The shifting alliances of Pakistan and Afghanistan’s militants

October 22, 2009

The Jihadica website has just posted an item about an apparent rift between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura led by Mullah Omar.

“Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders have been issuing some very mixed messages of late, and the online jihadi community is in an uproar, with some calling these developments ‘the beginning of the end of relations’ between the two movements,” it says.

“Beginning with a statement from Mullah Omar in September, the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership has been emphasizing the ‘nationalist’ character of their movement, and has sent several communications to Afghanistan’s neighbors expressing an intent to establish positive international relations.  In what are increasingly being viewed by the forums as direct rejoinders to these sentiments, recent messages from al-Qa’ida have pointedly rejected the ‘national’ model of revolutionary Islamism and reiterated calls for jihad against Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and China.”

Reports of rifts between different militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have surfaced before, particularly between Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), over the latter’s insistence on targetting Pakistan. Mullah Omar, according to media reports earlier this year, wanted the TTP – which is believed to be close to al Qaeda – to focus instead on fighting western troops in Afghanistan.

Such reports of rifts are impossible to verify and may be deliberately designed to confuse – the talk of a break between Mullah Omar and al Qaeda comes as the United States has talked of stepping up pressure on the ”Quetta shura”, named after the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where Washington says the Afghan Taliban are based. Islamabad says Mullah Omar is not in Pakistan.

But history would suggest that the Islamist militants do not always form a cohesive whole or even follow a common ideology. After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujahideen who had driven them out became fragmented, leading to a bloody civil war.  In Kashmir too, where a separatist revolt began in 1989, different militant groups rivalled and sometimes fought each other.

The general picture is of many different Islamist militant groups which often make common cause, and sometimes co-operate opportunistically when this suits their many different objectives. 

According to U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal the three main insurgent groups in Afghanistan co-ordinate their efforts but have different command structures and work under separate strategic plans. These are the Quetta shura Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin.

Within Pakistan, security forces appear to be fighting against a coalition of militant groups which include the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), based in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the sectarian anti-Shi’ite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), both of which have been suspected of involvement in gun and bomb attacks in Punjab province in recent weeks. The banned LeJ was originally based in Punjab, but has been operating increasingly out of the tribal areas.

The Pakistan Army has launched an offensive in South Waziristan, stronghold of the TTP. It says around 1,000 foreign fighters, mainly Uzbeks, are also holed up there.

Punjab is also the base for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was blamed for last year’s attack on Mumbai. Lashkar differs from many other militant groups in that it is not believed to have launched attacks within Pakistan itself, focusing instead on Kashmir and India. Nor does it share the Deobandi religious ideology of many of Pakistan’s militant groups and of the Afghan Taliban, instead following a tradition more akin to al Qaeda’s Salafist views.

Jaish-e-Mohammed, another Punjab-based group which like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) originally focused mainly on Kashmir, is seen as much closer to al Qaeda than the LeT.  It is one of many militant groups which is believed to have splintered in Pakistan as a result of various crackdowns following 9/11, creating many dangerous offshoots.

In Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, rebels have long been waging a separatist insurgency which Pakistan says is backed by India – a charge Delhi denies. But these rebels are quite separate from the Jundollah Sunni militant group blamed for last Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Sistan-Baluchestan province in neighbouring Iran.  Analysts argue that Jundollah, whose religious ideology is Deobandi, is increasingly following a sectarian anti-Shi’ite agenda, under the influence of Pakistan’s own Deobandi groups.

But according to French historian Stephane Dudoignon, quoted in this Reuters interview, the group does not share the Islamic internationalism of al Qaeda. Instead, its leader Abdolmalik Rigi had always stressed that he was a Baluch and Iranian patriot. And the rise of Jundollah, he says, coincided with an explosion of drug smuggling on the eastern fringes of Iran, from which it drew much of its funding.

Meanwhile on the subject of drug smuggling and to return to the original subject of the jihadica post, it’s worth noting that the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar appear to be considerably better funded than al Qaeda nowadays. That would suggest that if there is indeed a rift between a nationalist and internationalist agenda, the Afghan Taliban may have the upper hand.

(Photos: U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; the TTP, opium field)
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