“Many of the inhuman struggles that have divided the human race would hardly have occurred if the situation had been one of completely righteous men confronted by undiluted and unmitigated crime”. These are the words of the historian Herbert Butterfield who several decades ago commented on the tragic patterns in human conflicts.
Back in 2008, when I first travelled to Pakistan in order to understand the grievances and religious worldview of the new Taliban movement that arose in the northwestern tribal areas, I wearily met the ambivalence that Butterfield had pointed out. Had I just encountered pure evil, it would probably have been less troubling for me and for others who are trying to comprehend, how to respond to the growing number of terrorist movements that is currently challenging not only Pakistan, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and various parts of Africa.
All simplistic hypothesis about “what drives terrorists” falter when there is suddenly in front of you human faces and complex life stories. The tragedy of contemporary policies designed to handle or rather crush movements who employ terrorist tactics, are prone to embrace a singular explanation of the terrorist motivation, disregarding the fact that people can be in the very same movement for various reasons. It is not about either politics, religion, vulnerable mental health, or socioeconomics, but more often than not, it is about all of these in mixture. For some, their embracement of violent movements has more to do with their mythic worldviews than their grave analysis of world politics, while for others it has everything to do with the west’s policies and colonial behavior. Again, other cases reveal that unjust socioeconomic structures produce highly vulnerable individuals in search for material gains and personal acknowledgement.
All simplistic hypothesis about “what drives terrorists” falter when there is suddenly in front of you human faces and complex life stories
During my years of research into the Pakistani Taliban movement, I have met aged ideologues who were highly preoccupied with the hypocrisy of the west, and for whom it seemed to be an utmost pleasure to repeat the fact that the west was once sponsoring some of the same people, the mujahideen, that they are now stigmatizing as terrorists. As one of the militants, that I interviewed, told me “back then we smelled awfully of sweat, and today we smell awfully of sweat” – he saw no difference in who the mujahedeen were at that time and what the Taliban stand for today, but the change had come from the west, who well-willingly traded principles for power gains. The fight, for this type of militant, is about confronting the superpower-ambitions of the US and the expansionist-colonialist ambitions of the west. The invasion of Afghanistan was about oil, influence or establishing the cultural hegemony of the west, and the US drone campaign that started in 2004 in Pakistan a reflection of the west’s reckless indifference to the sovereignty of Muslim countries.
Other Taliban adherents that I met did not have a personal historic memory that went further back than 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan. This type of militants, who I believe constitute the masses of the movement, were obviously younger than the ideologues who loved to share their experiences from the cold war, and the mujahedeen era. What made this type of Pakistani Taliban adherents take up arms was the invasion of Afghanistan and the Pakistan army’s deployment of approximately 70,000 troops in the semi-autonomous frontier areas during 2002-4. They saw the west’s and the Pakistan army’s aggression as a simple case of territorial insult of Afghanistan, an insult of tribal autonomy, and the right to self-determination, demanding that they defended themselves with any means necessary. “What would you do”, they asked me, “if you had seen your family members being killed by their weapons or if your kids had to live with the buzzing sound of danger and drones over their roof.”
Taliban adherents in Pakistan do not only act against the background of a defensive claim. I also met religious zealots, who shared mythic interpretations of the low level of religiosity in Pakistani society, which for them was a sign of an approaching apocalypse – a call for action. In order to prepare for the final days, they felt the need to enforce more religiosity – to implement their interpretation of sharia by, for instance, establishing a religious police and morality corps to Islamize society. Once I met a female supporter of the Taliban who justified her militant activities with reference to a night dream, where the Prophet Muhammad himself handed her a golden sword.
I also met adherents of the Taliban movement who had a more mythic take on the history of the conflict than those I mentioned above. For this category of militants, the war they are fighting is cosmic, i.e. constituted as a battle between forces of good and forces of evil. They actively invoke analogies to important symbolic battles that have gone down in Islamic history as battles with special spiritual significance due to what they perceive to be the intervention of God, such as the battle of Badr, the battle of Karbala, or the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. The invasion of Afghanistan, for this type of militants, was part of a systematic crusade to eliminate Islam from the surface of earth.
During my intellectual journey into the mindset of the Taliban, I have met all these different faces of jihad, oftentimes embedded in the very same person, wandering in and out between mundane and sacred, social and personal rationales for taking up arms
During my intellectual journey into the mindset of the Taliban, I have met all these different faces of jihad, oftentimes embedded in the very same person, wandering in and out between mundane and sacred, social and personal rationales for taking up arms. These were people with various characteristics and personalities, not subhuman species as terrorists are often reduced to. I met the unpleasant Taliban, who taunted me because he didn’t consider me to be a true Muslim, and raised his patriarchal voice to set me straight. I have met the giant militant, who made me fear for my security, but as our conversation developed, turned out to be immensely goofy with several good jokes up his sleeve. I have also met the scheming Taliban who thought that I should go home and convey his formal message about keeping “your hands to yourself” to the west.
Then, there was this young person, sitting in front of me crouched and fearful, traumatized by his upbringing. He was from a poor family background in the tribal areas and his elder brother had beaten him regularly during his childhood. He ran away from home in a very young age, literally he met some militants on his way who persuaded him that militant jihad would add meaning to his life and guarantee him a merry afterlife. And he joined them. Now he could make sure his parents received compensation when he died as a martyr – at least he was promised. His secret dream though was to be able to live a normal life with a job as a mechanics, but “what else could I have done than joining their jihad”, he kept repeating mostly to convince himself, it seemed.
Meanwhile in the west, we keep on pursuing militaristic policies, which are not based on the slightest insight into the character of the movements that we are out to crush, or why recruits join them. The militaristic policies have since 2001 continuously proven to be only pushing around the problems, not reducing them i.e. the level of violence, the number of terrorist movements and their recruitment capabilities.
Today, between 10-20% of Afghanistan is still in the hands of the Taliban. In addition to losing territory to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the Afghan army has come under pressure from the Islamic State who has made its entrance into both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Pakistan, 134 children were massacred at a school in Peshawar in 2014 by the Pakistani Taliban – this was months after the Pakistani army initiated a large-scale operation to eliminate terrorist in all shapes and sizes in North Waziristan, the hotbed of the Pakistani Taliban. Al-Qaeda, the movement that Bush promised to destroy “piece by piece” in 2001, never left the area, but only expanded piece by piece, to North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq, and recently they also announced the establishment of a new chapter to operate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. In fact, Al-Qaeda is more forcefully present than it was ever expected in 2011, when the death of Osama Bin Laden was celebrated as a huge victory of the war on terrorism.
There should be little doubt, that after more than a decade of fighting that started in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and moved to places like Iraq, Mali and Syria, the mission of crushing terrorism does not only falter, but is producing more enemies and more terrorists. Until we are ready to face that the militaristic approaches are complicit in keeping the terrorist movements alive, we will never be able to turn the tide and develop better tools based on a deeper understanding of the multifaceted character of the enemy.
Featured image credit: Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Peshawar school siege, by Kashif Haque. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.