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Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Taliban in FATA: Resistance Fighters or Political Entrepreneurs?



by Yasser Kureshi

Tari Sar observation post before mortar attack on Shigal Tarna garrison, Kunar, 1987 by


Pakistani society finds itself in a moment of deep self-reflection today, as it confronts the horrors of the attack on the children at the Army Public School in Peshawar. State and society are both trying   to grapple with the reality that the people responsible for this attack emerged from within Pakistani society. The infrastructure for recruiting, training and mobilizing the militants behind this attack lies within Pakistan’s borders. The public gaze has thus fallen upon Pakistan’s tribal belt on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan where Jihadi militant organizations, such as the Taliban, have deeply entrenched themselves, driving out many of the traditional tribal leaders, and establishing autonomous principalities. Understanding how Pakistan’s tribal belt has become such a hotbed of sustained militant activity has now become a subject of national and international concern.

Yet, when reviewing the prevalent literature on this subject, for a chapter I co-authored with Haris Gazdar and Asad Sayeed, ‘The Rise of Jihadi Militancy in Pakistan's Tribal Areas’[1] we found that, all too frequently the explanations for the growth of Jihadi militancy in the tribal belt have been coloured by the ideological predispositions of the analysts. Scholars on both the right and the left have, for different reasons, sought to externalize the responsibility for the hostile designs and violent tactics of these militants, searching for causal explanations primarily in the American war in Afghanistan supported by the Pakistani state, American drone strikes in Pakistan, and Pakistani military’s direct encroachment upon these regions against the will of the tribesmen. While these causes can partially explain the spread of Jihadi militancy in the tribal belt, all of them characterize this development as a consequence of a tribal population, clinging violently to traditions and resisting encapsulation, either by western imperialism, or the oppressive Pakistani state. This understanding of the current crisis in the tribal belt is shaped by the memory of previous militant rebellions in the tribal belt, led by religious figures against the British Empire. However, the political dynamics of the tribal belt have changed significantly since then and the conditions that produced the colonial rebellions of the 19th and 20th centuries are not replicated in the region today. Our study, therefore, sought to correct this characterization of the emergence of Jihadi militancy by examining the historical evolution of political institutions and political economy of the tribal region.

In our study, we found that changes in the political economy of the tribal region interacted with shifts in the region’s relationship with the Pakistani state to provide both the unstable institutional vacuum for clerical militants to fill and the resources and support these militants needed to fill this vacuum.  The region has been ruled indirectly by the Pakistani state through officially supported tribal leaders, maliks, and the oppressive colonial legal framework enshrined in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). This governance system was never properly legitimized and produced a static institutional structure that fixed official political power in the hands of maliks, hand-picked by the Pakistani state, while new sources of rent were altering the balance of social power away from these state representatives towards new aspiring elites. This governance structure’s unpopularity and lack of legitimacy, coupled with the maliks’ diminishing monopoly over resources, created the ideal conditions for emerging political entrepreneurs to challenge the leadership of the maliks. Clerics or Mullahs, benefitting from both new sources of rent and the region’s shift to Deobandi Islam as a source of legitimacy, were well-positioned to take on this entrepreneurial role. Studying the paths taken by politically ambitious Mullahs, we found that they were able to challenge the power of the official Maliks by criticizing the corruption and dependency of the official Maliks, and promising legitimate rule based on the moral authority of Islam, demonstrated through the provision of more meaningful justice through arbitration and dispute resolution.

At the same time, the Pakistani state’s relationship with the people of the tribal belt also changed. The Pakistani security establishment developed a close, national strategic and ideational alliance with militant clerics and Islamist organizations proliferating in the border region during, and after, the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. For the security establishment, the war had demonstrated the utility of ideologically-driven covert warfare to achieve geo-strategic objectives. Therefore, the Pakistani state shifted its focus away from supporting the rule of the official tribal Maliks (undermining their role as primary interlocutors between the state and the people of the tribal belt), to providing arms and support to the militant clerics. This shift in state policy enabled militant clerics to not just confront, but displace, the tribal leadership in many parts of the region.

We, therefore, contend that today’s Jihadi militant clerics of the tribal region have not emerged to protect the region from direct encapsulation or foreign intervention. Instead, they are political entrepreneurs seeking to create their own rule by displacing the traditional tribal structure. Their ambitions are not limited purely to the tribal belt, as they are linked to a network of militants and ideologues spread across the Pakistani state, society and even beyond national borders. Understanding the institutional causes of the development of this Jihadi militancy and its implications is vital to determining what must be done to counter the threat to Pakistan’s peace and stability. Ceding political and territorial space to groups with expansionist agendas in the name of peace, will not work. Yet, neither will a reliance on military action alone bring peace to the region as the problem is, at its heart, a political one, and therefore a political solution is necessary. Ultimately, shifting Pakistan’s tribal region gradually towards a governance structure built upon rational-legal and democratic lines will be the only way to create a stable and legitimate institutional arrangement that can meet the needs of arbitration and dispute resolution and distribute rents more equitably, without creating the space for violent political entrepreneurs to assume control over the region and use it as a springboard for further expansion. Learning lessons from this history of poorly chosen institutional solutions to the challenge of governing the tribal belt, is essential to drawing the roadmap towards  reducing the threat posed by these militants and establishing a fairer, more equitable and more durable institutional relationship between the Pakistani state and the peoples of the tribal belt.


[1] Haris Gazdar, Yasser Kureshi and Asad Sayeed, The Rise of Jihadi Militancy in Pakistan's Tribal Areas. in A. Sundar and N. Sundar eds. Civil Wars in South Asia: State, Sovereignty, Development. New Delhi: Sage India. November 2014.



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