The Changing Geography of Jihad

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent

Conflicting reports have been published in recent days about the movement of the militant forces of notorious Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group from the country’s North Waziristan tribal region to Syria. The group first confirmed the reports before claiming that if its members had gone to Syria, it had been based on their personal decision and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had no plan to take part in the civil war in the Arab country. However, the security section of the Pakistani army, known as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has confirmed that certain elements of the terrorist group have been dispatched to Syria while claiming that the ISI has had no part in the plan. Some believe that the TTP warriors have reached Syria by going through North Waziristan and Baluchistan provinces before moving to Oman. This seems plausible to some extent. Unconfirmed reports have been published about financial support provided by certain Arab countries of the Persian Gulf for the transfer. However, due to the conflicting nature of the reports and news stories on this issue, it is really difficult to pass a final judgment.

At any rate, the presence of TTP in Syria and their taking sides with Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front, both of which are fighting against the incumbent government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has been confirmed. The main controversy over which no consensus has been reached so far is on what basis TTP has spread its operations to Syria. Has it been a spontaneous decision, as claimed by the group, which has been taken to send TTP forces to Syria in order to defend the Arab warriors who had already helped Afghan Mujahedeen in their war with the former Soviet Union, or has the measure been taken in coordination with the secret service of the Pakistani army and pursues more clear and specific goals? Both possibilities can be considered here. Of course, the move may pursue more diverse goals and interests. If one assumed that the ISI and the Pakistani army are involved, the question that follows is the pursuit of what possible goals in Syria has prompted the Pakistani army to take such a dangerous risk? It should be especially taken into account that the presence of Pakistan’s Taliban in Syria will give a more powerful sectarian quality to the Syria war and this issue should not be logically compatible with the strategic interests of Pakistan. Let’s not forget that Pakistan is already entangled in destructive sectarian strife which has seriously undermined the country’s national security as well as its regional and international credit. Therefore, it would be too naïve to assume that Pakistan has done this and encouraged the Taliban militants to take part in the civil war in Syria merely to curry favor with Saudi Arabia and its other Arab allies.

On the whole, two major assumptions that should be taken into account and discussed here are “the Taliban has been sent to Syria in collaboration with Al-Qaeda,” and “the Pakistani army’s secret service, ISI, has been involved” in sending the Taliban militants to Syria. More important than dispatching the Taliban to Syria is the ramifications of this issue as it will impart a more complicated sectarian aspect to the civil war in Syria and will increase the risk of its spread to the entire region and the entire Islamic world. The issue of dispatching the Taliban forces to Syria can be also considered from the angle of the conflicting interests of concerned political currents. In this case, there can be two sides to this issue:

1. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, and
2. Pakistan and the ISI.

Up to the present time, there has been no major dispute about the fact that the Taliban, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been nothing but a local group with simply local functions and goals in both countries. At the same time, there has been not the smallest speck of doubt that Al-Qaeda is a transregional organization pursuing global goals. The main goal of the Taliban, on the other hand, is Islamization of power in Kabul and Islamabad and they have never claimed to be pursuing any other goal beyond this. If the Pakistani Taliban has actually sent its forces to Syria in an organized manner, in that case, one may allege that they have taken a step beyond their regional ambitions and will gradually transform into a new organization like Al-Qaeda with their functions going way beyond their local region. At least, one may claim that the transregional part of the TTP can obtain the capacity to become an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. In doing so, it will become more similar to the Uzbek – Chechen current, Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province, or Jamaat-e-Islami parties in Indonesia and Malaysia. The issue which exists here is whether such a major change in the TTP would be basically possible without support from the secret service of the Pakistani army, the ISI. Some experts look at this development with more pessimism and believe that it would be basically impossible without support from the ISI. This is where the presence of non-Pashtun Pakistani nationals, mostly from Punjabi origin in the form of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi among the Taliban members, who have been dispatched to Syria, becomes more meaningful and brings to mind the possibility of the involvement of Pakistan’s ISI.

If there were streaks of truth in this assumption, then it would be conceivable that allegations about individual or group decisions by the Taliban members of the TTP for going to Syria are mere lies and the possibility of a bigger deal on how to put an end to the ambitions of TTP in North Waziristan region comes to the fore. In this new assumption, the ISI, the government of [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Al-Qaeda organization and its offshoots have reached an unwritten agreement in view of their own interests in order to end the current critical situation in North Waziristan. The result of such unwritten agreement is transfer of radical Islamist forces from North Waziristan to other critical regions of the world, including the Arab Middle East. By doing so, the government of Nawaz Sharif will get rid of the spate of United States drone attacks against North Waziristan which has undermined his national credit, while the Pakistani army will be able to gain control over seven autonomous tribal regions without an all-out war, thus, putting an end to the control that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan currently sways on these regions.

However, other regional countries, including Syria, should pay the price of this deal. After Syria it would be the turn of other Arab countries to have the same experience followed by such countries as Russia and China which are now providing the highest support for the government of Bashar Al-Assad. As a result, the disturbing presence of the offshoots of Al-Qaeda will be witnessed in the future in such regions as Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang Province, and various countries in the Central Asia. If the TTP manages to play its part in Syria, it will get out of its local cocoon and will operate in a more organized manner on the side of Al-Qaeda. Such a transformation in the Taliban will be followed by a similar change of role in Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Most probably a local form of Al-Qaeda, but with a global mission, will be created through a merger of these groups in South Asia. The government of Nawaz Sharif has already given its word to the Indian government that it will rout the radical Islamist groups which have been so far using the Pakistan soil to launch their attacks on India, and will not allow them to use Pakistan as a base for their future assaults against India. His promise to India cannot be unrelated to the aforesaid developments. They maintain that jihad can be continued within a sectarian framework involving Shias and Sunnis in other turbulent countries, in which case they would be willing to continue supporting this form of jihad. As a result of such a possible turn of events, India, and to some extend Afghanistan, will be gradually taken out of the way of jihad. At the same time, it would be possible to make the Taliban a partner in power in Afghanistan, and even improve the tense relations between India and Pakistan through an even greater deal involving Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and of course, the government of the United States. Jihad, on the other hand, cannot be stopped. However, the geographical expanse of jihad will change from India and Afghanistan toward the Central Asia and Middle East; a change which will guarantee that all involved players would be able to achieve their strategic goals.

Key Words: Changing Geography of Jihad, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Inter-Services Intelligence, Al-Qaeda, North Waziristan, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Central Asia, Middle East, Mollazehi 

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