In what, on the face of it, appears to be a worrying development in the fight against militancy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has been revealed that following two meetings held between the leaders of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda and two Pakistani militant groups; at a five-member commission has been formed between the groups which will become known as the Shura Muraqba. The raison d’être of this new coalition is to coordinate efforts of all the militant organisations operating under these various banners against the US led troops in Afghanistan. Additionally, in order to create this new united front all groups involved, particularly those in Pakistan, have vowed to stop targeting local security forces, end suicide attacks and cease their kidnap-for-ransom activities, especially in the militancy-rife tribal regions on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If successful, there are fears that this new found cooperation, something rarely witnessed between various militant organisations, could pose a significantly increased threat to the forces operating in Afghanistan. Conversely, it could be suggested that the groups pledge to end all other activities with both regions and in particular, kidnap-for-ransom activities in the lawless tribal regions, could have a positive impact in reducing kidnap rates. However, despite this initial analysis it appears that, due to a confluence of factors, this latest announcement is unlikely to have either of the above implications.
The announcement of cooperation between the various factions comes following a meeting of the respective groups’ leaders in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region at the request of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership council. It has been suggested that the request for assistance could highlight that militants are currently struggling in Afghanistan, however, it could equally be the result of a deliberate strategy to make a concerted effort against US-led troops in order to gain leverage prior to any peace negotiations in the run up to US troop withdrawal in 2015. Whatever the reason for the pact it has been reported that at one of the two meetings between the groups a senior al Qaeda commander, Abu Yahya al-Libi declared to Pakistani fighters “For God’s sake, forget all your differences and give us your fighters to boost the battle against America in Afghanistan”.
Al-Libi’s plea highlights what has consistently been one of the main weaknesses of militant organisations: their often fractious leadership and lack of coordination. According to those close to the various groups it is a reference to a recent swell in tensions between those in the upper echelons of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), with Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of TTP and his Deputy Wali-ur-Rehman becoming increasingly hostile with each other, with rumours even circulating that Rehman had ordered his fighter to kill Mehsud due to a growing affiliation with al Qaeda and its Arab contingent. This is of particular concern to the Afghan Taliban as apparent cracks within the organisation make the recruitment and retention of members more troublesome and on a practical note could mean that once safe-havens used by Afghan militants in Pakistani could become home to hostile factions. Although cooperation of the form outlined above and in a leaflet distributed in North Waziristan this week following the meeting declared that “all mujahideen should respect the decisions of the council that has been set up”, it remains highly unlikely that all of the various militant outfits operating within these groups will observe the Shura’s wishes.
Aside from issues of cooperation and specifically in relation to kidnap activites, following the meetings Mullah Mohammad Omar’s (the spiritual leader of the Taliban) expressed his disapproval and concern of an apparent surge of kidnapping people on suspicion of spying for the US, often ending in their merciless killing. Although specifically referencing the type of kidnapping mentioned above, a general ban on kidnapping activities, including those for a financial motivation, something which is rife throughout Pakistan was also enacted. Kidnaps-for-ransom have been known to have been perpetrated by the Taliban but are a particular habit of the various militant organisation who come under the umbrella of TTP which is why the fact that the agreement was also upheld by a number of these organisations (the Maulvi Nazeer group in South Waziristan, Hakimullah Mahsud group, Maulana Waliur Rahman Group, both operating in South Waziristan (TTP), Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and the Haqqani Network) gave hope that rampant kidnap activities in the region may be significantly reduced. Importantly however, kidnap-for-ransom activities have become an ever increasing source of revenue for militant organisations and unless the Afghan Taliban are able replace the funding that the militant outfits will lose from ending kidnap operations, militants may be forced to continue their activities. Also, aside from these elements, a number of criminal kidnap-for-ransom outfits will not have been subject to this agreement and are therefore expected to continue their activities.
Testament to many of the problems already highlighted was the news on 05 January 2012, just days after the agreement, it was reported that in revenge for military operations against them near the border with Afghanistan, members of TTP had killed fifteen soldiers who were kidnapped by dozens of militants from a military fort in northwest Pakistan on 23 December 2011. Following the discovery Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesperson for Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), declared that “this is revenge for the killing of our comrades in Khyber by Pakistani forces”. Additionally, it was also revealed on the same day that gunmen had kidnapped a British doctor working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in the south-western Pakistani city of Quetta, and whose release will no doubt be subject to a hefty ransom. Both incidents highlight that individual agendas and potential financial gain are likely to outweigh the obvious benefits of coordinated and effective action in Afghanistan making the new Shura Muraqba a somewhat toothless beast.
Another important, but as of yet un-highlighted element of this agreement which could be of particular concern to all the organisations but especially those currently at war in Afghanistan, is that they will be keen to not alienate the local populations who are often inadvertently caught up in militant activities of the type outlined in the agreement. This is of paramount importance in order to ensure that they can maintain some kind of popular support within the local populations of their strongholds and do not loose the residents’ ‘hearts and minds’. This is key because not only could this see them potentially loosing a desperately needed new generation of recruits but also prevent some villagers being pushed into the hands of the allied forces, becoming informers. Unfortunately, this also means that it can be expected that a major caveat to the agreement is likely to be that militants can continue their activities against Western targets, as this will help further their cause without risking the alienation of the local population. Meaning, that the risk posed to foreign travellers in the region must remain unchanged, and any travel in the regions should be handled with extreme caution.