Pakistani and Afghan border guards share tea (Photo by Lt. Col. Butch Woolfolk, available at

November 02, 2009

The Two-Front War

Originally published in The Weekly Standard

A network of militant Islamist groups stretches from India to the Iranian border, from the Hindu Kush to the Indian Ocean. These groups include Pashtuns and Punjabis, Arabs and Uzbeks and more. They have no common leader, vision, hierarchy, or goal. But they do agree on a few key points: Any government not based on their interpretation of Islam is illegitimate and apostate; anyone who participates in or obeys such a government is not a Muslim and is therefore liable to be killed; Muslims must be "liberated" from oppressive regimes such as Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan; and the United States and its allies are the principal sources of support for these unjust and apostate regimes and must be defeated or destroyed. Al Qaeda is the most infamous of these groups because it alone succeeded in attacking the American Satan on its own soil, but all of the Taliban groups and various other Pakistani organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, support each other morally, financially, ideologically, tactically, and strategically. They see an attack on any one of them as an attack on all.

The West benefits from no such clarity. We are constantly bemused by the constellation of names and initials by which these groups designate themselves. Is the Afghan Taliban related to the Pakistani Taliban? Is al Qaeda related to either? What is anyone to make of a group that calls itself "Tehreek-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi" (TNSM--Movement for the Enforcement of Sharia)? This confusion has bedeviled our discussions about strategy for the war in Afghanistan. It has distorted our relationship with Pakistan as well. In particular, resentment over the fact that elements of the Pakistani security services continue to shelter and support some of the Taliban groups fighting the United States in Afghanistan is blinding us to the importance of the current Pakistani offensive against internal enemies in Waziristan. That operation--Rah-e Nijat or "Path to Deliverance"--is striking a blow against one of the most important militant Islamist sanctuaries in the world. The reactions of the other members of the Islamist network to this operation show clearly the relationships among them and the real stakes of the American effort in Afghanistan.


Pakistani governments and the Pakistani military have been supporting Islamism in one form or another since the days of President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. The Pakistani state defines itself as the haven for India's Muslims, a notion that lends itself to sympathy with Islamism. The main drivers of Pakistani support for Islamism, however, have been pragmatic (as Shuja Nawaz has shown in Crossed Swords and Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military). Bhutto supported Islamism for domestic political reasons. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, his successors supported the Islamist groups that took the lead in fighting the Red Army. U.S. assistance to the mujahedeen was funneled through Pakistan, inadvertently strengthening the ties between Pakistan and the Islamists. Two mujahedeen who received much Pakistani assistance were Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar--both now prominent leaders of insurgent forces operating against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan (although Jalaluddin has largely handed over control of his group to his son, Sirajuddin).

The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in humiliation in 1989, and the United States lost interest. Pakistan did not. As a new government of sorts coalesced in Kabul around Tajik and Uzbek leaders of the mujahedeen in the early 1990s, Islamabad became concerned that it might face a hostile Afghan state, compounding its traditional tensions with India by threatening to open a new front in the event of renewed conflict. At first the Pakistani security services supported Hekmatyar, but he proved ineffective. When a small band of Pashtuns under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar emerged to fight against the depredations of the "warlord government" of Kabul in 1994, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) seized the opportunity. The ISI provided organization, training, equipment, and advisers to the fledgling movement, which rapidly overran the fractious warlord state, rising to power as the Taliban regime in 1996.

The withdrawal of American interest from Afghanistan coincided with a series of somewhat-related crises that turned Pakistan sharply away from the United States and much more toward the Islamist camp. Long-simmering discontent in Indian-controlled Kashmir erupted into open violence in 1989. Pakistan's support for the Kashmiri militants led to U.S. condemnation of Islamabad's support for terrorism. The Kashmir crisis, among many other things, led to the deposition of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (Zulfiqar's daughter) in August 1990, further fracturing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In October 1990, finally, President George H. W. Bush refused to make the annual certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon required by the Pressler Amendment of 1985. As a result, all U.S. aid to Pakistan--including military exchange programs--was cut off.

One important figure among the mujahedeen was a Palestinian Islamist named Abdullah Azzam. His fiery sermons to raise money and support in Saudi Arabia found an eager follower in Osama bin Laden, who migrated to the Afghan fight in the mid 1980s and continued to work with Azzam in Peshawar. In 1987, Azzam founded an organization in Pakistan called Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (Center for Religious Learning and Propagation, also known as Jamaat ut-Dawa), together with Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. Azzam was assassinated in 1989, but his protégés did him proud--bin Laden by founding al Qaeda, Saeed by founding the Lashkar-e-Taiba, "Army of the Pure," to serve as the militant wing of the Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad.

The purpose of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was to inspire jihadism among the world's Muslims. Saeed once said, "We believe in [Samuel P.] Huntington's clash of civilizations, and our jihad will continue until Islam becomes the dominant religion." Saeed established the movement's base at Muridke, a town near Lahore in the heart of Punjab, where he aimed to develop a model city to serve as an exemplar of the sort of Islamist government for which he was fighting. The outbreak of conflict in Kashmir led Saeed to focus his nascent organization on that conflict--thereby earning the support of the ISI in addition to the continued support of the Saudi backers who had helped him establish the group in the first place.

Pakistan drifted generally away from the United States and toward the Islamists in the 1990s. Army chief of staff Mirza Aslam Beg called the 1991 Gulf war "a Western-Zionist game plan to neutralize the Muslim World," as Shuja Nawaz writes, adding that Beg also initiated negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure Pakistan's "strategic depth" in the event of a war with India. Pakistan recognized the Taliban government in Kabul in 1996 (virtually the only government to do so other than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). The revelation of a missile deal between North Korea and Pakistan led to further U.S. sanctions in 1998. Pakistan then tested six nuclear weapons in May 1998 following the testing of an Indian weapon, straining relations with Washington even more. Tensions rose still further when Pakistani forces entered Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999. General Pervez Musharraf finally seized power in a military coup in 1999 and suspended the constitution.

The 9/11 attacks thus found Pakistan locked in a close embrace with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Islamist groups such as the LeT within Pakistan itself. That was the context in which Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered an ultimatum to Musharraf: Pakistan must be either with the United States or against it in the coming war on terror.

Musharraf did not demur. He supported the U.S. military operation against the Afghan Taliban government he had helped bring to power, announced his opposition to al Qaeda, and outlawed the LeT. But the change was too sudden for members of the security services who had long-established relationships with the groups against which Musharraf had suddenly turned. With or without Musharraf's orders, the ISI helped resettle Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis in Pakistan and continued to support them. Failings in the American military strategy in 2001--notably the refusal by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to deploy ground forces to cut off the retreat of al Qaeda fighters from northern Afghanistan--allowed both Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and troops to escape.

The United States responded by pressing the Pakistani government ever harder to take effective action against al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, especially within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where many had taken refuge. Musharraf responded with a series of grudging and incompetent military operations culminating in a 2004 offensive into Waziristan that ended in humiliating failure. That failure led to a series of weak "peace deals" with anti-American leaders in Waziristan, particularly Maulvi Nazir Ahmad and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

In the meantime, Musharraf's actions against some Islamist groups turned others against Islamabad. LeT, Mullah Omar's Taliban, Hekmatyar's group, and the Haqqani Network remained loyal to Pakistan in return for support and shelter. The TNSM, however, found new life in supporting the Afghan Taliban against the U.S. attack by sending thousands of fighters from its base in the Bajaur Agency of the FATA into Afghanistan. When that effort failed, the TNSM turned its attention back to the Pakistani government, which it considered illegitimate because of its failure to implement Islamic law.

Pakistani operations in Waziristan generated a backlash among the Pashtun tribes there that coalesced in December 2007 with the formation of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ("Pakistani Taliban Movement") under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. Maulvi Nazir, commander of the Wazir Taliban group in South Waziristan, described the phenomenon:

Our companions used to go to different areas like Ghazni and Zabul, but the Pakistani government started hindering our path. In the beginning we had intended Jihad against America and had not meant to fight here, but when the Pakistani government became an obstacle for us and started hindering our passages, destroying our bases, martyring our brothers and ambushing and arresting them from their route .  .  . we were left no choice other than directing our weapons towards the Pakistani Government. [all translations by SITE Intel Group].

The TTP was meant to be an umbrella organization, and it soon claimed suzerainty over the TNSM, the Mehsud fighting groups in Waziristan, and branches in Punjab. Its objective is the overthrow of the apostate Pakistani government. Baitullah Mehsud described its aims in January 2008:

The Pakistani forces came here by order from Bush, and the soldiers of the army are destroying our homes. Therefore, the goal of our alliance is the defense of the Muslim person. By the way, the ultimate result of this alliance, which we basically formed for defense, will be the implementation of Muhammadian Sharia law all throughout Pakistan.

The philosophical underpinnings of both groups are identical with those of al Qaeda, and also with those of the LeT, as well as with those of all of the major Afghan Taliban groups. The TTP and the TNSM recognize Mullah Omar as the "Commander of the Faithful." Maulvi Nazir noted, "The Emir of the believers is Emir of the Jihad too. The Mujahideen all over the world accept him as their Emir." Baitullah Mehsud declared, "We did pledge allegiance to the Emir of the Believers before, and Allah willing, our allegiance to him will last forever. He is our legitimate emir [as per Islamic sharia], and our allegiance to him stems from our love and respect for him."

By mid-2008 the Islamist groups appeared to have the Pakistani government on the ropes. The TTP effectively controlled Waziristan through a series of "cease-fire" agreements that amounted to surrenders by Islamabad to the Islamists. The TNSM/TTP controlled Bajaur Agency and much of neighboring Mohmand Agency. It had spread beyond the FATA into the Northwest Frontier Province as well, establishing a base in Dir District and even in Swat--a much more cosmopolitan area close to metropolitan Pakistan and generally not amenable to extremist Islamism. Musharraf had done nothing effective to check the expansion of these groups or the consolidation of their control in their areas of influence. He had not curtailed the support of the ISI for Afghan Taliban groups. And he had proved unwilling or unable to dismantle the network of al Qaeda senior leaders using Pakistan as its base. It seemed likely that Pakistan's long support for Islamist groups could well lead to its demise, an appearance strengthened by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 purportedly at the orders of TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud.


Musharraf resigned from the presidency on August 18, 2008. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, won the post on September 6. On that day, the Pakistani military launched Operation Sherdil against a major TNSM/TTP base in Bajaur Agency. Chastened by the experiences of previous years in which ill-prepared assaults in difficult terrain had resulted in hundreds of dead, wounded, and captured Pakistani soldiers, the army proceeded with deliberate and overwhelming force up the four major river valleys in Bajaur. It relied heavily on airpower, leveling Islamist-held villages in the agency and generating tens of thousands of refugees. Loe Sam, a key village in the midst of the agency, was completely destroyed as Pakistani military operations continued for months. American forces in Afghanistan quietly assisted by deploying a battalion along the Afghan border with Bajaur on the east side of the Kunar River. Despite the violence of the operation, however, the Pakistanis could not capture or kill TTP leader Maulana Faqir Muhammad. Neither could they stop the spread of TNSM/TTP influence in Dir and Swat.

The determination shown by the Pakistani government in the Bajaur fighting was undermined when Islamabad signed a cease-fire in Swat with Sufi Mohammad, the founder of the TNSM. In return for a halt in fighting, the government committed to enforce sharia law and only sharia law in Swat. This experiment in meeting the demands of the Islamists was revealing about their true aims. The Pakistani Constitution already contained provisions requiring the state to abide by and enforce sharia law and Muslim tradition. From the government's perspective, recommitting to that principle was not a significant concession. But Sufi Mohammad and Maulana Fazlullah interpreted it to mean that they could choose the religious judges who would interpret sharia as they desired. It is hard to say how this quasi-religious conflict would have proceeded had the TTP fighters in Swat kept their side of the bargain. Instead, puffed up with their success, they sent a raiding party into neighboring Buner in April, clearly violating the peace accord.

Zardari and army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani responded decisively, launching Operation Rah-e-Rast ("Path of Righteousness") in mid-April to liberate Swat from the control of the TNSM and TTP. The operation was largely successful, although it generated more than a million refugees. The refugee flow was not entirely negative for the government, however. Swat refugees took to the airwaves to describe the outrages of Islamist efforts to impose their extremist religion on a moderate population. For the first time, Pakistani public opinion began to turn against the Islamists. Zardari, sensing a political opportunity among other things, drove the fight further. The Pakistani military cleared Swat, and then worked to clear neighboring Dir District. More important, the military stayed in these areas after the initial clearing operations. Today, two Pakistani divisions drawn from the Indian border--the 19th Infantry Division and the 37th Mechanized Infantry Division--remain in Swat as part of what we would call the "hold" phase.

The Islamists responded to the Swat operation with terrorist attacks across Pakistan, including a car-bomb in Lahore that a group called Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab ("Punjab Taliban Movement") claimed. The Pakistani government then prepared an operation against the last remaining major Islamist sanctuary--South Waziristan. The preparations included moving significant regular military forces into both North and South Waziristan in order to isolate the Mehsud tribal area. They also included a protracted and difficult effort to persuade the surrounding Islamist leaders--particularly Maulvi Nazir to the south and Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan--to tolerate the army's operations and refrain from fighting alongside Baitullah Mehsud's TTP. Islamabad was able to conclude these agreements by playing up inter-tribal tensions; also, the radical Uzbek Islamists supported by Mehsud had a talent for antagonizing the locals. It is likely that Pakistani military operations in Swat and Bajaur and the large amount of military force they were bringing into the area persuaded Gul Bahadur and Nazir that they were in earnest and could seriously disrupt these leaders' power bases if they chose. An ostensible quid pro quo in this agreement was that Pakistan would put a stop to U.S. drone strikes in the areas controlled by Bahadur.

In the meantime, the pressure on the Mehsud tribal area allowed the Pakistani military to obtain actionable intelligence about Baitullah Mehsud. A U.S. Predator drone killed him on August 5. Many analysts feared that the death of Mehsud would mean the end of the Pakistani operation, but slow preparations for an offensive in the Mehsud tribal area continued as the TTP struggled to select a new leader. It finally did so on August 22 with the announcement that Hakimullah Mehsud had succeeded Baitullah.

The storm finally broke on October 17, when some 28,000 Pakistani troops drawn from the 7th and 9th Infantry divisions, supported by around 10,000 members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, advanced along three axes toward the heart of the Mehsud resistance base. The ground operation was preceded by a week of targeted air attacks and was supported by airstrikes and helicopter gunships. It was not, however, as destructive as the Bajaur operation. Pakistani forces have labored to seize key terrain around important objectives first (to avoid ambushes), and to clear contested villages carefully rather than obliterating them. As of this writing, the operation has continued unabated for two weeks, and Pakistani military forces are advancing on the three most important TTP bases in the area methodically but unrelentingly.


Baitullah Mehsud was eulogized by no less a figure than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy. Zawahiri praised him as a figure who sought to unify all Islamists into a fight against their common enemies:

Then he, may Allah have mercy on him, participated in unifying the ranks of the mujahideen in Pakistan, for he founded Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which took over its emirate. He participated in founding the Shura of the mujahideen that included all the mujahideen in Pakistan in addition to their foreign brothers. Then this united force, with grace from Allah and His assistance, hears and obeys the Islamic Emirate and its emir, the Emir of the Believers, Mullah Omar, may Allah preserve him.

Baitullah "demonstrated, may Allah have mercy on him, that the rulers of Pakistan and the leaders of its armies are merely a traitorous, bribe-seeking group that sold its religion, honor and the blood of the Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the new Crusader-dom in exchange for a few dollars and benefits." He also "demonstrated that he does not acknowledge the British Durand line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, and that he will do jihad to expel the Crusaders from Afghanistan and will do jihad as well against their agents that cooperate with them in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Other Islamist groups offered more practical assistance. TTP and allied movements have launched a wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan in response to the Waziristan operation. Reports from Bajaur indicate that the TTP leadership there has been discussing pulling some of their fighters out of Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan and sending them to support their comrades in Waziristan. A Pakistani paper reported on October 25: "Taliban sources said Maulana Faqir Muhammad had convened a meeting of local and foreign militants to devise a strategy for sending fighters to South Waziristan to fight alongside their fellow Mehsud Taliban militants against the Pakistan Army." It added that "They said some Arab commanders also attended the meeting and did not agree with Faqir Muhammad's proposal to go to Waziristan at a time when they were engaged in, what they termed, a 'crucial and decisive' battle against the U.S.-led forces across the border in Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan." Arab commanders in this context very likely refer to al Qaeda leaders or their representatives.

It is possible that the protests of these Arab commanders went unheeded. On October 29, Asia Times reported that "in a telephone conversation on Wednesday, a militant linked to [Qari Ziaur] Rahman [a Taliban commander in Nuristan] said that now that they had control of Nuristan, the militants are 'marching towards Mohmand and Bajaur to help their fellow Taliban fighting against Pakistani troops,' referring to two tribal agencies across the border." The report continued, "As the militant who spoke to Asia Times Online said, there is now the opportunity to open a new front, with Rahman's forces on the Afghan side and those of Moulvi Faqir Mohammad on the Bajaur and Mohmand side."

The new TTP leaders, for their part, have restated their commitment to the ideological struggle:

And the conclusion is for us to work according to the Islamic Shariah, make others follow this path as well, which is the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, show concern about educating and uprighting Muslims according to the Shariah law. As for the way to get rid of positive courts and their police that were established by the English regime, that is through implementation of Shariah, because there are Shariah judges and scholars. This is not impossible. The Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar provides a vivid example for the entire world. Our brothers in Swat also established the same system that did not please those malicious ones. They started to incite people against them and distort their image in the media and launched a war against them after that. Was it not for this, Swat today would have become another example where Shariah is practiced. They made numerous sacrifices for that, as did all tribal children and Pakistanis. So we cannot abandon this matter.

And so the battle continues.

The Pakistani military has now deployed four regular army divisions and tens of thousands of Frontier Corps forces in a series of operations that have lasted for more than a year to defeat the Islamist groups that had taken control over large areas of Pakistan and threatened the survival of the Pakistani state. Still the United States is disappointed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just last week twitted Islamabad for failing to eliminate al Qaeda. American analysts and officials regularly complain that Pakistan is not "doing its part" by halting its support for Mullah Omar, Haqqani, and Hekmatyar. At the same time, people seeking to downplay the importance of defeating the Afghan Taliban increasingly argue that Mullah Omar's group has separated from al Qaeda and from Pakistani Taliban groups and even that it would not support them or permit them to establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan should it return to power. Above all, conventional wisdom now goes, we must understand that the Taliban of all stripes are local movements concerned with local power struggles and not a threat to the United States.

It is true that these groups do not have the capability or the intention at present to strike the American homeland directly. It does not follow, however, that they are not a threat to the United States except in this narrowest and most short-sighted sense. Their overall aims and ideologies are indistinguishable from al Qaeda's. They all--including al Qaeda--recognize Mullah Omar as "commander of the faithful" and an exemplar of right behavior both as an insurgent and as the leader of an Islamic state. They coordinate their activities at all levels and come to each other's assistance when attacked. They see the provision of sanctuary to their threatened comrades as a religious (as well as tribal) obligation.

The network of Islamist groups in South Asia, in other words, really is a network. We must not imagine that we can decide that the success of key elements of that network--especially Mullah Omar's group--would not strengthen the elements that are most dangerous to America and to stability in a nuclear-armed region.

We must recognize, finally, that Pakistan actually is making a major contribution to this struggle by taking on the elements of the Islamist network that--while closely aligned with al Qaeda--pose the greatest threat to its own stability. Defeating the Afghan Taliban is our job, working together with our Afghan partners. However desirable and helpful it would be for Pakistan to evict or capture the bases of Mullah Omar or Haqqani, the momentum of 30 years of support will be hard to reverse. Nor is it even necessarily wise for the United States to demand that the fragile Pakistani government, already engaged in an extremely difficult and controversial struggle against its own internal enemies, open two additional fronts.

The war against Islamists in South Asia is now a two-front war. Pakistan has shown surprising determination and competence in its struggle against one part of the Islamist network. The United States must show similar determination and competence in our struggle against the other.


Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.