Argument

The Battle for Islamabad

The Pakistani Taliban aren't headed off to fight in Syria. They're gearing up for an epic war at home.

The Pakistani Taliban are heading to Syria. At least that's what a number of unnamed and lesser-known Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders told various Western news outlets this week. But claims that the TTP are involved meaningfully in the jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime are most likely overblown. They also obscure an even more dangerous reality: The TTP and its allies in Pakistan are gearing up for a long war at home, and Pakistan's civil and military leadership have no coherent strategy to prepare for it.

There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the reports of TTP participation in the Syrian war. First, the TTP's chief spokesperson, Shahidullah Shahid, hasn't commented on the matter, though it is common practice for the TTP to speak on the record through its spokesperson on most topics. Second, TTP commanders can't seem to agree on how many fighters are going to Syria and on what basis.

For example, one unnamed TTP commander told the BBC that 12 TTP-affiliated "experts" have made their way to Syria, while another told Reuters that "hundreds" of fighters have relocated there from Pakistan in recent months. There is also some disagreement about how TTP fighters are being received by the Syrian rebels. Mohammed Amin, described by the BBC as the TTP's coordinator for Syria, said that Syrian jihadists have told his group that "there's already enough manpower" in Syria and additional foreign personnel are unnecessary. But another unnamed commander told Pakistan's DAWN newspaper that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State in Iraq, an Iraqi militant group now involved in the Syrian war, specifically requested the TTP's support. This would indeed be remarkable, given that al-Baghdadi has been dead for three years.

The truth is more likely consistent with information attributed to a third Pakistani militant, who told AFP that fighters from Pakistan -- mainly foreigners from Arab countries and Uzbekistan, and based in the tribal areas -- have been heading to Syria on a relatively informal basis.

The war in Syria is indeed a compelling destination for many Arabs living in the Pakistani tribal regions. These areas have become less hospitable due to a combination of U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military operations. For Pakistani jihadists with the TTP and its partner organization, the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the sectarian aspect of the Syrian war resonates. As the LeJ has stepped up its campaign of killing Shiites in Pakistan, its propaganda is increasingly replete with angry diatribes against the Syrian regime and its supporters in Tehran.

The biggest reason why Syria might draw in some jihadists from Pakistan, however, has to do with how the conflict fits into the eschatological narrative of many militants. Al Qaeda Central and its partners in Pakistan, including the TTP, constantly refer to a set of hadith, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that speak of an end-times battle in the Levant led by the Messiah and aided by armed forces from an area called Khurasan. These jihadists define the Khurasan region as encompassing Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan. And their noms de guerre, geographical references, and physical movements all suggest they believe -- or want others to believe -- that they are taking part in this prophesied war.

But for all the appeal of the Syrian war, the TTP's focus has been and will continue to be on Pakistan. Over the course of this year, in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the group has been preparing a new narrative for a long war in Pakistan -- a war that is not justified by Islamabad's support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a primary rallying call for Pakistan's insurgents to date.  

The TTP has been reframing its war against the Pakistani state as Ghazwa-e Hind, or the Battle of India. Like al Qaeda's use of hadith that mention Khurasan, the TTP has deployed a set of prophetic traditions that speak of a Muslim conquest of India, a region the TTP defines as virtually all of South Asia, including most of Pakistan. One TTP video series titled Ghazwa-e Hind, for example, features rising preacher Abu Zar al-Burmi calling on Muslims to migrate to Pakistan to defeat its "infidel" rulers and establish true Islamic rule.

So far, the actual impact of the TTP's rebranding campaign on the discussion within Pakistan's jihadist community is unclear. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential power of the TTP's new pivot. The adoption of these prophetic traditions by the TTP is particularly clever since they have historically been used by jihadists connected to Pakistani intelligence to create a broader narrative for war against India. The TTP, in contrast, is using the same traditions to direct violence toward Islamabad -- not New Delhi. What the TTP fears is that with a weakened al Qaeda Central and an Afghanistan without an American presence as a rallying cry, Pakistani jihadists will mend their ways with Pakistani intelligence and go back to attacking India. In effect, the TTP is telling them to stay put -- the main jihad is here at home in Pakistan.

The TTP's PR strategy relies on more than prophetic tradition, however. The organization -- along with al Qaeda's Pakistan spokesman, Ahmad Farooq -- has been attempting to reach broader audiences by appropriating causes and symbols from mainstream, secular political discourse. In multiple videos, the TTP and like-minded preachers have called on ethnic Baloch separatists -- whose latest insurgency has been raging since 2004 -- to abandon their secular, regional struggle and join the jihad against Islamabad. Other video addresses by Farooq from around the time of Pakistan's elections in May of this year dealt with bread-and-butter political issues like electricity shortages and unemployment. Farooq called for a mass movement of the youth led by religious scholars -- an attempt to redirect youth energy away from mainstream political parties like cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The TTP will likely fall short in their goals to broaden their support base in Pakistan. More promising are the organization's attempts to deepen existing divisions within the political class and between civilian politicians and the military. In the lead-up to this year's general election, the TTP mainly targeted Pakistan's secular parties and largely abstained from attacking center-right and Islamist parties that favor talks with the TTP. Since the election, the TTP has called on the latter parties -- who still support talks with the group, despite its murderous campaign against fellow politicians -- to separate themselves from the military, which is keen on maintaining counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas.

Negotiations between the government and the TTP are currently suspended. If and when they resume, however, the TTP will attempt to coax the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which rules at the federal level, and Khan's PTI, which rules the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, located near the tribal areas, to agree to a ceasefire and implement shariah law. While the federal government -- at least theoretically -- controls military operations in the tribal areas, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has authority over the counterinsurgency operations in the Swat region. In 2009, the provincial government agreed to a ceasefire with the TTP, which enabled the militant group to spread deeper into the province and closer to Islamabad.

Both parties -- and the PTI, in particular -- are vulnerable to TTP pressure because they have refrained from explicitly criticizing the group and have no clear red lines when it comes to accommodating the TTP's social and political demands. The PML-N and PTI, moreover, are already at odds over the holding of an all-parties conference to discuss terrorism, and the PML-N has a history of acrimonious relations with the military. With the political leadership in Islamabad and Peshawar inclined toward appeasing the TTP -- and lacking a coherent perspective on Pakistan's terrorism challenge -- the TTP could stifle efforts to create an effective national counterterrorism strategy.

While this does not mean that the TTP will ever come close to its goal of taking over Islamabad, it does make it more likely that its war in Pakistan will rage on for years -- as other jihadists continue their own fight in Syria. Since the new Pakistani government took power in May, the TTP has sustained its campaign of assassinating secular politicians, and killing police and security personnel. Meanwhile, its ally, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have been bombing Shiite mosques across the country. For the TTP and its partners in Pakistan, the Great War is at home in Pakistan, where there is a massive, nuclear-armed state to take over and plenty of Shiites to kill.

REHMAN ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

This Could Actually Work

Why John Kerry's Middle East peace push isn’t a fool's errand.

It was a tall order, but Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts seem to be paying off: We now appear to be on the cusp of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The formula for achieving this is still largely shrouded in secrecy, but whatever emerges is likely to be, at least at first, essentially "negotiations about having negotiations." The prospects for a major breakthrough in the immediate term seem remote. Yet this achievement, in and of itself, should not be underestimated.

Kerry has been commendably energetic in his efforts to restart talks. And it's clearly paying off: The secretary of state seems to have received pledges from both sides not to take steps that could sabotage a revived peace process. He secured a commitment from the Palestinians not to pursue any further initiatives to join additional multilateral institutions, particularly the International Criminal Court, while Israel also appears to have given some private assurances that it will postpone scheduled settlement construction in highly strategic areas of the West Bank. Finally, the Arab League committee dealing with the issue clarified that the Arab Peace Initiative doesn't rule out land swaps, and therefore is not the set-in-stone dictate many Israelis perceived it to be.

Kerry has been playing his cards very close to his chest -- few in the administration or elsewhere in Washington are privy to the exact details of what he has put on the table. The Arab League delegation that met with him on Wednesday for a briefing on his proposals, though, may be better informed than most. And so far, the diplomats sound optimistic: They emerged from the talks declaring that Kerry's suggestions "lay the proper foundation to start the negotiations." The Arab League imprimatur is crucial for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as it provides him political cover in domestic politics. But it is certain that the Arab League would not have declared its enthusiasm if Abbas had not strongly signaled he wanted them to do so.

Significantly, the Arab League statement specified "new and important political, economic and security elements" to Kerry's proposals. Since March, Kerry has been discussing a possible $4 billion investment package to enhance the Palestinian economy. There are clearly additional elements of the proposal hinted at in the Arab League statement that have not yet been made public.

Particularly when there is little optimism about immediate breakthroughs, the name of the game for both Israel and the Palestinians -- especially regarding relations with the United States -- is not to be seen as "the guys saying 'no.'" The last time the Obama administration made a major push for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to use both American and Palestinian miscalculations about the settlement issue to ensure that the Palestinians would be seen as the primary uncooperative party. That doesn't mean Israel didn't receive its share of the blame as well: It was seen as playing a cynical game with settlements. But neither Obama nor Abbas will be eager to see a repeat of that previous round of diplomacy.

There are still political obstacles in the way of revived peace talks. Some Fatah leaders are resisting the prospect of new talks, apparently insisting Israel agree that they be based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and accept a settlement freeze. Netanyahu's office, meanwhile, is denying press reports that the prime minister has agreed to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.

But in spite of these domestic political hurdles, each side's desire not to be seen as the obstructionist party will likely mean that both will soon enough agree to begin talking again. Both Abbas and Netanyahu have faced domestic opposition to resuming talks in the past and overcame it. These relatively uncontested leaders will almost certainly find a way to do so again, despite the grumbling among their colleagues.

Along with the carrots that Israel will certainly receive from the United States for entering negotiations, it must also deal with European sticks if it is unwilling to seriously discuss ending the occupation. The European Union just unexpectedly issued new guidelines that will prohibit the organization from funding or cooperating with Israeli institutions operating in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, with a few exceptions. The United States declined to criticize the EU measure.

Israel is therefore on notice that much of its traditional Western support base is simply losing patience with the ongoing occupation. The EU measure would not have been taken if there were not clearly a growing sense that Israel is growing ever less willing to fully end the occupation. And it strongly suggests Israel can look forward to even further isolation if it persists with its current obstructionist policies.

For the Palestinians, increased American investment is welcome -- but getting their own political house in order is urgently required. Continuing to build on the momentum of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's groundbreaking institution building, governance reform, and anti-corruption policies is essential. Such efforts will guarantee that a Palestinian state will be viable and a deal will be durable, particularly in the context of the aspirations expressed in the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East. They would also provide a vital additional source of momentum, or at least stability, should talks stall or fail. And such policies are, in and of themselves, essential for Palestinians to continue to develop their own society.

The United States must take this Palestinian domestic reform project seriously. It's essential that any major investment package in Palestine be conducted with appropriate levels of transparency and accountability. If not, it could feed into the old narrative of Palestinian corruption. Major investment projects from the 1990s, which did not have sufficient transparency and accountability, provide an instructive example of what should be avoided.

Moreover, as the United States strives to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together at the negotiating table, it should engage Palestinian civil society. Popular buy-in is necessary for any major initiative, and it is essential that a diverse, dynamic, and vibrant group of Palestinian actors have a stake in the process. It's not enough to simply talk with the established elites: Palestinians have lost faith in most of their existing political institutions, so engaging a diverse set of voices is necessary to build popular support for the new peace initiative.

There is every reason to be pleased that talks are likely to resume, but also to be cautious about the likelihood for any immediate progress on final status issues. It is therefore essential that a set of parallel, bottom-up tracks be developed that support diplomatic efforts and can help mitigate any potential frustrations.

Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is a high-wire act of the first order. It is wise, and indeed essential, to undertake it with the appropriate safety net in place below.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images