Pakistan: A Different Agenda for Taliban’s Foot Soldiers?

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4412

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy looks at possible fractures between the upper echelons and the lower tiers of the TTP

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director
Of late, the discourses on terrorism and terrorist cells operating from within and outside Pakistan have seen intensification. What are the motives of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), given how leadership changes in the organisation have resulted in changes in its agendas? Do the foot soldiers and the leadership have varying agendas? If yes, how does the difference not become an operational obstacle?

The Leadership and the Foot Soldiers
The difference in the character of the TTP under the Mehsuds and later under Mullah Fazlullah is stark. Although the primary basis of the TTP’s actions under all the leaderships was that of enforcing Islamic rule, the Mehsuds employed violent strategies and their own interpretations of Islam, despite no formal training in the edicts. In fact, it appears that their primary objective was not the establishment of Sharia, but violence against the Pakistani establishment. Conversely, Mullah Fazlullah is a trained maulvi and comes from a background where establishing Sharia law is the primary objective.

Given how the TTP is not one single body but a consortium of various militias active in different agencies of Pakistan, how comfortable are the foot soldiers of these organisations with the changing nature of the operations? Is there scope for dissension among the ranks of the TTP and its franchisees over the modification of the objectives? What are the primary objectives these foot soldiers sign up to see achieved?

Demand and Supply Chain in Pakistan’s Terrorism Market
As the result of several decades of unrest and instability, most settled areas in Pakistan’s tribal agencies are impoverished lands. While many recruits, several in their early teens, are tapped from the madrasas that dot the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, many of these jihadists are foreign fighters.

In this context, it is important to understand the variations in the motivation of Pakistani and non-Pakistani jihadists to join militant groups.

While several Pakistani jihadists are a result of years of Wahabi Islamic teachings in these Saudi-funded madrasas, a more important factor is the use of drones by the US. While the US’ drone attacks target militants holed up in the unforgiving terrains of western Pakistan, these attacks often result in several civilian deaths, and are callously termed ‘collateral damage’. Such losses brought upon by faceless predators from the skies in a community whose foundations are based on the idea of avenging injustice, serves as a primary motivator. This, clubbed with heavily radical teachings imparted in the aforementioned madrasas, often lead victims of such losses to join the ranks. Such recruits seek vengeance, and are not bothered much by organisational direction.

Therefore, although the leadership might have changed from a group of pseudo-mercenaries to a combination of mercenaries and missionaries, not all foot soldiers subscribe to all the opinions prescribed by the high command. However, that does not translate to direct dissent either. There seems to be a comfortable working relationship between the upper echelons and the lower tiers, where the leaders pursue their agendas, and the foot soldiers fight for them so long as the retribution they seek is guaranteed. This does not deny the fact that many of these fighters do indeed agree with the leadership on several issues.

Domestic recruits to the militant ranks seldom flee following crackdowns, and are mostly, with an exception of some, interested in carrying out their jihads in Pakistan itself. In fact, joining militant groups appears to be a viable career option these days.

The foreign fighters, however, are a different story altogether. Their main goal is jihad, and they are not bound to any particular region. They will move on to different geographical areas to carry out their actions depending on the situation. In fact, reports suggest that several thousand foreign fighters, mainly Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks, have moved on from Pakistan to Syria and other areas citing ‘uncertainty’.

Dissent or Convenience?
These motivations and compromises, however, cannot be weighed on simple grounds such as consent and dissent. The retention of foot soldiers despite changes in the agendas cannot be seen as complete consent to the operations, and, simultaneously, cannot be interpreted as murmurings of dissent either. The likelihood of the co-existence of both phenomena is high.

The motivations are many and complex, and often, practicable solutions are chosen. Foreign fighters leaving Pakistan can definitely not be seen as deserters. It is a choice of convenience and affinity towards the urgency of the cause over geography.

Today, Syria is viewed as the most holy ground for carrying out jihad. Those moving on to Syria are viewed by the terrorist cells as moving on to fight a greater holy war. The void left behind by such fighters, are filled by new and unpredictable actors that prop up frequently in Pakistan.

This is ominous, for the next big surge in terrorist activities, especially in Pakistan, will not just be about Islamic law. It will be heavily sectarian in nature; more than it already is. Unless there is a genuine consensus on a policy to deal with the causes and outcomes of terrorism and violent radicalism, home-grown or otherwise, between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, one cannot expect better days in the country anytime soon.