If the 11-year war against jihadist terrorism is to succeed, then its leaders must change their approach. So far, the U.S. and its NATO allies have approached jihadist violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single problem, to be met with a single strategy.
But success will require a more nuanced parsing of who is conducting jihad and why, because the jihadists are not a homogenous group.
An Arabic word, “jihad” has a broad range of meaning. It can refer to an individual Muslim’s internal struggle to adhere more faithfully to the teachings of Islam or, at the other extreme, to a holy war waged against external forces threatening Islam.
In modern times, jihad has most often meant using violence against the regimes of Muslim leaders considered un-Islamic; and it has been waged with the goal of establishing a state administered according to sharia law. The jihadist agenda until quite recently was usually local.
This changed after the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistani-based leaders of an anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan invited militant Muslims from around the world to join their campaign. At that point, with support from the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, jihadism went global.
The success of jihadists in forcing the Soviets to leave Afghanistan in 1989 led to the formation of Al Qaeda, which under the leadership of Osama bin Laden aimed to provide a global anchor to local jihads. During his 5-year-long refuge in Afghanistan, Bin Laden befriended Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, which led to Omar’s adopting global jihad as his movement’s ideological anchor. This lasted until Sept. 11, 2001.
Omar’s support for Al Qaeda, and his harboring of Bin Laden, resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban by the U.S. and its allies. Since that time, chastened by the ongoing onslaught from U.S.-led NATO forces, Omar has reverted to a far more local agenda of jihad and has said repeatedly that if the Taliban regains power in Afghanistan, it would not allow foreign jihadist groups to operate there.
At the same time, Omar has also toned down his rhetoric against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban has reversed its earlier ban on photography and music, now using DVDs and music tapes as propaganda tools. These changes, along with the deep-seated resentment of the presence of U.S. troops most Afghans feel, have made many in the country more receptive to the Taliban.
Given all this, it would be hard to eliminate moderated Afghan jihadism that has merged with an ineradicable nationalism. Means must therefore be found to contain it.
That is why any resolution to the Afghan war must involve engagement with the Taliban and an attempt to draw them into a power-sharing deal in post-2014 Afghanistan. President Obama’s recent signing of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership with the Karzai government should give the two presidents greater confidence in negotiations with the Taliban if and when these are resumed.
The challenge that the West faces in Pakistan requires a different approach. In Pakistan, Al Qaeda’s leaders and their allies have established themselves in the semiautonomous tribal belt along the Afghan border, and they remain committed to pursuing global jihadism. Respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty means that NATO troops do not have the same freedom to curb militant jihadism in its tribal belt that they have in Afghanistan.
Among other things, the fugitive Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan inspired the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, which has targeted the state’s security and intelligence agencies. Curbing these jihadists remains, exclusively, the task of the Pakistani government, whose troops are being trained in counterinsurgency tactics by American and British special forces. The Pakistani Taliban are at one end of the jihadist spectrum, with the legal Islamist parties participating in electoral politics at the other.
In Pakistan, the roots of today’s jihadism — militant and moderate, global and more locally focused — date to the rule of military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988. A die-hard Islamist, he set out to Islamize Pakistani state and society. He made sure that school and university textbooks did not contravene Islamic precepts, and he introduced severe sharia punishments for such acts as drinking alcohol, stealing and adultery. This process was accompanied by relentless Islamic propaganda through local mosques and the state-owned broadcast media.
The generation of students who graduated under Zia’s Islamized educational order is now ensconced in the middle and top levels of the security and intelligence services as well as in the civil service and judiciary.
Politically, in urban areas, Islamist groups have wide support among the lower, middle and working classes, who are apt to take to the streets on any issue related to Islam. Little wonder that whenever there is conflict between street power and electoral authority, the former trumps the latter.
On the other hand, militant jihadists have made a grave mistake in their strategy. They have targeted not only non-Muslims and the symbols of Western thought in Pakistan but also the country’s Shiite Muslims and Sufi followers of mystical Islam.
Though Pakistani jihadism is more difficult to curb because of its dual nature, militant jihadists have blundered by opening several fronts simultaneously. Doing so has made them vulnerable, and their opponents should exploit that weakness. So far the government has shied away from confronting radical jihadists, in part because many officials feel that a frontal assault on them could be counterproductive but also because of the sympathy they enjoy among some military and intelligence officers.
Pakistan must end its equivocation and combine a forceful move against violent jihadists with a vigorous campaign of education, information and propaganda through state-run electronic media and through mosques run by moderate clerics.
Dilip Hiro‘s latest book is Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia.