Report - Century Foundation

Militancy in Pakistan's Borderlands: Implications for the Nation and for Afghan Policy

| 2010


This paper is one of a series commissioned by The Century Foundation as part of its project on Afghanistan in its regional and multilateral dimensions. This initiative is examining ways in which the international community may take greater collective responsibility for effectively assisting Afghanistan's transition from a war-ridden failed state to a fragile but reasonably peaceful one. The program adds an internationalist and multilateral lens to the policy debate on Afghanistan both in the United States and globally, engaging the representatives of governments, international nongovernmental organizations, and the United Nations in the exploration of policy options toward Afghanistan and the other states in the region.


The sociopolitical and security situation in the Pukhtun tribal belt and its adjacent areas on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan has been in a constant state of flux since the Afghan Jihad of 1980s.1 The crisis has worsened increasingly, particularly after the U.S. and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Thousands of Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda members, and their foreign affiliates—such as groups of Uzbeks, Chechens, and Tajiks—came to Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) looking for refuge and bases to continue their fight against the American and NATO forces propping up the post-Bonn government in Afghanistan. The local Pushtuns welcomed them as per the Pushtunwali code.2 The Pakistani state has had very little presence in the area, in accordance with an arrangement with various tribes and jirgas of the area since Pakistan's creation in 1947, so the movement of these forces through a fifteen-hundred mile long rugged border, though expected, could not be obstructed easily, at least on short notice. Small and ill-equipped Frontier Corps, a Pakistani paramilitary force drawn largely from the tribal areas, as well as few hundred Pakistani military soldiers on the border, could neither halt the inflow of these militants nor curb the outflow of Pukhtuns who felt duty-bound, primarily in lieu of ethnic solidarity, to go toward Kabul to rescue their brethren during the U.S.-led campaign. Most of those going toward Kabul from Pakistan, including a contingent led by the notorious Sufi Mohammad of Tehrik-Nifaz-e-Shariati Mohammad (TNSM), came back soon after losing significant numbers of their "volunteers." In this interlude, many militants moved to various parts of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province (KPP, previously known as North West Frontier Province, or NWFP, until the name was officially changed in 2010). Movement between FATA and KPP is not regulated in any organized way, and major entry points of FATA are manned by Frontier Corps soldiers; in any event, criminals and militants very seldom travel through major roads.

Depressed and discouraged by the rapid collapse of Taliban power in Afghanistan in late 2001, Taliban sympathizers and supporters in bordering areas of Pakistan lay low for a couple of years. They revived themselves slowly after 2003–04, when they realized that neither was Pakistan pursuing them with any special zeal, nor was Afghanistan a lost cause, given that the United States was diverting its resources and energies toward Iraq. The Pakistani military's unprecedented presence and movement in FATA proved to be an additional incentive for those who supported the Taliban to "rise from their slumber." From there on, they picked their battles intelligently and cut deals strategically to earn a new lease on life. Consequently, their support networks and organizational strength increased in the tribal territories, and they emerged with a bang under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007.3

However, the universe of militants in FATA and KPP is far more diverse than commonly believed. Indeed, there are important ideological and historical common threads among the "warriors"—militant groups operating in the region have very different backgrounds, tribal affiliations, and, in some cases, objectives. Even terms such as "Afghan Taliban" and "Pakistani Taliban" are simplistic and insufficient for describing the complex milieu. For instance, a significant number of militants (estimated to be around two thousand) moved to the area from Punjab province after Islamabad's clampdown against sectarian groups, beginning in 2002 and gaining some momentum after two assassination attempts on General Pervez Musharraf in late 2003 and early 2004. They are now widely known as "Punjabi Taliban." The working relationship between members of this diverse assemblage of militants and TTP and al Qaeda is deep. Many professional criminals involved in smuggling, the drug trade, and carjacking also moved to FATA in these years. A full understanding of the situation in the region requires knowledge of the unique histories of all these militant groups, their social roots, their funding sources, and their ideological outlook (issues that are beyond the scope of this report).

In terms of political developments related to the security situation in the troubled frontier, Pakistan's prolonged transition from Musharraf's rule (1999–2008) to a democratic dispensation proved to be a distraction for the state apparatus, opening up more avenues for extremist forces to plan and implement their expansionist vision. The lack of popular governance, especially in the 2005–08 phase, made it difficult for the government to marshal popular opinion against growing religious militancy. A weakened and threatened judiciary (2007–08) further diminished the potential of the state as well as society for addressing the overall deterioration of law and order in the KPP. The mobilization of lawyers across the country (known as the Lawyers' Movement) helped the judiciary regain its strength through the restoration of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in March 2009, but the law enforcement apparatus of the country is still largely unaccountable to the public, as well as to the government itself in some cases.

The devastating floods in July and August 2010, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people in KPP and destroyed major infrastructure (including dozens of bridges and major connecting roads), have raised further serious challenges for the provincial as well as federal government. Recent important military successes in the Swat Valley and parts of FATA (especially South Waziristan) need consolidation, but the army is now tasked with relief and rescue operations throughout the country, and especially in the difficult terrain of KPP and FATA, which means that military operations in certain areas have to be put on hold, at least for the time being. This challenging scenario for the state also provides militants with an opportunity to regain lost areas, benefitting from the state’s focus on recovery and relief. However, through rehabilitation and reconstruction, the state also can build a new Pakistan where Taliban are denied space to exist, multiply, and maneuver.

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1. Some sections of this report draw from the two other research papers by the author: "Inside Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province: The Political Landscape of the Insurgency," New America Foundation, April 19, 2010, and "An Assessment of Peace Agreements with Militants in Waziristan (2004–08)," The Afghanistan-Pakistan Theatre, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 2010.

2. Pukhtunwali is an ancient and chivalrous "code of honor" associated with Pukhtuns. It is a social, cultural, and quasi-legal code, guiding, governing, and shaping both individual and communal conduct. One of its primary features is Nanawatay (Sanctuary): protection given to a person who requests it against one’s enemies. Any visitor to the area in a difficult situation can ask for sanctuary after telling locals that he or she meant no harm to the people of the area. That person is protected at all costs and under any circumstances.

3. For details, see Hassan Abbas, "A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan," CTC Sentinel 1, no. 2 (January 2008): 1–4.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Abbas, Hassan. “Militancy in Pakistan's Borderlands: Implications for the Nation and for Afghan Policy.” Century Foundation, 2010.