Pakistan’s Brewing Sectarian War
In the wake of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a daring raid by U.S. SEALs in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2, the threat from the Taliban in Pakistan has shown no signs of flagging. An increasingly important element of the Taliban’s strategy over the last several years has been to exacerbate sectarian rifts across the entire country, which allows the group to expand its reach, increase the pressure on overburdened law enforcement agencies, and undermine the state’s legitimacy and authority.
The Taliban’s sectarian targets encompass a wide swath of Pakistani society. Both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities have come under Taliban fire. The murder of Pakistan’s Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, on March 2 at the hands of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is the most prominent example to date. Just three weeks ago, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian jihadist group with ties to the Taliban, fired guns and rockets at a field in Quetta, killing several Shias gathered there. This comes on the heels of a violent campaign against shrines, a centerpiece of Pakistan’s Sufi tradition and frequented by mainstream Pakistanis, throughout 2010 and 2011 — for example, the suicide bombing at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine in Punjab that killed more at least 42 on April 3.
The Pakistani Taliban’s campaign has emboldened sectarian fanatics in the country. The late Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his security guard for his opposition to the persecution of minorities generally, and specifically for the support he voiced for the rights of a woman imprisoned under the draconian blasphemy law. The Taliban’s uncompromising rhetoric has narrowed the scope of public debate in Pakistan and enhanced the legitimacy of radical ideas.
The Taliban is exploiting sectarian rifts most clearly in the urban centers of the Pakistani heartland. Major cities like Lahore and Karachi have long had a sectarian jihadist infrastructure. For example, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) is rooted in southern Punjab, where it emerged as a vehicle for empowering frustrated middle class Sunnis and has participated in local and provincial politics. And some activists of LeJ, also founded as an explicitly sectarian organization, are entwined in the criminal networks of Karachi.
Attacking sectarian targets may not be the priority of many in the Taliban network, but they provide an effective enough conduit for waging urban war. In that effort, TTP collusion with sectarian groups affords clear advantages. These organizations can facilitate TTP activities because of their deep understanding of the local contexts they inhabit. In turn, by working with the Taliban these organizations can broaden their ideological influence and expand the reach of their operations. Since at least 2009, Pakistani intelligence has identified extensive connections between sectarian jihadists and top TTP deputies by tracking telephone calls and the flow of financial transactions, which overall paint the picture of a militant trail that stretches from Waziristan to Karachi. The LeJ is one of several Punjabi outfits that provides logistical and reconnaissance support while the TTP often provides the suicide bombers.
In some cases, these sectarian groups have adopted the TTP’s global jihadist rhetoric, which was in turn adopted from al-Qaeda. While the anti-Shia groups were previously not a threat to the state, today they are part of the myriad groups with an increasingly anti-Islamabad and anti-Western agenda. On the death of Bin Laden, SSP chief Ahmed Ludhianvi declared bin Laden’s death “an act of martyrdom.” While the LeJ has historically focused on sectarian-motivated killings, it has now broadened its scope using a more universal jihadist appeal and even partnering with al-Qaeda. Unsurprisingly, upon bin Laden’s death an LeJ spokesperson announced that in retaliation the group would “target ministers of the incumbent government and security personnel.”
Beyond Pakistan’s urban areas, the Pakistani Taliban has also tried to exploit sectarian divisions in the tribal areas whenever possible. While the Taliban is primarily focusing on exploiting the extant tribal structures in order to consolidate its power, this tactic can also have sectarian overtones. For example, in Kurram agency, land and water disputes between tribes are divided along sectarian lines. The tribes have engaged in periodic bouts of violence dating back to the 1960s while the most recent conflagration began in 2007. By aligning with Kurram’s Sunni tribes and brutalizing the Shias into a compromise earlier this year, the TTP paved the way for a Haqqani-brokered peace agreement which, although fragile, gives both the TTP and the Haqqanis the strategic space they need in Shia areas near Parachinar.
There is every indication that the sectarian dimension of the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency will increase over time to exert pressure on the Pakistani state. Increased Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas may motivate the group and its sectarian allies to scale up attacks on soft targets, particularly in cities. Taliban attacks on civilians, especially shrines, are bitterly protested by mainstream Pakistanis, but this does not translate into support for the Pakistani government. In fact, attacks on civilians further undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to maintain law and order. Thus even though the campaign against shrines has stoked popular outrage, the Taliban still garners advantage from it and continues to use it as a signature tactic in its sectarian strategy. Further coalescence of the various insurgent and sectarian groups, radicalization over bin Laden’s death, and the government’s inability or unwillingness to counter a radical sectarian narrative may all contribute to an increase in the Pakistani Taliban’s sectarian activities.
Ahmed Humayun is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and senior analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on May 26, 2011. Click here to read.