The Punjabi Taliban: Origins, Structure and Long-Term Peace

Spearhead Analysis – 09.10.2014

By Shayan Malik
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Punjabi TalibanOn the 13th of September 2014, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban, Asmatullah Muawiya, had announced that the militant group was not going to engage in any militant activity against the Pakistani state but is going to direct it towards ‘infidel’ forces. It had come as a relief to many that this many-headed monster had announced that it would stop warring against the state. It is indeed significant that the largest anti-state militant group amongst the litany of other Taliban groups has stopped engaging in terrorism against the state and its personnel.

However, there are a number of questions that still need to be raised. Is the group going to stop its campaign of militancy against what it considers to be those outside the ‘pale of Islam’ within the country? Will it use the parliament to achieve its political goals if it is included in the political process? Is it likely to renege on its new declaration in the short to long term?

The original policy rupture

What is now referred to as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ is composed of varying groups of militants whose predecessors had engaged in warfare against the Soviet Union in order to oust it from Afghanistan. They were ideologically motivated to ‘liberate’ Muslim-majority lands from ‘Infidels’. A number of these sub-groups faced strictures from the Musharraf regime in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. This led them to develop a nexus with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and to commit terrorism against the state, its personnel and civilians, with targeted attacks against minorities. Its narrative was extended to include the Pakistani state as another oppressive entity in cahoots with the Americans, eager to wage war on ‘Muslims’.

Structure and Funding

The Punjabi Taliban is said to be composed of 37 groups, out of which 24 are breakaway factions of erstwhile militant groups engaged in Afghanistan and Kashmir, or had sectarian agendas internally. Twelve of these groups were lately based in Punjab. However, the group has maintained presence all over the state with four groups in Karachi, two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one each in Balochistan, AJK and the capital Islamabad.

Although the bulk of the group’s foot soldiers are made up of ethnic Punjabis and Saraikis, it has corroborated with Al-Qaeda in the past. Whether the group has broken strategic relations with the ‘anti-nation state’ entity i.e. Al-Qaeda in the aftermath of its sudden policy rupture is still unclear. This help mainly entailed technical expertise along with payments to families of militants who perished while fighting. Approximately 150,000 in number, the Punjabi Taliban gradually went through relative ‘centralization’, as initially its constituent groups had no unified policy. They have funded themselves mainly through kidnapping for ransom and other assorted criminal activities.

Religious Cleansing and the ‘Barelvi’ Narrative

Apart from targeting the state and its personnel as was seen in the group’s attack on the General Headquarters of the Pakistani Military, the Punjabi Taliban were on an escapade trying to extinguish those religious and sectarian groups who did not subscribe to their Deobandi school of thought. These targets were deemed infidels if not apostates by the group, and were thus liable to be killed. Its noted terrorist attacks against Pakistan’s beleaguered minority communities included the massacre of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore in 2010 which resulted in a 100 deaths, the assassination of Federal Minister for Minorities Shahabaz Bhatti for his opposition to the blasphemy laws, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team as well as the bombardment of numerous ‘Barelvi’ and other Sufi shrines.

Although limited as a whole, much of the personnel of the group is said to have supported the ruling PMLN government in the ‘political’ realm. Indeed, there is a ‘barelvi’ narrative of the Punjab government facilitating the takeover of their shrines through Deobandi attacks or raids. Moreover, unwillingness, lack of capacity and other institutional weaknesses and fault lines in the country’s criminal justice system has enabled them to escape punishment from the state. A related factor that was said to have undermined the security of numerous Pakistani citizens vis-à-vis the Punjabi Taliban was governmental and executive sympathy with the militants.

Where do we go from here?

It is still not clear whether the Punjabi Taliban’s focus on ‘infidels’ for Jihad includes those whom it considers to be ‘infidels’ within Pakistan, such as various religious and sectarian minorities, or only the foreign forces in Afghanistan. If the former is the case, then putting Pakistani citizens at risk amounts to attacking the state itself. It is pertinent to conceptualize the state being made up of individuals in theory, as opposed to some exclusive governmental machinery.

Moreover, the fact that the militant group has turned their guns elsewhere with their operational capacity intact is in itself not indicative of the state recovering its ‘monopoly of violence’ in the weberian sense. In fact, any reversal in the group’s policy could operationalize its capacity to inflict damage on the state again.

Is long-term peace possible?

Firstly, it is essential to recognize that the Punjabi Taliban have more characteristics that would lead to their classification as ‘terrorists’ rather than ‘insurgents’. The latter have a large support base amongst the population of the state they are fighting against. The former mostly engage in criminal activities with an aim at challenging the legitimacy of the state, and spreading that message throughout the state’s population.

According to a study done at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, rebel groups and their long-term inclusion in the state’s political structure only leads to long-term peace if the said group is able to achieve its political goals within the state structure. It is unlikely that the Punjabi Taliban would engage in politicking within the framework of the Pakistani constitution when the core of their ideology out rightly rejects it as a deviation from their doctrinal beliefs. Moreover, their ability to canvass enough political support to make changes to the constitution or to implement desirable policies in the long-term is also unlikely, given how Islamist parties have fared in elections in the past.

What needs to be deliberated upon is whether if it is even desirable to engage with this group in order to politically bring it into the mainstream. It needs to be questioned as to why the state would be politically inclusive to one ideological set of militants and not to others such as ethnic nationalists or separatist militants. The alternative is to diminish the group’s operational capacity in attacking the state. If the Punjabi Taliban leadership does not achieve its ideological goals within or outside Pakistan, it is likely that cracks could appear in the organization leading to the formation of a number of splinter groups. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that the group still poses a medium or long-term threat to the state, which our security managers must take account of.