Explainer: who are the Pakistani Taliban?

A scene of devastation after the Taliban attack in Peshawar. EPA/Bilawal Arbab

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on a school in Peshawar that killed more than 130 children. The militants planned the massacre to take revenge on the Pakistan army. They murdered the children of their enemy.

By executing these children, the attackers took Pakistan’s violence past a dreadful milestone. But the background to this massacre is a conflict spanning the frontier of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade.

Origins of the Pakistani Taliban

The Pakistani Taliban has its roots in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, where the state has never fully imposed its writ. The movement emerged as an unintended consequence of the use of those tribal areas as a staging point for the long conflict in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s security forces have provided a haven in the tribal areas for several generations of Afghanistan’s armed opposition since 1974. In return for sanctuary, the Afghan mujahideen, as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s, was supposed to avoid undertaking hostile acts within Pakistan. But things started to change in the tribal areas in early 2002 when al-Qaeda militants fleeing from the US intervention in Afghanistan took sanctuary there.

These foreign militants allied themselves with local Islamist fighters. Subsequently, the foreign militants and their Pakistani allies have jointly resisted a series of Pakistan army operations and have spread their insurgency throughout the tribal areas.

They claim to be conducting a jihad aimed at overthrowing Pakistan’s colonial-style state structure and replacing it with an Islamic form of government.

But there is no realistic prospect of the Pakistani Taliban overthrowing the government. Its support base is far too small. Instead its members seem to fight in order to assert their status as Islamic warriors and not in pursuit of any attainable war aim.

Safe haven

Until June 2014 the Pakistani Taliban and a major faction of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, were headquartered in the tribal area of the North Waziristan Agency.

The tribal areas. Hbtila, CC BY-SA

Multiple suicide bomber training centres and factories for improvised explosive devices operated in Miranshah, the main town. Militants from dozens of countries walked the streets and rented rooms in Miranshah’s bazaar.

The Haqanis have been known as friends of the Pakistan security agencies for more than 40 years. They have made a point of fighting only in Afghanistan, so as to continue to enjoy hospitality in Pakistan.

But leaving Miranshah in the hands of the militants eventually cost Pakistan dearly. The Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants used the terrorist infrastructure there to launch a campaign of attacks against Pakistani cities culminating in the storming of the country’s main airport in Karachi in early June 2014.

Soon after the airport attack, the Pakistan army launched a major operation in North Waziristan and regained control of Miranshah. There has been a high human cost to that operation, as nearly a million civilians were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring districts or across the border in Afghanistan. This is the basis of the Pakistani Taliban logic of revenge. By the Taliban’s reckoning, the army has killed their fighters and imposed humiliation and hardship on their families.

Working together

The difficult reality which authorities in the region have to confront is that pampering a neighbour’s armed opposition has consequences at home. Although the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements are different organisations, each primarily focused on its own country, the fate of one now affects the other.

The Waziristan operation has shaken up the geography of the two countries’ insurgencies but it has not broken their links. The Pakistani Taliban movement has been weakened over the past six months but it has survived, to carry out attacks like that in Peshawar, by grabbing a toehold in Afghanistan. It has been able to do so because the Afghan Taliban insurgency has created zones of insecurity in the country’s eastern provinces, such as Khost and Kunar, where there is little or no government presence. In these zones the Pakistani Taliban can shelter when under pressure at home from the Pakistan army.

The right lesson to draw from the attack in Peshawar is that neither state can afford to shelter its neighbour’s opposition. The war fought by the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan creates the conditions for the Pakistani Taliban to operate.

The main missing element in Pakistan’s counter-terrorist strategy is serious co-operation between the Afghan and Pakistani security forces. Until both sides abandon ideas of proxy warfare and instead embrace co-operation, both brands of Taliban will exploit the vacuum and launch cross-border attacks.

Peace in Afghanistan would also serve to marginalise the Pakistani Taliban. Unlike their namesakes, the Afghan Taliban has some political pretentions. It has even criticised the Peshawar attack. A clear signal from their hosts, the Pakistan state, that it is time to end the war could help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table as a first step towards that peace.

Meanwhile showing some basic humanity would also be a good antidote to the extreme violence witnessed in Peshawar. One of the Pakistani Taliban’s few concrete grievances is that its fighters’ families have been humiliated by the Pakistan army. Offering non-combatants respect and protection is one of the best ways of countering this part of the Pakistani Taliban narrative.