One of the central tenets of the 2020 Doha Agreement is that the Taliban will prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the US and its allies. A similar assurance had been made by the Taliban to India in the first formal public contact between the two in Qatar recently.
Notionally, the promise is anchored in the Westphalian model which emphasis the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs. In the context of the fact that the Taliban’s past political behaviour is more in line with that of a non-state actor, its promises need to be evaluated with a different lens from that of a state actor.
There is a distinct similarity in terms of the Taliban’s leadership roots in 1996 and in 2021. Like Mullah Omar who studied in the Deobandi Haqqaniya seminary near Peshawar, the present Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada is a product of the Deobandi seminary in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where the Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic group after Balochs. Both come from Kandahar province. The Taliban leadership had been a witness and participant to the enmeshed and fluid relationship among the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups across the Durand line that only fortified in the last twenty years.
In this connection, the post-2001Al-Qaeda’s connections with the Taliban’s Haqqani group, which has a presence in parts of eastern Afghanistan or across the Durand line in North Waziristan, has been studied and debated thoroughly. At the same time, it is the Taliban and its allies’ past direct or indirect relationship with extremist groups in Pakistani Punjab and by implication, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which in cultural terms is an extension of a particular portion of Punjab, that requires similar in-depth study and follow-up. This is because of greater integration of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and politically significant province with nearly three times that of Afghanistan’s population, and PoK with the rest of the international community, including through diaspora. Actually, it is the cadre of Pak Punjab-based extremist groups that have in the past demonstrated greater flexibility, in terms of operational associations with groups based in Afghanistan. Because of various reasons, including the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistani Punjab in the last two decades has become the cauldron of violent extremism unleashed by twisted and distorted versions of various conservative South Asian schools of Islam.
Ilyas Kashmiri, a resident of Bhimber area of PoK, bordering Sialkot district of Pakistani Punjab and an area that has a large diaspora in the Middle East and West, is a case in point. Sialkot town now has an international airport with direct connectivity to the Middle East. Kashmiri was active in Afghanistan, the Indian side of J&K and North Waziristan, the place where he was finally killed on June 3, 2011. One of the documents recovered from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout, as reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who had studied the translated documents, recorded that he had asked his top lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, to find out from Ilyas Kashmiri “the steps he has taken” toward assassinating Obama and the top American General in the region. Kashmiri’s organisational affiliations remained quite fluid till his death as he was initially with Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, a pan South Asian group with ideological leanings toward extremist version of Deobandi Islam.Then he joined the Al-Qaeda, and as per reports, had even helped American citizen David Headley, who was working for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is Ahl-i-Hadith inspired, by providing him with contacts in Europe for a possible attack in Denmark.
There is also the case of Mohammad Jamil, a 23-year-old operative of Pak Punjab-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, inspired by the extremist version of Deobandi Islam. A resident of Rawalakot area of PoK, Jamil rammed an explosives-laden car into the President’s motorcade and killed 14 persons in the high-security zone of the Rawalpindi cantonment. In his autobiography, In the Line of Fire, Pervez Musharraf records that “Jamil had received training from a terrorist organisation in the Kotli area of Azad Kashmir and had gone to Afghanistan to participate in the jehad outside the American-led invasion in 2001. There he was arrested and imprisoned for nearly two years, until his father paid money to obtain his release.” “When he came back to Pakistan, he was very bitter about the outcome of the war there. He was not the only one to take an oath to avenge the United States attack on Afghanistan by assassinating me.”
With the US exit, the context may have changed but the landscape of violent extremism in Pakistani Punjab has become even more convoluted. Apart from the recent public support of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Taliban takeover, there is a discreet or visible jubilation in vast swaths of Pakistani Punjab’s society. A part of Pakistani Punjab’s largest community of Barelvi Muslims, which was earlier considered more immune to violent extremism because of its syncretic practices, are no longer bystanders. The assassination of Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard, who was a Barelvi, had shocked everyone in 2011. A decade later, there is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an extremist political party mainly comprising Barelvis, which contested the recent PoK assembly elections even after being banned by the federal government.
Meanwhile, in contrast to its English version, the substance of Taliban’s official Twitter account in Urdu is customised for the audience. A profile page reads: Aur America ran away (and America ran away) and the posts include glorification of soldiers and its claimed “victory over the US” within the context of Islamic symbolism and imagery. In 2014-15, the ISIS takeover of Mosul and some parts of Syria revealed that a territorial control is catalytic for online radicalisation leading to the inflow of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and also a rise in lone wolf attacks. The ISIS and Taliban are sworn enemies in Afghanistan but the online projection by the Taliban for the local audience of the subcontinent in Urdu is similar to the ISIS.
The international community will have to factor in the landscape of violent extremism, beyond the Pashtun belt, and the recent online patterns of radicalisation in its calibrated engagement with the Taliban, whose present and future actions can or avoid being a force multiplier.
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