DO militants possess a vision or agenda of their own or do they act as mere proxies available to anyone who wants to hire and use them? Why does the common man find it difficult to accept them as sovereign and independent actors? The perception that terrorists or militants are mere proxies is prevalent even among policy and official circles although to varying degrees.

It is somehow understandable when ordinary folk see militants as internal or external proxies. Due to their trust in the state and its security apparatus, they are not willing to believe that non-state actors are strong enough to challenge the state. But when Maulana Fazlur Rehman says that the US and Western forces are behind the assassination attempts made on him, one cannot term his statement political rhetoric — because it also reflects his view that the militants are merely stooges.

When India and Afghanistan see Pakistan behind every militant group they certainly deny that non-state actors can have independent objectives. Similarly, when Pakistan sees an Indian or some other foreign hand behind anti-Pakistan militant groups, it indicates that the security institutions are not ready to expand their threat perception to a point where it would require treating the militants as independent entities.

When militants are perceived as proxies, it is difficult to treat them as rational actors.
When militants are perceived as proxies, it becomes difficult to treat them as rational actors, which they are. That means the perception is that they only follow others’ plans and do not enjoy the freedom to pursue their own objectives. Apparently, the security apparatus may not project this, but in complicated terrorist attacks, they mostly take a simplistic view of the militants — as happened in the case of the tragic incident at Wagah in Lahore, where the police, the religious and political leadership and the media were largely of the view that India was behind the attack, or at least the militants carried out the attack on behalf of our enemies.

No doubt, states nurture or support militant movements as their strategic assets and use them as foreign policy tools. The most recent example is of Syria, where the US, Western powers and the Arab states tried to topple the Bashar al- Assad regime. Though their actions proved counterproductive as they did in Libya, some of Syria’s neighbours believe that the militants will eventually topple the government. Indeed, it appears ironic when the state’s dependence on militants increases and it starts believing that the militants will continue to serve as their stooges or proxies.

At a certain point, their dependence on militants increases to such an extent that even when the latter are no more willing to serve as proxies, the former continue to treat them as if they are. The common phrase of ‘good vs bad militants’ or ‘the moderate/secular vs hardline extremist’ is also derived from such perceptions.

States might share some strategic interests with non-state actors but can these be an alternative to interstate relations where the states have multiple diplomatic and political options available to overcome their differences and manage crises?

It surprised many when the Afghan Taliban tried to initiate their own separate talk channels with the US. It is not only the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omer, but also the Haqqani Network that is depicted as a strategic asset of Pakistan; both have also remained reluctant to use their influence over Pakistani militants to stop terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. Now the worst-case scenario worries many experts. If the Afghan Taliban capture Kabul it would be a nightmare for Islamabad. It will have not only security implications for the country, Pakistan will also have less diplomatic influence over Kabul, and the international community will put the entire burden on Pakistan.

Perceptions do not fade easily. Though Pakistan’s achievements in military operations in its tribal areas, mainly in North Waziristan, are quite significant, it has not received the global or even domestic recognition it deserves. One of the main reasons could be that it does not have a significant impact on the security situation in Afghanistan. Even inside Pakistan, terrorist attacks are gaining momentum even as the military operation proceeds.

Many people were of the view that the military operation would resolve all security issues, and the government’s attitude has reflected as much. The government was quite enthusiastic when it had announced an ambitious internal security policy early this year but nothing concrete has been achieved thus far. It suggests that the problem is far more complex and deep-rooted.

Three counterterrorism theorists — Assaf Moghadam, Ronit Berger and Polina Beliakova — have discussed this dilemma in their recent joint research paper Say terrorist, think insurgent. They argue that looking at them as ‘insurgent groups’ can shift the analytical focus away from an enemy-centric to a condition-centric approach. This has happened in the case of the fight against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the state remained confused over the exact status of the enemy and where it has tried to pursue the ‘talks and fight’ approach, which did not prove effective.

Such approaches have an impact on policymakers’ assessments. On the other hand, militants’ strategies continue to evolve, and their overall strategy combines both violent and political means. To remove ambiguities from the countering frameworks, the authors recommend that governments avoid the official labelling of militant groups, and policy statements label actors involved in terrorism as terrorist groups.

Only by removing false perceptions regarding militants and terrorists can we see them as independent and rational actors who not only pursue their own agendas but also attract and use resources and help offered to them by anyone. They keep changing, adjusting their strategies and tactics according to their need, even when some of their interests converge with those of the state.

Will this change in viewing the militants as rational actors have an impact on counterterrorism frameworks? At least it can help understand the nature of proxies.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2014