One such group is the Pakistani Taliban who, despite reeling after a successful campaign staged by the Pakistani military, gained a victory this week by staging a prison raid in the city of Bannu, releasing over 380 prisoners, many of which are suspected high-profile insurgents.
The Pakistani Taliban consists of various militant groups, united under the banner of opposition to both the Pakistani government and the presence of NATO forces in the region. That the group shares a name with the Afghan Taliban is largely semantic; the two have very different histories, compositions and objectives, and have struggled to form any substantial alliance in recent years. In fact, while the Pakistani Taliban opposes the government, the Afghan Taliban has in the past received a good deal of support from the Pakistani state to maintain control of Afghanistan. A unified front against the United States consisting of both groups is unlikely a major concern at the moment.
What should be of concern, however, is the likely increase in influence the Pakistani Taliban will obtain following this week’s prison raid. It already controls a great deal of the tribal region along the Afghan border, and poses a tangible threat to the stability of the Pakistani government. With the strategic and symbolic victory achieved by this act, as well as providing a boost in morale for the organization, the government now faces an escalating challenge in attempting to eliminate the group.
Pakistan has long been a critical actor in the battle to defeat terrorism and suppress the spread of extremist movements in the region. It was one of several countries susceptible to Islamic revolution in the 1980s, inspired by that which took place in Iran in 1979. Consecutive leaders have fought to prevent the prominence of radical groups, although the strength of such groups as well as deep-seated Islamic cultural attachments have made the task difficult.
In particular, this was a problem faced by President Pervez Musharraf who simultaneously had to support the U.S. war on terror, while seeking also to appease domestic groups so as to avoid being overthrown. Those who criticize Pakistan for lackluster support of the U.S. perhaps fail to see the dilemma in which Pakistan’s leaders have found themselves. Fighting terrorism results in substantial financial and strategic aid from the U.S., yet threatens to upset radical groups at home. This most likely goes a long way to explaining why Osama bin Laden was allowed to exist under the government’s nose for so long before he was found.
This week’s prison raid was more than just a symbolic jab at the state’s security. Numerous insurgents are thought to have been among the escapees, including one imprisoned for a failed assassination attempt on the life of then President Musharraf. Without doubt, many of those freed will revive the insurgency movement in the region and strengthen the position of the Taliban against the government.
The stability of Pakistan is important for three reasons.
Firstly, it has served as a breeding ground for terrorists in recent years. The Taliban has known connections with al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden used Pakistan as a springboard from which to launch his Jihad against the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan. He would later start up many of the terrorist training camps that today strengthen militant groups in the northwest region of the country. While al-Qaida has largely been weakened and dispersed, militant groups of varying types continue to exist and stability in Pakistan, as well as cooperation with the United States, is crucial if such groups are to be eliminated.
Secondly, the stability of the Pakistani government in recent years may be the only factor preventing a major conflict with neighboring India. Militant groups on both sides carried out major terrorist attacks in the last decade. Recent signs of improving relations between the two are a major relief for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that both have nuclear weapons. The continuation of goodwill between the two will rely heavily on Pakistan’s ability to control groups such as the Taliban and prevent future provocations with India.
The nuclear aspect provides the third major reason for desired stability in Pakistan. Even if the government was unwilling to use such weapons against India or anyone else, continued instability in the government opens the door for such weapons to get into the hands of groups such as the Taliban. Little needs to be said about the host of issues inherent in a substate group with anti-Western sentiments having control of nuclear weapons.
The Pakistani response to the Taliban’s current activities will be crucial to its success in the years to come. Understanding the concerns above, the U.S. should continue to support Pakistan in this fight, understanding its dual obligations to both the U.S. and its Muslim society.
The complexity of this situation highlights the complications implicit in the overall war on terror for the U.S., complications that would have been difficult to anticipate a decade ago, but that must be addressed if desirable results for all countries are to come about.