South Asia's Taliban Problem


Apr 14, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on New York Times on April 14, 2009.

Multiple Threats From Multiple Groups

For India, the development of a conducive environment on its western flank for groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad has already resulted in sophisticated terrorist attacks on Indian soil, most recently in Mumbai in November 2008.

An imploding nuclear-armed Pakistan torn apart by militant groups, economic woes and sectarian tension poses an extraordinary danger to India because of spill-over effects, including effects on India's economy and its own Muslim population.

While there is good reason for India and its neighbors to be concerned, there is considerable misunderstanding of the threat. Referring to it as one orchestrated by the "Taliban" is fundamentally misplaced.

There is no single organization called the "Taliban," but many small, dispersed networks that require subtler tactical strategies to subdue.

In reality, there is no single organization involved (and certainly not an overarching one called the "Taliban"), but a series of networks, which are dispersed, small and which allow individuals to communicate, coordinate and conduct their campaigns with little precise central command.

In Pakistan, the threat includes a range of networks such as those led by Mullah Fazlullah in the Swat Valley, Sufi Mohammed in several areas of the North-West Frontier Province, Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan, Mangal Bagh in Khyber Agency, Tahir Yuldashev and his cadre of Uzbek militants in Waziristan, and Mullah Muhammad Omar's Taliban in Baluchistan. In addition, there are a range of political parties (such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam), tribes (especially Pashtun), and other groups.

While there are differences among these groups, many are adherents of Sunni Islam and embrace an extreme interpretation of Deobandism, a school of thought formed at the Dar ul-Ulum madrassa in 19th-century Deoband, India. They ban music, force men to grow beards, establish sharia courts to adjudicate disputes, and support sectarian attacks against Shia groups.

Accurately describing these groups is important to formulating an effective response. A hierarchical "Taliban" with a clear command and control structure would lead to a relatively straightforward response: capture or kill the core leadership (a "decapitation" strategy).

But the networked nature of Pakistan militant groups requires a "networked strategy" that hinges on countering the groups in their areas using local police and intelligence agencies to gather information and penetrate the organizations. In some cases, there may be ways to foment conflict between groups. In others, there may be ways for Pakistan to create alliances with local tribes and counter some networks. And in still others, Pakistani security forces will have to move to dismantle them.

To attack the threat, there has to be a willingness to operate at the small-unit level and a deeper understanding of its structure.

Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at RAND and author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."

This op-ed was part of The New York Times "Room for Debate" commentary.

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