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,” 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.
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 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.” 
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.”
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.”
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. In return the Haqqanis have worked with the ISI to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan. 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.”
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.  More recently another senior leader, Maulana Mirajuddin was killed by unknown gunmen. 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. Khawaja also came under suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and was briefly detained after storming of the Red Mosque.
That men with such obvious sympathies with militants in Pakistan would be targeted is a startling indicator of the extent to which Pakistani militants have severed ties with all they consider agents of the state. However, even more worrying are the insights revealed by an examination of the obviously orchestrated ‘confession’ released by Khawaja’s captors. In it, the bitterness felt by militant groups targeted by the Pakistani Army towards old guard factions that continue to draw support and sanctuary by the Pakistani establishment is apparent, particularly in the naming of well established groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jamatiul Mujahideen and al-Badr — all of whom Khawaja claimed continue to operate and fundraise freely in Pakistan with explicit ISI support.
Statements released by the media arm of the Taliban after the execution of Khawaja also confirm this trend. Mohammed Omar, a spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban told a Pakistani journalist that Khawaja was executed because he would call the Punjabi Taliban, i.e. those who mount attacks inside Pakistan “terrorists” while referring to the Afghan Taliban as “mujahideen.” Usman Punjabi, the leader of the Asian Tigers himself, clarified the militant’s declaration of war, claiming, “For us Colonel Imam was not a mujahid. If he was assumed in the past as the father of the Taliban, he did that as a government employee – being an army officer. He still receives a pension from the Pakistan army. To us he is their man”
The true identity of the Asian Tigers remains shrouded in mystery, but the general consensus has been that they represent splinter elements of the Pakistani Taliban and/or Kashmir-oriented militant groups, operating potentially with the tacit knowledge of senior Pakistani Taliban commanders. This is supported by the released transcript of a conversation between Hamid Mir, a top TV anchor known to be sympathetic towards the militancy, and an unidentified militant. The transcript provides damning evidence that Mir sealed Khawaja’s fate. He alleged that Khawaja worked for the CIA and Indian agencies and detailed his alleged role in arranging the humiliating capture of Red Mosque leader Abdul Aziz, who was captured by Pakistani security services disguised in a burqua. The transcript also alludes that Khawaja and Tarar’s captor is Tariq Afridi, a known Pakistani Taliban commander in Darra Adam Khel and that the capture is being orchestrated under the directives of Hakeemullah Mehsud.
Khawaja’s son has a slightly different take, blaming Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for his father’s execution. The name Usman Punjabi is also shared with the driver of Ilyas Kashmiri, leading to suspicion of his involvement. Kashmiri’s group the Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HUJI) is known to be feuding with other Kashmir-centric jihadi groups since they continue to be supported by the ISI while Kashmiri has been declared a wanted fugitive.
Whoever the true mastermind behind the operation is, the episode reveals troubling evidence of growing collusion between splinter factions of Punjabi militant groups who have traditionally composed the mainstay of Pakistan’s strategic proxies, and the Pakistani Taliban drawn from the tribal provinces.  This process is generally believed to have begun in the aftermath of the Red Mosque incident when some Punjabi militant commanders shifted their bases from Azad Kashmir into the tribal provinces, and came into contact with the TTP and al-Qaeda. Their ranks have been burgeoned by the inclusion of sectarian Punjabi groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This fracturing of the Punjabi militant organizations and the formation of what is generally referred to as the Punjabi Taliban by way of distinction is of significant concern given their access and experience in the Punjab as well as their generally higher levels of technological and operational expertise. The recent coordinated attack on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore on May 28, 2010 that killed over 70 individuals is just the most recent example of their potential for extreme violence deep inside Pakistan. Another worrying possibility is these groups’ ability to strike into India, using the escalation of regional war as a means to distract Pakistani attention from operations in the tribal provinces, and degrading the state’s monopoly on violence against India as a strategic tool.
Operating outside the moniker of their parent organizations offers these militants greater autonomy and freedom of action, but they may have grown increasingly disillusioned by the restrained ideologies of their former leaders. In particular it is startling that police have felt it necessary to beef up their security presence for Hafeez Saeed, the leader of the notorious anti-India group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, after reports emerged that the TTP had threatened his life in the wake of his condemnation of suicide bombings within Pakistan against civilian targets.
The LeT has long been considered one of the most extremist and tactically capable of Pakistani militant groups and as of yet has remained scrupulously loyal to the Pakistani establishment. The threats on Saeed’s life are the first indicator that its firewall from the Taliban may be under siege. Terrorism experts such as Rohan Gunaratne have also warned that Musharaff’s ending of LeT infiltration into Indian Kashmir has eroded ISI control and allowed “Al-Qaeda to make inroads.” The group’s current idling mode provides the danger that “if it is not rehabilitated, more of its members will join the Taliban.” Other ISI proxies such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed may already have succumbed to this pressure with elements of their militants already believed to have joined the Punjabi Taliban and their leader Maulana Masood Azhar named in Khawaja’s confession as a militant commander who retains links to the ISI.
This extent of the challenge extended to old guard factions is seen in the Asian Tigers’ willingness to defy even Mullah Omar. It is known that Mullah Omar has sent a jirga to North Waziristan to petition for the release of Colonel Imam. Some journalists have even reported that he personally traveled to North Waziristan, exposing himself to considerable danger to organize the release. This is unlikely, but the fact that his explicit directive to free Colonel Imam has failed is a damning indicator of the independence with which new factions are willing to operate.
It has also been reported that the Asian Tigers sought not the release of Mullah Baradar and other Afghan Taliban leaders but rather a transfer of custody potentially as a result of Baradar’s alleged intentions to enter into negotiations with the Americans and the Karzai government. Interestingly in this vein it is also reported that one of their key demands centered around the rescinding of Khawaja’s petition to the Lahore High Court seeking to block the extradition of captured Quetta Shura members to American custody.
Part of the willingness to defy the Afghan Taliban may stem from anger at their insistence on remaining regionally focused. In a speech released at the end of 2009, Mullah Omar appeared to publicly distance himself from Al-Qaeda’s global war strategy and announce his goal to engage in friendly bilateral relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors while purging rogue elements from Taliban ranks who do not adhere to their codes of conduct. Omar has also consistently stated his aversion to attacks on Pakistani targets characterizing them as “bringing a bad name to Mujahideen, and harming the war against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.”To many Salafi jihadists this has been seen as a form of retreat and unacceptable compromise with regard to Western countries as well as “infidel-ruled” Islamic and Arab states.
There have also been inklings of growing disenchantment between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Los Angeles Times recently quoted U.S. military and counter-terror officials as claiming that Afghan Taliban militants are beginning to distance themselves from al-Qaeda, refusing sanctuary and assistance even for payment in an effort to ease the pressure from Pakistani intelligence agencies and American drone strikes. Accounts have also emerged suggesting that relations between bin Laden and Mullah Omar may have been significantly overstated and instead been rocky from the outset. A document penned by Egyptian jihadist Mustafa Hamid claims that Al-Qaeda’s global ambitions and antagonism of the United States constituted a direct threat to the authority of Mullah Omar and details the alleged reluctance of bin Laden to pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar as was customary.
Notable is that these allegations have been published by the Afghan Taliban’s media outlets, hinting towards some level of endorsement. Omar bin Laden, the now estranged son of Osama, has echoed these sentiments claiming that both Mullah Omar and Osama were always “happier” with members of their own organizations and that “if there were no more enemies left on earth” they would “fight each other.” As a caveat it is important to note that analysts have suggested an operational convergence between elements of the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda particularly in the wake of their joint operation against the CIA’s Khost base in December 2009. However it is important to note that this convergence has centered around Afghan operations. Having provided support, it is not inconceivable that Pakistani-centric militants are now demanding the same type of cooperation for their domestic operations.
The Haqqanis also appear to be following suit in distancing themselves from al-Qaeda and other ambitious militant groups that have expanded their horizons beyond the Afghan insurgency. Sirajuddin Haqqani has publicly urged a distinction between his group and al-Qaeda, stating in May 2009, “It is a mistake to think that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are pursuing the same aim. al-Qaeda is trying to spread its influence throughout the world. This does not interest us. The Taliban’s aim is to liberate Afghanistan from foreign troops.”
Part of this distancing may stem from the degradation of al-Qaeda’s utility to the Haqqanis as they are pushed increasingly underground by drone strikes as well as the notoriety and attention al-Qaeda militants bring with them. Contact with militants from the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban who fled to North Waziristan in the aftermath of Pakistani Army operations in South Waziristan may also be exacerbating tensions. The presence of these militants has drawn unwelcome attention to the province, creating significant pressure on the Pakistani Army to intervene militarily. In this vein the Haqqanis are likely to have been involved in helping Hafiz Gul Bahadur, another Afghan-focused commander in North Waziristan, persuade TTP militants to withdraw back to South Waziristan. It is uncertain as to whether this constituted an expulsion or not but Bahadur and his shura were known to have been upset at the massive influx of Mehsud militants and their ability to act as spoiler elements for their peace deal with the Pakistani Army.
While the Afghan Taliban may be moving away from al-Qaeda, there is significant evidence to suggest that other Pakistani Taliban groups are moving closer. For al-Qaeda strategic planners this linkup provides an ideal opportunity. Already possessing a defined global jihad ideology and a strong militant brand, the greatest weakness for al-Qaeda has been its operational and logistical degradation in the face of withering drone strikes. ‘Infecting’ or co-opting Pakistani outfits who already have manpower and logistics in place allows al-Qaeda to reconstitute its relevance as an inspirational resource on the jihadi stage. It is thus in its favor that generational shifts have provided a much more receptive audience whose own beliefs are better synced with al-Qaeda’s expanded targeting scope and extreme radicalization.
This growing “lockstep” between al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups is seen in the attempted Times Square bombing which marked the TTP’s first tangible international foray in the post-Beitullah period. As Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation notes, even if the TTP did not “operationalize this particular attack, they want all of us to think that they did. That’s a big deal, and it aligns very closely with al-Qaeda’s core priorities.” Punjabi militant outfits have also had fairly extensive links with al-Qaeda dating back a few years. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi shares an extreme distaste for Shias and has often been described as “the eyes, ears and operational arm of al-Qaeda.” The Lashkar-e-Taiba has been accused of close affiliations with al-Qaeda and is believed to be “increasingly placing the West in its sights.” Groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed are also believed to have converged towards al-Qaeda and provided safe houses and limited tactical expertise.
The phenomenon of increased radicalization and militant convergence has not gone unnoticed but it has generally been seen as a positive development, potentially exacerbating tensions within the militant movement and providing an opening for American and Pakistani forces to exploit. However the idea that dissension will lead to overt intra-militant warfare is an optimistic outcome. More likely the result will be an extension of what we have already witnessed, i.e. the slow siphoning off of support and resources towards the new, more radical groups at the expense of older groups as the Afghan Taliban.
Should this transfer of leadership materialize, it will make complicate matters. Negotiation with weaker parties is meaningless from a strategic viewpoint while negotiations with the stronger parties may become near impossible given their ideological intransigence. Convergence also affords a significant expansion of tactical ability as noted by Tariq Pervez, head of Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority who observed that ““ideas, logistics, cash [come] from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Veteran Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pakistani Taliban provides the martyrs.”
Convergence may also profound outcomes on the aftermath of an American withdrawal. Some proponents of withdrawal have pointed to the Soviet experience, noting that militants did not “follow them home”, but should al-Qaeda-inspired groups gain the upper hand and seize the militant leadership mantle, the results could be catastrophic. In that event, we are likely to continue to see attacks on the Pakistani state continue with renewed vigor and the potential that the Afghan vacuum be exploited for the training of militants focused on the international jihad.
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