conclusion that “engaging on a concessionary basis with fascist groups is almost always an exercise in futility” doesn’t really work in this context.

This is important because, as both Fareed Zakaria and Eric Martin note, we need to become much more specific in how we talk about and try to combat Jihadists. If you’re simply going to use ‘Taliban’ as a catch-all term for every form of Islamism, then there’s very little chance that either western or regional powers will be able to claim something resembling a victory. If, on the otherhand, you view ‘Taliban’ as a multi-faceted phenomenon consisting of many different groups who sometimes have little in common and often work at cross purposes, some of them will inevitably have to be killed, some can be neutralised, and some can be politically co-opted. This would inevitably involve deals with the devil and lead to accommodating many odious, misogynistic and anti-democratic voices, and it’s also not certain that the process of ‘disaggregation’ Martin talks about would necessarily lead to stability.

What is certain is that there’s currently no viable military solution to the problems in either Pakistan or neighbouring Afghanistan, and if we don’t want to waste billions proving it, we need to try something else.

So Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi are different, we need to treat them as such, and if nothing else, we need to ensure that the crimes committed in Lahore and beyond get blamed on the right people.



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  1. Hi Neil,
    Just a thought,
    a) Why take out 12 guys to take out a coach and a light police guard
    b) Kit that could have wiped out the bus but didn’t get used (rocket launchers / grenades)
    c) Kit that had absolutely no application for wiping out a bus but lots of applications for setting up a stronghold (pistols / plastic explosive)

    I will bet my customary next cup of coffee that this was not an attempt to wipe out the Sri Lankan cricket team but an attempt to kidnap them. They were geared up to take and hold hostages.

  2. Hi Jack,

    An interesting and very plausible theory. Up until today I probably would’ve replied somewhere along the lines of “possibly, but the group believed to be responsible is known for preferring mass carnage to precision kidnappings”. But now that the latest news suggests it may have been the work of a rogue faction of that group… well, all bets are off.

    Another thing which backs up your theory is that most of these groups strike out every once in a while & make demands of the government (release of prisoners, freedom to preach hate and organise terror attacks in peace etc). A set of Sri Lankan cricketers would make very valuable hostages.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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