With horror and disgust I was watching over the last days how the number of victims of a car-bomb detonated at a volleyball match in Shah Hassankhel village (Lakki Marwat area), close to South Waziristan, in Pakistan was steadily rising: 22, 32, 60, 75, 89, up to 93 Saturday afternoon. (No further reports from Sunday on, though.)
This attack was not a unique event. The BBC gives a list of the latest terrorist outrages in Pakistan (below or here):
Karachi, 28 December: At least 43 killed in attack on Shia Muslim march
Dera Ghazi Khan, 15 December: At least 27 killed in bomb attack on market
Multan, 8 December: Intelligence agency office attacked – at least 12 killed
Peshawar: Many recent attacks – 28 October market bombing killed about 120
Lahore: Targeted several times – market bombs killed 50 on 7 December
Rawalpindi: Several recent attacks, including one at a mosque on 4 December in which 35 died
Islamabad: Security tightened after series of attacks – 20 October bombing killed nine at International Islamic University
Charsadda, 10 November: Car bomb kills 34 and wounds 100
Pakistan’s Taleban movement – represented by the umbrella organizations Tehrik Taliban-i-Pakistan (TTP) and Shura Ittehad-al-Mujahedin (United Mujahedin Council) – has admitted responsibility for most of those deeds. But not (yet?) for this bombing.
Why did a volleyball match become a target? Like the other attacks listed above, this bombing just seems to be indiscriminate and aimed at reaching the highest possible number of casualties.
Of course, the attack was not completely ‘senseless’ (although this word really does not fit here). Pakistani and other media have reported that the village was a former stronghold of Pakistan’s Taleban but that the local population had formed a self-defense force (a lashkar) and drove them out recently. At the time of the attack, a local peace committee was reported to be meeting at a nearby mosque.
It seems that the attack mirrors the Afghan Taleban’s instrument of intimidation it uses against everyone cooperating – or believed to be cooperating – with the government and its international allies, only to an exponentially perverse extent.
Are the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban still the same? Are they – as the former CIA man Bruce Riedel who led President Barack Obama’s 60-day review of the US AfPak strategy puts it – part of a ‘terrorist syndicate’, with Mulla Omar at its top? (see Riedel’s very interesting speech on the US strategy and his assessment of al-Qaida and the Taleban in a video here.)
True, the Pakistani Taleban have started as support network of their Afghan brothers and later copied their strategy. And they recognize Mulla Omar as the amir ul-mo’menin. Correct: all these groups were and possibly still are groomed by the ISI. Correct, many Punjabi and Kashmiri fighters were trained in camps in Afghanistan pre-2001. But what relevance does that have practically and today?
While Pakistan’s Taleban do indeed closely cooperate with the so-called Punjabi Taleban, i.e. groups like Lashkar-e Tayba and Jaish-i Muhammad, and the Kashmiri jihadis, the Afghan Taleban slowly seem to drift away from them. At the same time, the Punjabi Taleban function as als-Qaida’s the transmission belt with the non-Punjabi, NWFP- and FATA-based Pakistani Taleban.
Al-Qaida’s media outlet as-Sahab recently has ‘in a rather unusual concentration of al-Qa’ida media attention on a single non-al-Qa’ida member […] released a flurry of videos […] featuring [TTP] leaders […] both living and dead, in what amounts to a media campaign announcing their open alliance’ with Pakistan’s Taleban writes a well-informed terrorism watch blog (see Vahid Brown, ‘Al-Qa’ida Publicy Cements Ties to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan’, on jihadica, 14 October 2009, here). According to this source, OBL’s deputy Ayman az-Zawaheri even called slain TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud a ‘role model of the youth’. This, it concludes, indicates ‘that al-Qa’ida has successfully seized the moment in the wake of the death of Baitullah to dramatically increase its influence over the TTP’.
Apart from their increasingly different relationship with al-Qaida, a second clear distinction between Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s Taleban is their position vis-à-vis operations abroad. On 31 March, TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud threatened to launch an attack on Washington that would ‘amaze everyone in the world’ in retaliation for US drone attacks on Pakistan’s northern tribal areas (The Times of London, 1 April 2009, see here).
Mehsud’s spokesman also had claimed responsibility for organising a terrorist plot in Barcelona in January 2008. But al-Qaida expert Mark Sageman warned in a testimony for the US Senate that this claim ‘must be taken with a great deal of caution because he has claimed credits for mishaps in the West [before] that had nothing to do with his organization’ (see testimony here). At the same time, there is not a single case in which Afghan Taleban had been involved in terrorist activities outside their ‘area of operation’ which includes Afghanistan and FATA. Most remarkably, there was no Afghan onboard any of the 9/11 planes or somewhere in the logistical background of these attacks.
A third interesting factor is the Afghan Taleban’s position towards the Shia community. They have moved away from their pre-2001 position of violent hostility (there were massacres of Shiites in Mazar-e Sharif, in Yakaolang and at the Robatak pass). In his October 2006 ‘Id message, Mulla Omar for the first time appealed to his fighters ‘not to go for sectarian hatred[; a]ll Muslims of different schools of thought are brothers and there is no difference among them’. After 2001, there were and are no Afghan Taleban attacks on Shias, also not during the very recent festival of Ashura – while there was the attack on a Shia procession in Karachi on 28 December during which at least 43 people were murdered. And Pakistan’s Taleban claimed responsibility for it. They seem to have taken aboard the sectarian, anti-Shia agenda of the Pakistani non-Pashtun sectarian groups who have been leading a bloody war of terror against the Shia minority since decades. In the wake of this development, their modus operandi has become more and more al-Qaida-like.
Although that doesn’t absolve the Afghan Taleban of their past crimes, the relationship between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taleban differs greatly from it. This is an important distinction that needs to be noted. It might be a step towards turning into a more ‘political’ movement. The same goes for their stated attempt to minimize civilian casualties as stated in their latest layha, the handbook with a code of conduct for their fighters in the field. It urges them not to alienate the local population by looting and causing ‘unnecessary’ civil casualties. The Taleban clearly see themselves in a competition for the hearts and minds of Afghans with the NATO forces. If one wants to be very optimistic these statements can even be seen as an – undeclared – reference to international humanitarian law.
One might argue that this is a paper only and the Taleban need to be judged by their practice. Very well. But let us not forget that the Taleban – not only in their pre-2001 incarnation – aspired and aspire for being recognized as a party of conflict. They sometimes behave like a government in exile, publicizing statements on all kind of issues, even write to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (as in October 2009) or urge the ‘UN, the EU, the Red Crescent [organisation] and human rights organizations’ to ‘prevent’ executions of Afghan prisoners as in April and November 2008.
What now is needed is a body that systematically starts watching the Taleban with regard to the implementation of their self-declared code of conduct, makes the results public and turns the layha into a yardstick against which the Taleban are measured. If they react positively, if even indirectly, that could be a sign that more is possible.
Finally back to Lakki Marwat. There is one positive aspect in it: The reaction of Pakistanis to this carnage (although thoroughly underreported) shows that the voice of reason is still alive there. For example, the BBC reports in the piece quoted and linked above that there was a general strike going on in Karachi as a protest. One can only hope that this terrible event will produce the same result as the flogging of a young woman in Swat in April last year the video of which also had created a turn of tide in public opinion amongst Pakistani against their Taleban.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020