Ever since the Al Qaeda attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001, the United States has sought Pakistan's help in eliminating militant Islamic groups, many of which operate in Pakistan's outlying northern and western areas.
But Pakistan has its own way of viewing the militants. It feverishly fights some extremist groups while turning a blind eye to others for political reasons.
Since the United States went to war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, pledging to stop Al Qaeda, Pakistan has become a haven for “an ever more lethal stew” of Al Qaeda operatives, Uzbek militants, Afghani and Pakistani Taliban and local tribal militants, wrote Zahid Hussain, senior editor of the Karachi-based online newsmagazine Newsline and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 militants now operate from within Pakistan, mostly in its loosely governed, far-western territories, said Hussain.
The militants, a growing number of whom are now migrating into Pakistani cities, fall into five general categories, according to C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Pakistan actively opposes the first two groups, which it views as enemies of the state:
Al Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan but generally not native Pakistanis. They “work with and through networks of supportive Pakistani militant groups,” planning international attacks and, increasingly, carrying out attacks in Pakistan alongside other groups that oppose the Pakistani government, Fair told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May.
The Pakistan Taliban, also called the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), which emerged around 2004 inside Pakistan and has since conducted an increasingly violent insurgency against the government.
The three other categories of militant groups cited by Fair are viewed by Pakistan as much less likely to oppose the government, which in some cases has seen them as supporters of Pakistan's geopolitical goals. As a result, Pakistan generally has not fought these groups, although recently some have attacked targets in Pakistan itself, according to Fair. The three categories are:
The Afghan Taliban, conservative Islamists who fight mainly to control Afghanistan's government after the United States departs. These extremists frequently take sanctuary in Pakistan. But Pakistan doesn't fight them because it sees them as potential allies in its struggle to keep India from seizing power in Afghanistan.
Groups representing either Islam's Sunni or Shia sect. Members of one sect attack those in the other in a rivalry carried on for decades throughout the Muslim world.
Islamist groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that declare that their goal is to force India to leave Kashmir, which Pakistan and India have fought over since they became independent nations in 1947. Fair calls the LeT “the most lethal terrorist group operating in and from South Asia.”
Some groups in this last category sprang up on their own, but “most came into being as surrogates of Pakistan's intelligence agency” and thus are not treated as enemies by the Pakistani military, said Fair. While the groups claim to focus on Kashmir, however, their operations are expanding, with some carrying out terror attacks in India and fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Fair said some of the Kashmir-focused groups also now work against Pakistan itself, in apparent retaliation against its “participation in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism.” That does not include the dangerous LeT, however, which Fair says has “tight linkages” with Pakistan's own security forces.
Like their government, the Pakistani public has a far more complicated attitude toward militant groups than Americans generally realize. Few support militancy generally, as some in the United States fear. However, many do “support small militant organizations when those organizations use violence to achieve political goals the individual cares about,” wrote Fair and Jacob N. Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.
The nuanced views aren't surprising, Shapiro and Fair wrote. “Someone who supports a group operating in Kashmir because they believe that Kashmiris living under Indian control are grievously abused … need not have any strong feelings toward the Afghan Taliban,” for example, they argued.
That being the case, there's no simple way to dissuade average Pakistanis from supporting some militant groups, as U.S. lawmakers, among others, might hope, Shapiro and Fair said. “Much can be done, however, to address political factors that drive support for militancy, such as corruption, human rights abuses, lack of security, limited access to the rule of law and longstanding geopolitical disputes,” such as the standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, they argued.
— Marcia Clemmitt