In late August, a senior Pakistani militant commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, welcomed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s call for talks with anti-state insurgents. Days later, the spokesman of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — the main insurgent group waging war against the Pakistani state — condemned Muawiya’s statement and claimed that it had expelled him. Muawiya scoffed at the TTP’s move, stating that he was never under the group’s command.
Ostensibly, this is welcome news for Pakistan. A Taliban commander active in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, appears to be keen on talks with the central government. Additionally, there seem to be fissures within the country’s most deadly terrorist network. But Islamabad should beware Taliban bearing gifts. Muawiya is no peacemaker. In fact, his outreach to the government is likely an attempt to catapult himself above other jihadist commanders in Pakistan — not just those affiliated with the TTP, but also those affiliated with groups linked to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Muawiya’s outreach is just the latest in a series of maneuvers by a broad assortment of Pakistani jihadists as they prepare for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan late next year.
Muawiya is among the ranks of disgruntled jihadists who defected from militant groups supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the post-9/11 period. A former commander of the anti-India Jaish-e Muhammad (JeM) in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, Muawiya split from the organization after the 2007 military operations against the Lal Masjid, an Islamabad mosque run by radicals who had begun a vigilant campaign within the nation’s capital under the motto, “Shariat ya shahadat” (Islamic law or martyrdom). The operations on the mosque, which killed its chief cleric, Abdur Rashid Ghazi, along with dozens of other students and militants, helped spark the massive post-2007 terrorist campaign in Pakistan that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis. Much like Pakistan’s decision to support U.S.-operations against al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban post-9/11, this operation catalyzed the shift of large numbers of jihadists against the Pakistani state and into the hands of al-Qaeda-style militant groups.
Muawiya claims that the Lal Masjid operation opened his eyes to the “hypocrisy” of the ISI-backed Kashmiri militant groups. He says prior to the operation, he had believed that while the ISI was working for its own strategic purposes vis-a-vis India, the Kashmiri militant groups it supported — including JeM, Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), and Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) — were sincerely engaged in jihad. But, Muawiya alleges, rather than supporting his call to hold the Pakistani government accountable for the Lal Masjid operation, the JeM’s chief, Masood Azhar, ordered his killing and murdered eighteen of his comrades.
Fleeing to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Muawiya established ties with both al-Qaeda and the TTP, aiding in the insurgency there and also building a kidnapping network inside Punjab.
Muawiya has remained an autonomous figure within the somewhat nebulous web of militant networks in FATA. Since 2011, he has released video sermons through his own production outlet, Abna-e Hafsa – named after the seminary attached to Lal Masjid – instead of the TTP’s Umar Studio outlet. In these sermons, Muawiya rails against democracy, describes the Pakistani army a mercenary force, and calls for attacks on Western embassies and against India.
The main target of Muawiya’s sermons is the Pakistani military, whose generals he says have become apostates after allying with the United States and compromising with India. The Pakistani Army, he complains, gave up hundreds of jihadist fighters to the U.S. post-9/11 and made harmful concessions to India, clamping down on Kashmiri jihadist groups and ceding rights to rivers that originate in Kashmir. Muawiya expresses disdain for the country’s politicians, particularly for those coming from the feudal elite, whose Swiss bank accounts “are full.” His seething anger stems from his bitter past relationship with the military and the class tensions in feudal-dominated southern Punjab, where he appears to originate from.
As a militant preacher from Punjab, Muawiya is perhaps a more formidable long-term threat to Pakistan than Pashtun Taliban figures. He has proven his ability to create a wedge between the two major power brokers in Punjab, achieving a detente with the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party that has ruled the province since 2008, while continuing his fight against the army. And, as evinced by his positive response to Prime Minister Sharif, Muawiya aims to expand that detente with the PML-N now that it is in power at the federal level.
Additionally, Muawiya is positioned to put ISI-backed jihadist groups like JeM on the defensive, pressuring them toward more aggressive action not just in Kashmir, but also in Pakistan, where Muawiya has called them out for being weak on calling for the implementation of shariah. Muawiya aims at convincing more radicals within Pakistan’s Deobandi community, from which most of the major Pakistani jihadist groups come, of the need to use force to make Pakistan a radical state. His recent sermons assiduously use the fatwas of major Deobandi scholars to legitimize jihad against the Pakistani state. With this strategy, Muawiya can put Deobandi groups like JeM on the defensive – either compelling them to actively push for more shariah in Pakistan or pursue a more aggressive approach toward India. While Muawiya lacks the necessary infrastructure in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir to supplant the groups that are dominant there, he could also engage in one-off attacks in India that would build his credibility – at the cost of that of the JeM and LeT – among India-centric militants.
In engaging Muawiya as a national powerbroker, the PML-N risks unwittingly promoting his ascendance within the jihadist community and giving him an even more potent bully pulpit from which to push actors in Pakistan toward a more radical path within and towards India. Strategic thinking in Islamabad must move beyond a dependence on tactical peace deals that simply allow it to defer tough decisions and enable latent threats to grow. Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders need to develop a full-fledged national security strategy that envisions a future in which the life, rights, and path to prosperity of Pakistanis are secured from threats and obstacles both within and without. A deal with Muawiya would further lock Pakistan into an ugly status quo in which jihadist militants have a veto power over the country’s future, denying it the peace and stability it desperately needs for its suffocating economy to growth.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.