November 21, 2009

Pakistan Dispatch: A Tale of Two Talibans

Is there really a difference between the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan? The question divides the Pakistani and American governments as well as analysts and observers, including those that post comments on this blog.

Events in and concerning Pakistan over the past couple of days have brought this question into sharper focus.

Apart from the military operation going on in Waziristan, Pakistan is keen to show that it is going after the men killing Pakistanis by the hundreds every week. Pakistani law enforcement agencies and the army's efforts are vital to assuage the growing despair and anger of a population that literally fears for its life as it goes out to buy food it is finding harder to afford. The latest attacks took place on Thursday, when a suicide bomber and a roadside bomb killed 22 people in Peshawar. So, the state machinery is keen to tell everyone how many militants it has killed and which is has caught - like the alleged mastermind of a string of attacks in the capital.

But is Pakistan choosing to fight the enemy it can't ignore while avoiding a clash with the militants fighting ISAF in Afghanistan? - You know the ones it, along with the US, helped train and kinda hopes will be its anti-Indian proxy in the new Afghanistan? It's no secret that the US thinks so. And reports in the local media suggest that CIA Director Leon Panetta made the point during his visit to Islamabad.

Yesterday, the Washington Times rode into the debate by claiming that Pakistan had relocated Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, and moved him to Karachi. Yes, the WT isn't known for its extensive reporting network. And it is owned by Moonies, who spend most of their time worrying about how to get everyone married, (which sort of makes them quite ideologically akin to much of the Pakistani population). But you know what Moonie ownership means? Yep, good contacts with the CIA.

The named source in the story is Bruce Riedel, the man who chaired the Whitehouse review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy earlier this year. It should be noted however that Riedel's actual quote from the article isn't the most definitive:

"Some sources claim the ISI decided to move him further from the battlefield to keep him safe" from U.S. drone attacks, said Mr. Riedel, who headed the Obama administration's review of policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last spring. "There are huge madrassas in Karachi where Mullah Omar could easily be kept."

Although, the article goes on:

"A second senior intelligence officer who specializes in monitoring al Qaeda said U.S. intelligence had confirmed Mullah Omar's move through both electronic and human sources as well as intelligence from an unnamed allied service."

The article also quotes analyst Mary Habeck, a professor at John Hopkins, saying that the information suggests the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are one in the same thing. Her position seems to be based on the idea that the Taliban have pretty much left Karachi alone.

But something doesn't sit quite right with Londonstani about all this. The evidence of inter Taliban squabbles as well as the attacks on civilians (which the "official" Taliban maintain are outside their rules of engagement) suggest that their aren't one or two Talibans but lots and lots of Talibans. Maybe it's comforting to see your enemy as  distinct unified force, but is it more realistic to assume that "Taliban" is a convenient umbrella for a bunch of mixed grieviances and motivations?