The counterinsurgency implications of the diplomacy between Pakistan’s many militant groups

The counterinsurgency implications of the diplomacy between Pakistan’s many militant groups

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Pakistan’s multi-actor militant landscape is a competitive space where a plethora of terrorist groups have often cooperated and competed with each other. Over the years, these groups, due to their cooperative and competitive interactions, have split, merged, re-split and re-merged, creating a fluid and ever-evolving threat environment. Therefore, how these groups react toward each other in the propaganda space provides important insights into the threat they pose to Pakistan in the physical and cyberspace.

Broadly, two types of militant groups operate in Pakistan, faith-focused outfits and ethno-separatist groups. The Baloch separatists in Pakistan have secular leanings, while Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) subscribes to the Afghan Taliban’s ideological outlook, and Daesh-Khorasan espouses a politico-religious narrative. Notwithstanding these ideological dialectics, TTP, Daesh-K and Baloch separatists’ critique of each other, barring some exceptions, is very pragmatic. A careful examination of their propaganda materials reveals that they avoid using derogatory remarks for each other, in sharp contrast to Daesh-K’s language toward the Afghan Taliban and vice versa. 

On the contrary, Daesh-K has rarely locked horns with TTP in the propaganda space and vice versa. Since Daesh-K’s formation in 2015, TTP has critiqued it only on two occasions. Likewise, Daesh-K has been equally cautious in its critique of TTP, and has only occasionally turned its propaganda guns toward it, like in July 2022, when it criticized the group for negotiating with the Pakistani state. 

The measured critique by Daesh and TTP, points to opportunistic behavior where they want to leave the door open for reabsorbing each other’s disgruntled elements.

- Abdul Basit Khan

The case of TTP’s propaganda messaging toward Baloch separatists is even more curious. Notwithstanding their ideologically opposed dispositions, TTP and Baloch separatists have not criticized each other in recent years. On the contrary, TTP has been sympathizing with Baloch ethnic grievances rhetorically. The group has drawn parallels between Baloch and Pashtun grievances that state “oppression” has deprived them of their rights and ownership of their resources. In doing so, TTP has urged Baloch separatists to join hands in their anti-state militant campaigns. In a statement in May 2021, TTP’s spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani maintained that TTP opposed the military operation in Balochistan. Often, TTP’s offers to Baloch separatists coupled with the group’s recent attacks in Balochistan have generated the impression that they have some clandestine arrangement. However, in background conversations, Baloch separatists deny such claims. Nevertheless, publicly, Baloch separatists have rarely taken on TTP in their propaganda publications. 

More recently, when two militant (Mazar Baloch and Mullah Aslam Baloch factions) groups from Balochistan’s Noshki district and Makran region pledged their oath of fealty to TTP, the Baloch separatists did not issue any statement. Similarly, under its new organizational structure, TTP has placed Balochistan under its so-called Zhob wilayat. The observers of the Baloch insurgency view Baloch separatists’ silence to TTP’s ingress in their backyard as a quiet welcome. 

Similarly, Daesh-K and Baloch separatists have never taken each other on, physically or in the propaganda space. This peculiar behavior on Daesh-K’s part is particularly instructive as it rarely spares its ideological rivals or arch-nemesis. However, it bears mention that Baloch separatists are highly critical of both TTP and Daesh-K in off the record conversations which raises more questions than providing answers. Their reluctance to critique TTP and Daesh-K in the open space warrants critical scrutiny. Why, after all?

TTP and Daesh-K’s nuanced critique of each other stems from the fact that the latter branched out of the former. In 2015, some disgruntled TTP factions, particularly from Bajaur and Orakzai tribal districts, defected and formed Daesh-K. The measured critique by both groups points to opportunistic behavior where they want to leave the door open for reabsorbing each other’s disgruntled elements. Similarly, since both groups have co-existed in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces, they have adopted a de-conflicting approach to focus on their primary goals instead of fighting each other. Finally, at the mid-commander and fighters’ level, since both TTP and Daesh-K share a long history and hail from close by areas, they have more accommodating postures toward each other. 

Likewise, TTP’s sympathetic propaganda toward Baloch separatists possibly stems from two factors: i) to forge a joint front against the state, and ii) to find new havens in Balochistan’s sparsely populated areas as a fallback option in case the Taliban regime asked the terror group to leave Afghanistan. On their part, the Baloch separatists have been measured in reacting to TTP’s inroads into Balochistan or silent to its overtures because either they do not feel threatened by the group’s symbolic footprint in their backyard or to avoid opening a new front. 

Finally, Daesh-K and Baloch separatists have not engaged in outbidding violence or propaganda battles due to the qualitatively different nature of their objectives. Daesh-K’s footprint in Balochistan is so minuscule that it does not pose any meaningful threat to Baloch separatists’ monopoly over the province’s threat landscape. Hence, Baloch groups’ do not feel the need to lock horns with Daesh-K. Likewise, Daesh-K uses Balochistan as a hiding and recruiting place without stepping on Baloch insurgents’ toes.

The pragmatism of TTP, Daesh-K and Baloch insurgents toward each other underscores their evolution and maturity. Both in the propaganda and battlefield spaces, they have de-conflicted their propaganda narratives and violent campaigns to concentrate on their primary goals. Keeping this in view, a revision of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency frameworks in Pakistan should take these data-points into account for more effective responses, physically and discursively. 

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Relations, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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