In recent months the idea of engaging the more “moderate Taliban elements” has grown in popularity as coalition recalibration in Afghanistan fails to yield the immediate dividends that some were hoping for. This notion however fails to account for the structural shifts ongoing amongst militant cadres and the rise of a new generation of militants, more radical, more violent and less amenable to any political dialogue than their predecessors.

In the face of this radicalization, old guard factions have begun to lose ground even as al-Qaeda re-orients its strategy to serve as an inspirational resource catering to these new jihadi elements. While this dissension may conceivably provide an opening for counterinsurgents, it will also result in a wider targeting scope leading militant outfits to support attacks beyond their traditional regional competencies. This is seen in the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP, or Pakistani Taliban) first attempted international strike on Times Square in May 2010. Furthermore with this generational shift gaining momentum, it is likely that any negotiations will be a poisoned chalice for any militant leader seeking compromise, regardless of his jihadi credentials.

Historically, the prevailing belief has been that militant groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan despite their diversity generally operate together in a “broad-based ideological movement,”[1] and despite the considerable autonomy afforded to local commanders, operate under the loose command structure headed by Mullah Omar. Others such as Steven Walt have theorized that the linkages between the various militant outfits are less an ideologically inspired alliance than “balance of power politics” incentivized by the advantages of working together to oppose the foreign presence in the region.[2]

Nonetheless, the general consensus has been that these organizations have coexisted in relative harmony, often sharing resources and expertise. It has also traditionally been believed that while most Af-Pak militant groups have paid lip service to jihad further afield, it has always been peripheral to their core focus. For some that focus was Afghanistan as with the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqanis, for others Pakistan as with the Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and for yet others India as with groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The emerging generational divide among militants however has profound repercussions on these traditional beliefs. The ‘old guard’ of militants, such as Mullah Omar and the Kashmir-focused jihadi groups, came of age with the support of the ISI and have acted at least partly on behalf of the Pakistani state. However today after almost a decade of war in the Af-Pak region, a new guard has emerged, more often than not composed and led by brash, young and ultra-aggressive militants such as the 21 year old master suicide bomber trainer Qari Hussain[3] and the late 20s current leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakeemullah Mehsud.

These men have spent a large portion of their formative militant careers hunted by Pakistani and American forces. They have had little to no formal contact with the Pakistani establishment, both visible and invisible, and have shown little regard for traditional Pakistani structures, including mainstream political parties, intelligence agencies and tribal structures. Instead they have associated the Pakistani state as a puppet of the United States and actively sought its overthrow. This has had a ‘splintering’ effect on traditional militant structures where older, more established groups are rejected in favor of newer, more radical groups “each further removed from their original ISI puppet masters.” [4]

This trend has been noticed across the spectrum of jihadi groups. According to a senior Afghan Taliban commander, 80% of its fighters are in their late teens or early 20s and this composition has led to a recklessness and contempt for authority that is like “earth and sky” when compared to their predecessors who fought the Russians. A young fighter best explains their disdain for their leadership based out of Pakistan, commenting after the capture of Mullah Baradar, “We are here on the ground with our Kalashnikovs and RPGs and we live and die by our own quick judgments. We don’t need to listen to anyone who is not out here putting his life on the line.”[5]

This emerging divide is also reflected in the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, known to be Pakistan’s strategic asset of choice for a post-American Afghanistan. Jalaluddin, the Haqqani patriarch has explicitly stated that attacking Pakistan “is not our policy. Those who agree with us are our friends and those who do not agree and continue to wage an undeclared war against Pakistan are neither our friends nor shall we allow them in our ranks.”[6]

The group owes much of its strength to its relationship with the ISI, allowing it a sanctuary in North Waziristan and the ability to stay ahead of American drone strikes.[7] In return the Haqqanis have worked with the ISI to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan.[8] Despite this symbiotic relationship even the Haqqanis have not proven immune to the growing radicalization process. An interesting anecdote by New York Times journalist David Rohde who was captured and held by the Haqqanis describes how his young guards shattered his misconception that the Haqqanis were “Al-Qaeda lite” with little ambition outside their Afghan campaign. Instead he claims that their contact with other militants has led many of their young fighters to truly seek to “create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.”[9]

This phenomenon can be traced back to the Army’s storming of Islamabad’s ultra-radical Red Mosque in 2007. Anger over the operation diverted the traditional focus on Western targets in Afghanistan, giving way to a new breed of militants equally interested in the overthrow of the “near enemy.” The most prominent proponents of this strategy were the Tehrik-i-Taliban, formed 5 months after the operation. Their relentless wave of attacks inside Pakistan heralded the birth of the new phase of the militancy that left no aspect of the Pakistani establishment safe.

The ISI came under direct attack with its headquarters bombed in both Peshawar and Lahore. The Pakistani Army witnessed a dramatic escalation when militants moved beyond attacking its outposts in the tribal provinces to attacking the seat of its power, the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a key supporter of militant groups in the Afghan jihad period and traditionally seen as the political face of the Taliban, witnessed its leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman being targeted with rockets fired at his house and his name allegedly discovered on a Taliban hit list. [10] More recently another senior leader, Maulana Mirajuddin was killed by unknown gunmen.[11] He had helped broker peace deals between the government and the Pakistani Taliban in 2005 and was currently working with the government to help residents of South Waziristan return to their homes after the fighting.

But nowhere has this shift in targeting priority been more dramatically illuminated than by the April 2010 capture of former ISI alums Khalid Khawaja and Sultan Amir Tarar by a hitherto unknown group calling itself the Asian Tigers. The subsequent execution of Khawaja by the Tigers came as a surprise to many observers given the sterling jihadi credentials of both men. Tarar was widely known in Pakistan as Colonel Imam, an honorific title bestowed upon him by the Afghan Taliban for the training camps he established and ran as an ISI officer during the Soviet jihad. His students included Mullah Omar, withwhom he was reputedly very close.

Khawaja who was booted from the ISI for a critical letter he penned to President Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s was a braggart compared to Imam’s mujahid credentials but was known to many Western journalists for his extensive militant connections. Khawaja claimed to have set up meetings between Osama Bin Laden and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His organization, the Defense of Human Rights, has been extremely active in supporting militant causes including filing a petition with the Lahore High Court blocking the extradition of Mullah Baradar and other top Quetta Shura members detained by Pakistani security services.[12] Khawaja also came under suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl[13] and was briefly detained after storming of the Red Mosque.