Right after the GHQ attack and the Meena Bazaar car bomb, there was an idea circulated around that the Taliban were getting desperate and lashing out wildly. This suggested that the South Waziristan operation was achieving its stated purpose. Another interpretation was that there were warring factions within the Taliban and that some groups had gone rogue. It did not seem to make any sense for the TTP to be blatantly massacring civilians in such large numbers, especially when public opinion was turning against them the way it was. But I was thinking about things today and I realized that the Taliban is not like other political groups. How would you modify your political strategy if you were acting in a space in which there were strong societal barriers to any intellectual criticism of the ideology that you represented? How would you adapt your tactics to maximise your benefit from this situation?
It seems clear that the Taliban understands and exploits the quandary that most Pakistanis find themselves in when confronted with terror attacks within their own country by the ideological brothers of a group that their country supports in Afghanistan. Just watching the Jirga clip in the post below, one can see Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s immediate and forceful denial that the attacks being carried out in Pakistan are being carried out by Muslims. For Qazi, these attacks have to be carried out by enemies of Islam because if he admitted that they were carried out by the TTP, the righteousness of the Afghan Taliban would immediately become a gray area instead of an absolute black and white distinction as it currently is. I am not suggesting that Qazi believes what he is saying, in my opinion, people like him and Ahmed Ludhianvi are too entrenched in militancy and extremism to believe the garbage they peddle. Nope, they are part of the same propaganda machine that basically works to pad and expand the space of deniability inside which the Taliban can continue the most effective (in terms of terrorizing the population) attacks while having the luxury to disregard the loss in political currency that these attacks would otherwise entail since they are able to successfully blame them on outsiders so easily.
Here’s a relevant excerpt from Mullah Omar’s Eid greeting which suggests that he understands this situation perfectly:
The cunning enemy wants to attack people’s congestion places like religious centers, mosques and other similar places in order to malign Mujahideen. They also launch sanguinary attacks under the name of martyrdom-seeking operations to mar the good name of Mujahiden. The Mujahideen should be on guard against these activities of the enemy and fully avoid from carrying out any analogous activity. Well-being and prosperity of people should make your priority.
I’ve always been really impressed with the political savvy of these Taliban bulletins. One can accuse the Taliban of a lot of things, but what one can’t accuse them of is the willful blindness that clouds much of the political thinking of the rest of Pakistan. Anyway, this particular form of deniability is not specific to the Taliban alone: an impartial observer observing the different names by which religious organizations in Pakistan go would be forgiven for thinking that Pakistanis are extremely forgetful people who don’t really bother why an organization known as Sipah-e-Sahaba can become an organization known as Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat and then a few years later show up under yet another name. Many Pakistanis today speak of the “Mehsud group” of Taliban as an evil that needs to be eradicated and believe that Mullah Omar has distanced himself from them in disgust. New stories like this one, from February, strengthen this belief. But it might be beneficial to compare this situation to the tactical break between Sipah-e-Sahaba and the more violent Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the 90s and the political freedom that that gave Sipah-e-Sahaba.