Origins of Militancy


THE strong demands for military action against the TTP have put one party and its position regarding militancy in a tight spot.

The PTI of Imran Khan, which made a large platform out of opposing action and promoting talks as the only way to deal with the terrorists, is now searching for a way to climb down, at least partially, from that position so as to not appear totally out of step with the mood prevailing in the country.

For instance, the party’s senior vice president, Asad Umar, argued recently that the fight against terrorism and extremism is not just a military battle, but “a battle for the soul of Pakistan”. In this battle, he said, “[w]e have to go to the root causes of why and where such intolerant behaviour is taking shape and dry up the swamp”.

So, what are the root causes of terrorist violence in Pakistan? “The state of Pakistan has been getting weaker as the years go by,” he argues, before making a list of the areas where weakening state capacity is directly responsible for empowering the terrorists and their hate-filled narrative. The areas he lists are many, and they include intelligence and law enforcement capacity, growing “injustice and inequality” in society, “elite capture and abuse of state institutions”.

These dysfunctions “make disenfranchised youth vulnerable to messages of hate and intolerance” he says, arguing that “the people of the country are in an angry mood”.

The narrative that emerges goes something like this: injustice in society and a dysfunctional economy creates anger, and that anger finds a voice in terrorism and the voice exerts a pull on disenfranchised youth who take up arms against an unjust order.

There is something seductive about this analysis. In a sense it says that there is symmetry between the anger you and I feel at the state of affairs in our country and the anger that animates the Taliban.

The truth, unfortunately, is far simpler. Terror groups are thriving in our country for one simple reason: they enjoy protection and patronage from the highest authorities of our land.

And this is the big problem in the narrative that unemployment and poverty are the causes behind terrorism: a quarter century long history of building and funding and protecting terrorist outfits as proxy fighters for demented regional ambitions is totally glided over in this telling of the tale.

The myriad dysfunctions of our economy and society are very real, and they indeed serve as breeding grounds for violent and antisocial behaviour. But every bit of research on this subject leads to the conclusion that an angry and disenfranchised youth is more likely to take up a life of street crime and armed robbery than embrace holy war against the world.

Ideological fighters of the sort found in terrorist outfits have other origins. Ideological fighters always require state support to sustain themselves and carry on their fight. Usually this support comes from outside the country, by neighbours or other great powers that have an interest in overthrowing the regime that runs the country in question. But in our case the support has been internal, since these groups were raised to wage proxy war against neighbouring countries.

The argument that creating smoothly functioning economic and social institutions is the best way to conduct counter-insurgency is in fact an old one.

Early in the 1960s, Walt Rostow, one of the earliest pioneers of development thinking, wrote a short essay titled Development as counter-insurgency in which he had argued that economic growth creates a large demand for labour which deprives insurgent groups of recruits. Since then, the argument has been repeated in many forms in many forums, most recently in the debates around the Kerry Lugar Bill.

The argument was originally directed at the question facing the US early in its career as a superpower: how to demobilise the mass movements that had swept away the European colonial empires in the decades following the Second World War.

But our situation today is very different. We are not looking to demobilise a mass movement. In fact, it’s not even a movement that we face, the Taliban are not the careers of a popular grievance. What we’re facing is a group of ideologically indoctrinated militias that were raised and trained by our armed forces to perform a certain function – the clandestine projection of power in the region – and that have now spun out of the control of their benefactors and patrons.

The economic and social dysfunctions of our society didn’t create this monster, in fact if anything the reverse is true: these dysfunctions are a legacy of this policy of cultivating extremist militias as tools. No amount of social and economic reform will cause this monster of terrorism to lay down arms, and economic growth is unlikely to deplete it of recruits since unlike a mass mobilisation, it doesn’t need recruits on any significant scale.

Let’s not drag the economy into this. Let’s not change the subject at a critical point in the conversation. Fighting the menace of extremism begins with a simple step: we must dissociate from it.

There is no sense in wagging our finger at the economy using one hand while with the other we hold as partners the very same militants and their apologists who have made our lives so difficult for so many years now.

-the writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington DC

-by arrangement with

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