Pakistan’s government is currently attempting to negotiate a permanent ceasefire with the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist group that has killed thousands of the country’s civilians and soldiers over the last decade. The same government also negotiated an agreement in October with a religious political party, the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which paralysed life in Islamabad with violent demonstrations meant to force diplomatic retaliation over statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron regarding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Following the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August, questions have arisen as to why Islamabad is opting for a more conciliatory path with its own militants. Is it because of growing pressure from those sympathetic to extremist groups, or diminishing confidence in the ability to contain militancy (or both)?
Although this level of accommodation reflects the level of pressure felt by the ruling establishment, it does not mean that the state is likely to lose its nerve, or that an extremist revolution is around the corner.
Many people, even in Pakistan, would struggle to tell the TTP and TLP apart; both invoke similar slogans about extreme interpretations of Islam and threatening violence against the state and the public. The fact that their acronyms are so similar hardly helps matters. But the reality is that they are deadly rivals with very different supporters, different goals and different means of achieving their goals.
The militant TTP is also known as the Pakistani Taliban. Like the Afghan Taliban, it is an extremist fringe of the Deobandi religious movement. Although it originated in northern India in the 1860s, today it is strongest in Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, on the border with Afghanistan.
The TLP, on the other hand, emerged from the Barelvi religious movement, which also originated in northern India. In Pakistan, the Barelvis dominate rural Punjab and Sindh provinces, provinces that hold the majority of the country’s population and wealth. Although historically associated with the pluralistic traditions of Sufism, Barelvis have seen the emergence increasingly assertive and radical strands, largely in response to sectarian, mass-casualty attacks on the community’s shrines by militant Deobandis. The TLP is at the forefront of this wave.
Despite their doctrinal differences, both groups are deeply conservative. And while they oppose one another, they also both confront the Pakistani government, but from different angles.
The Pakistani Taliban’s roots are in a part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that until 2018 was known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). The semi-autonomous, ambiguous nature of FATA’s status was, for many decades, exploited by Pakistan’s military to use it as a staging ground for operations to support jihad in Afghanistan. This, combined with the fierce sense of independence of the local population, had allowed a large array of militant networks, built from local Deobandi and foreign jihadist recruits, to spring up in the territory. That served Pakistan’s military well until 9/11, when international scrutiny and US pressure forced Islamabad, often against its own will, to assert steadily more control and deny the area to global militants.
FATA’s militants, chief among them the Pakistani Taliban, have never reconciled themselves to the loss of control that followed. The TTP’s playbook of terrorism suggests that it wants to inflict enough pain and embarrassment to make Pakistan’s military reconsider its heavy presence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and revert to the old model. It is particularly telling that the Pakistani government’s ongoing negotiations with the TTP are taking place in Kabul, mediated by the Afghan Taliban.
The TLP’s struggle against Islamabad is very different. It is less militant, but more political and ideological. Shrewdly, the party’s mobilisation efforts do not focus its followers’ anger against the Taliban attacking them, but instead on strawman targets, like public figures accused of blasphemy, and offensive cartoons in overseas media. It is pure religious populism, and so effective at inflaming public opinion that it leaves all opponents tiptoeing on eggshells. Unfortunately, it also creates a tremendous amount of collateral damage, including an increasingly intolerant and unstable society.
Although it exploits religion, the TLP’s real source of strength is the rapid urbanisation of Punjab. Economic development in Pakistan has brought millions into towns and cities from the countryside, but failed to give them adequate social belonging or political representation. The consequence is a shortage of respect for a central government viewed to be out of touch. The TLP’s willingness to challenge the state, westernised elites and the international system enhances its status with its target audience.
There is an economic and political dimension to the Pakistani Taliban challenge, too. The government is in difficult economic straits, and the military is as keen as civilians to draw international investors and tourists. China, the largest foreign investor, has made clear that militant violence does not make for a conducive investment environment.
But the political challenge posed by the TLP is far tougher. For a new party with limited resources, the TLP did well in the last Pakistani elections, achieving strong third-place results in dozens of seats across Punjab. With that kind of popular support, there is a real risk that a protest movement could broaden to dissatisfaction with the ruling party’s economic performance. And the government’s response has often been to appease the TLP on the ideological front, but this has proven counterproductive, as it makes the party even more difficult to oppose.
Islamabad’s long-term strategy is what will matter most. The ceasefires and temporary agreements the country is witnessing now are not enough, but they provide the space for something more permanent.
One longer-term approach that could be forced by the stand-off with the TLP may be for the Pakistani state to commit to a more consistent and moderate line about what the national ideology stands for. In fact, the military has already used that strategy in countering the Pakistani Taliban; that was how it created an atmosphere of separation and control in FATA after 9/11 – by reinforcing to soldiers who had previously worked closely with the militants that the word “jihad” in the army’s own motto means something different to the way it is used by the Taliban.
The challenge with the TLP is similar, but it is something that civilian politicians and clerics, rather than generals, will have to take the lead on. A public environment free of threats from the Taliban will help. And Prime Minister Imran Khan is well placed to convincingly articulate a positive vision of what inclusive pride in faith could look like. It remains to be seen whether he will get the encouragement and support needed to do it.