A joke has been circulating among Pakistanis on Twitter: “How to negotiate with the Taliban: Blast. Condemn. Blast. Condemn. Blast. Condemn. #Fail.” It mocks the government’s swiftness at denouncing terrorist attacks while doing too little to stop them.
In 2013 alone, the Pakistani Taliban, a coalition of radical Islamists who want to overthrow the state and impose Shariah law, carried out 645 attacks in Pakistan, killing 732 civilians and 425 security personnel. And there can be no suicide bombing or gun attack, it seems, without politicians from the center, the opposition and even fringe parties joining a chorus of woe and regret.
Now the Pakistani Taliban are chiming in. The spokesman of the Pakistani Taliban condemned a blast on Jan. 16 at an Islamic center in Peshawar that killed 10 people and wounded more than 50. He spoke against attacks in public places that claim innocent lives and blamed the bombing on groups seeking to “tarnish the image of the mujahedeen.”
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but the target and its method were characteristic of the Taliban.
The disclaimer, however, was not. If anything, the Pakistani Taliban have long bragged about their operations, sometimes circulating gory videos to document them. In late September, the group posted on Facebook a clip showing a roadside blast in northwest Pakistan on Sept. 15; the attack killed a general, one of the group’s highest-ranking targets in its bid to destabilize the state. Circulating such footage allows the Pakistani Taliban to glorify their commanders and try to convince the public and new recruits that their mission to bring Islamic law to Pakistan is making progress.
The Pakistani Taliban’s P.R. strategy began to shift last year when the center-right government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which was elected in the spring, proposed holding peace talks, and perhaps offering members of the group amnesty in exchange for a cease-fire. (Previous governments had favored limited military action, which only sparked more attacks.) But the idea of negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban — who have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis since the mid-2000s — divides the country: Some people believe talks are the only option, others equate them with surrender. The public is confused partly because the Taliban fight in Islam’s name and, feeding off rampant anti-Americanism, target officials they declare to be American stooges.
And so even as they have intensified the pace of their activities — increasing suicide attacks across Pakistan by 39 percent between 2012 and 2013, from 33 to 46 — the Pakistani Taliban have been trying to sow more confusion about their agenda. One of their spokesmen decried a double suicide bombing at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar in October, which killed more than 80 Christians, saying the attack had been carried out by malign forces intent on sabotaging the peace talks. Yet the group has targeted religious minorities before, specifically Christians, in the name of avenging the victims of American drone strikes. And two minor terrorist outfits with known links to the Pakistani Taliban, Jundullah and Junood ul-Hifsa, eventually claimed responsibility.
The Pakistani Taliban are an umbrella group with many chapters in most cities and small towns, and close operational ties with other extremist organizations with sectarian or anti-India agendas. They train with anti-Shiite groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. By virtue of their vast network, they can be said to have a hand in virtually any terrorist attack in Pakistan.
But there are so many different sub-groups, with their own names and chiefs, and there is so much infighting among them, that the public gets bogged down trying to differentiate them. More and more there also are “pop-up” militant groups — small radical bands that come together, often with support from the Taliban, to carry out specific attacks and then disband — that are virtually impossible for law-enforcing agencies to track.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis are primed for manipulation. For years, conspiracy theories have swirled around suggesting that terrorist attacks are being carried out by foreign agents who want to destabilize the country. And decades of shadowy politicking have left the public thinking that government officials may be less trustworthy than terrorists.
For years Pakistani politicians slammed Washington for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty with drone strikes, but then, last April, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former president and army chief, admitted that his government had secretly signed off on the United States’ drone attacks. In November, soon after announcing that the government had initiated talks with the Taliban, the interior minister backtracked. The government then designated center-right politicians and leaders of religious political parties to serve as interlocutors with the Pakistani Taliban — only to rescind the appointments a few days later. Last week, even as the government confirmed wanting to pursue talks, leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N announced an imminent military operation against Taliban hideouts in North Waziristan.
The government’s equivocations afford the Pakistani Taliban a rhetorical advantage: All they have to do is point out its contradictions and say the government isn’t serious about negotiating. This puts the onus on the state to prove its commitment to peace, perhaps by meeting the Taliban’s preconditions for talks, like an end to drone strikes. The point is also to generate public pressure on the government to pursue talks without resorting to military action.
With its history of savage attacks and audacious jail breaks, the Pakistani Taliban have long been two steps ahead of Pakistan’s security forces and intelligence agencies. Now, the increasingly P.R.-savvy organization is also outwitting the government in terms of messaging. By obfuscating their precise responsibility for Pakistan’s security issues, the Pakistani Taliban are dampening the public’s enthusiasm for a sustained push against terrorist groups. And progress in the war of words is progress in its war for power.
Huma Yusuf is a Pakistani journalist and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.