Why did the Taliban attack the ISI?
An emailed question from an editor at this publication asked me: "Why has the Taliban just attacked the ISI? Isn't that like biting the hand that feeds?"
This question was in response to the commando-style attack at Lahore, Pakistan, on May 27, 2009, which targeted the Lahore Police and the local office of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), killing 15 police officers, a colonel of the ISI and 10 other people.
While analyzing the Lahore attack, one has to keep in mind certain ground realities: The first is that there are Talibans and Talibans, and within each Taliban there are mini-Talibans. There are virtually as many Talibans in the Pashtun belt as there are tribal sirdars (leaders).
The second ground reality is the clear distinction in behavior and operations between the “Neo Taliban” of Afghanistan, headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar, based in Quetta, Pakistan, and the various Pakistani Talibans led by tribal sirdars such as Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan; Hakeemullah Mehsud, who is responsible for operations in the Khyber, Kurrum and Orakzai areas; Maulana Fazlullah of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), who is a native of Swat; and Sufi Mohammad, his father-in-law, who is actually from Dir and not Swat. Of these various Talibans, only the Neo Taliban of Mullah Mohammad Omar, which was created by the ISI in 1994 when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, still owes its loyalty to the ISI and the Pakistan government.
The Neo Taliban is active against the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghan territory from sanctuaries in Pakistan, but it has never been involved in an act of terrorism in Pakistani territory against Pakistani targets, whether from the army, the ISI or the police. All the attacks on Pakistani territory and on Pakistani government targets were carried out by different Pakistani Taliban groups or by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM)--which has transferred its headquarters from Bahawalpur to Swat--and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), an anti-Shia terrorist organization.
The third ground reality is the distinction between the Pakistani Punjabi Taliban and the Pakistani Pashtun Taliban. Though they advocate the same Wahabized Islamic ideology based on the Sharia, their ethnic compositions differ. The term Punjabi Taliban is used to refer to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the LEJ (above). Punjabis constitute the majority of their cadres. All of them except the JEM are of the 1980s and 1990s vintage. The JEM was born in 2000 through a split in the HUM.
Of these organizations, the LET, like the Neo Taliban, is the favored tool of the ISI, which uses the Neo Taliban in Afghanistan and the LET against India. Like the Neo Taliban, the LET, too, has never attacked a Pakistani target in Pakistani territory. In fact, there has never been a confirmed instance of an attack by the LET on foreign targets in Pakistani territory, lest it create problems from the ISI. The JEM and the LEJ, however, never hesitate to attack Pakistani government targets, either on their own or at the instance of al-Qaida. The attitude of the HUM and the HUJI is ambivalent.
The fourth ground reality is that, while the Pakistani Punjabi Taliban and the Neo Taliban have been in existence for over a decade, the Pakistani Pashtun Talibans are products of the commando raid into the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007, in which a large number of Pashtun tribal children, many of them girls, were killed. It was after this that tribal sirdars, including Fazlullah, Baitullah and Hakeemullah, called for a jihad against the Pakistan army and the ISI in retaliation for the raid. While the TNSM has been in existence since the early 1990s, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was born after the Lal Masjid raid.