"A Sea Change in Pakistan?"
by Jeffrey Dressler and Reza Jan, Small Wars Journal, 12 March 2010
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Pakistani forces have seized a number of high-ranking Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) leaders in recent weeks. Pakistan has actively supported the QST in Afghanistan (which it created in 1995) as a proxy force to ensure Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and defend against Indian encroachment there. The recent arrests have caused a flurry of speculation about possible changes in Pakistani policy. Some analysts argue that these recent arrests signal Pakistan’s wholesale abandonment of the Afghan Taliban while others are quick to dismiss these actions as self-serving. Pakistani decision making is rarely so clear, however, especially regarding an issue of such momentous importance. There appears to be a fissure in Pakistan’s long-standing support for the QST.
Scenario 1: The Optimists
Supporters of the optimistic assessment that Pakistan has definitively turned against the QST argue thatPakistan is actively targeting the movement for two possible reasons. Either the QST’s growing nexus with Pakistani Taliban poses too great a threat to Pakistan’s internal security or the Pakistani establishment has come to believe that the coalition will be successful in Afghanistan and wants to be on the winning side.
The first argument is based on the assessment that the QST has grown too close to Pakistani militant organizations that have been at odds with the Pakistani establishment for years, but increasingly since late 2009. As these Pakistan-focused groups have become more powerful over the last two years, they have launched increasingly brazen attacks on the Pakistani establishment. Much of these groups’ motivation appears to come from what these groups perceive as Pakistani kow-towing to the U.S., including Pakistan’s docility in the face of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani Taliban territory over the last several years. The back and forth between the government and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in particular reached a peak when Pakistan’s Army launched an unprecedented assault on the TTP’s South Waziristan sanctuary in the fall of 2009.
Currently, as Pakistan’s Army consolidates its gains in South Waziristan and appears to be considering taking on militants groups elsewhere, some believe Pakistan has finally had it with their longtime ally, the QST and have decided to wrap them up as well. Senator John Kerry announced that the capture of the QSTs second-in-command, Mullah Baradar, signaled Pakistan’s determination to “go after the Taliban wherever they are.”
The second argument optimists’ offer is that Pakistan now believes that the coalition will be successful in Afghanistan and has decided to back the winning horse—which means giving-up the QST. According to this scenario, the Pakistani establishment has been convinced by substantial American military gains in Afghanistan as well as substantial U.S. and Saudi aid and diplomatic engagement that it is no longer beneficial to continue supporting the QST. Many analysts posit that the recent arrests of as much as half of the Taliban’s senior leadership, including Mullah Baradar and, allegedly, Maulvi Kabir, are not accidental, but rather evidence of Pakistan’s shift in strategic posture.
These optimistic assessments do not hold water. The QST is only concerned about defeating the coalition and Afghan government in Afghanistan and does not actively support attacks against the Pakistani state. In fact, on several occasions, the QST has sent emissaries to meet with the Pakistani Taliban to try to convince them to cease attacks on the Pakistani state and instead direct their efforts in support of the QST in Afghanistan. There is no evidence that the QST has operated against Pakistani interests or actively supported other groups in doing so, and thus no reason for the Pakistani establishment to have suddenly come to see the QST as a threat.
It is also unlikely that Pakistan’s leaders have decided to give up the QST because they have concluded that the coalition will ultimately succeed in Afghanistan. Despite the influx of more than 30,000 troops and a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, there has not yet been any defining event that could possibly have swayed Pakistan away from years of support for the QST. Military progress in Helmand progress, moreover, has been offset by President Obama’s announcement of a July 2011 deadline for the start of an American withdrawal—a deadline that has received a great deal of attention in Pakistan as evidence of America’s waning commitment. Optimists also point to substantial aid packages, high level diplomatic engagement and Saudi intervention as motivating factors that sweetened the deal. None of these developments address the core Pakistani interest in maintaining influence in Afghanistan, however.
Scenario 2: The Pessimists
Given Pakistan’s longstanding support for the QST, it is prudent to be skeptical of the claim that Pakistan has rapidly reversed its stance towards its traditional proxies. That said, after Pakistan’s arrest of a significant portion of the QST’s senior leadership circle, some are still arguing that Pakistan’s action against the QST does not represent a real a shift in its policy towards the Afghan Taliban.
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Jeffrey Dressler is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the recent report “Securing Helmand: Understanding and Responding to the Enemy.” Reza Jan is a Researcher at Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute and recent author of “The FATA Conflict after South Waziristan: Pakistan’s War against Militants Continues in Orakzai, Kurram, Bajaur, and North Waziristan.”