Violent Non-State Actors in South Asia and the Middle East


The complex security environment in South Asia, specifically that concerning Pakistan and India, cannot merely be limited to a dyadic interstate conflict. Violent non-state actors (VNSAs) now occupy a fundamental position in the security calculus between Pakistan and India. Furthermore, extra-regional actors such as the US and China are exercising ever greater influence over both countries’ security affairs, in-sync with the wider concerns of the increasingly interconnected global community.

In relation to the application of the evolving concepts of deterrence stability and the stability-instability paradox within the South Asian region, the presence and use of VNSAs is of great concern for all stakeholders. To this extent, the confidence building measures that have hitherto been incorporated for escalation prevention or mitigation between the two countries, such as the 1999 Lahore Declaration or the establishment of hotlines, do not and have not intrinsically fathomed the degree, capacity and ability of such VNSAs to metamorphosize into identifiably self-propagating and self-serving independent entities; which, have proven to contradict the rationale for their initial emergence as asymmetric instruments.

aqab2The concerns of the potential consequences of provoking escalation are not unwarranted.  However, such concerns must be put into their rightful place and not exaggerated to achieve ends that will absolutely encourage potential escalatory risks. For example, the possibilities that extremist organizations and other militant groups are able to exploit misperceived weaknesses in Pakistan’s strategic apparatus and acquire nuclear capability are not simply highly exaggerated and counterproductive; they are, in fact, a product of science fantasy. Nevertheless, regular reports and articles in Western and Indian media both undermine deterrence stability in South Asia, and embolden such VNSAs into thinking, however impossible it may be, to actually attempt to acquire such a capability through further attacks. This, in turn, undermines Pakistan and every CBM painstakingly achieved hitherto every time an attack occurs at or near a military installation, however unrelated that installation may be to Pakistan’s strategic force structure; thereby, threatening deterrence stability through the stability-instability paradox for the attainment of leverage over Pakistan from certain right-wing circles in New Delhi, which has led to the emergence of strategies such as India’s redundant Cold Start Doctrine.

Given such misperceptions by emboldened independent VNSAs, their capabilities to instigate potentially escalatory diplomatic and strategic crises are exponentially enhanced as they realize the force-multiplier effects that the exploitation of the world media has for their own interests, and to the detriment of the interests and stability of the relationship between Pakistan and India, and the wider region. The argument therefore becomes circular, further exacerbating misperceptions, increasingly threatening regional strategic stability, and inviting progressively more destabilizing VNSAs attacks, both in degree of extremity and scope of intended consequences.

What is also of paramount concern is the exploitation of independent VNSA attacks on Indian soil, which are invariably rationalized and conducted against India’s forceful occupation of Kashmir, through the misuse of trilateral compellence to induce concessions from Pakistan by persuading third party intervention through pre-calculated contingencies within an inevitable de-escalation process; for example, as occurred during the Twin Peak Crisis and the mass mobilization of Operation Parakram after the attack on the Indian Parliament by VNSAs on 13 December 2001. It is disconcerting to know that India will continue to actively use trilateral compellence against Pakistan upon any attack by independent VNSA, which may have direct implications for deterrence stability in South Asia with potentially significant escalatory risks.

VNSA Objectives

It is therefore pertinent to explore the rationale behind the VNSAs and their objectives. It is a known fact that the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan, an umbrella organization of numerous VNSAs and organized criminal entities, utterly rejects Pakistan’s constitution, its rationale for existing, as well as its strategic alliance with the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.  Unlike the Afghan Taliban, whose remit only extends to within the political boundaries of present day Afghanistan, the TTP has a global agenda.

The TTP and associated VNSAs, being systemically opposed to the State of Pakistan, are not a creation of Pakistan, nor are they in any way supported by Pakistan. This has been made evident by the wide ranging military operations that have been conducted by Pakistan’s security forces since the emergence of the TTP in December 2007, including the current military campaign in North Waziristan. These military operations have been popularly supported by the vast majority of the Pakistani public, which has suffered in excess of 50,000 dead through TTP and other VNSA attacks in Pakistan. It may be clearly stated that these VNSAs are, in fact, existential enemies of Pakistan. It took time, but there is now a general popular acceptance that such VNSAs are an anathema to the future course of Pakistan.

VNSAs reject Pakistan’s Democratic Principles, the course it has been taking since 2008, which led to the first peaceful transfer of power through elected government in 2013.  Political dialogue and peaceful political protest is beginning to make headway to become the norm.  However, many systemic and structural disparities and issues continue to exist, which must be resolved for the betterment of Pakistan and the region by negating the potential for the exploitation of existing and latent grievances by VNSAs in the future, and their use by external parties.

VNSA Transnational Alliances

Organizations with similar political outlooks have a tendency to congregate and occasionally coalesce when political and strategic interests and conditions converge; which may induce a feasible sharing of tactical, operational, and strategic goals. This may also be the case when common vicissitudes force them to recognize the advantages of increased interaction and networking, given and in-sync with the global trend towards increased interconnectedness and linkage formation through advances in communications, transportation and the flow of money. In this respect, VNSAs are no different when considering system dynamics and the growth of common entities. The linkages between the TTP and Daesh, therefore, have profound implications.

Defeated and broken after Pakistan’s successful and ongoing North Waziristan campaign, reports of the TTP’s support and overt recognition of the political and religious reason d’être of Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria, or Islamic State) emerged when individual elements of TTP, such as its former spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid and a number of its other FATA (Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas) district commanders who have retreated to Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces, declared their personal allegiance to the Middle Eastern extremist group. Shahidullah Shahid was subsequently replaced by the TTP, which has officially denied allegiance to Daesh. However, although no direct linkages between the two VNSAs have been proven hitherto, limited graffiti, wall chalking, and stickers have surfaced in Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, and other locations of Punjab, as well as evidence of leaflets being distributed in Peshawar[1].

Given that associations between different groups are inherently based upon interpersonal relationships and understanding, in addition to ideological commonalities and interests, the implications of an alliance may vary according to different levels of interaction; and may, therefore, have significantly different impacts and trajectories whether tactical, operational or strategic.

At the tactical level, the extremist organizations may share limited methodological understanding and experience in military tactics, given their dissimilar geographical and cultural environments; such as enhanced efficacies of suicide bombing, IED deployment, kidnapping for ransom, assassinations, publicity and psy-ops, techniques in raiding, and guerrilla tactics in urban environments. The latter is significant because the transference of urban warfare experience and expertise gained by Sunni insurgents, Bathist remnants, and Al Qaeda during the US occupation of Iraq (2003-2008) could significantly force-multiply disparate TTP and other VNSA elements that are likely to have dispersed into the urban centers of Pakistan, such as Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, and Peshawar. Furthermore, the limited cross-transfer of human and material resources to assist each other in their independent operations may occur. In fact, such mutual assistance is ingrained and intrinsically part of their common ideological and religious worldview.

aqab5At the operational level, extremist organizations may engage in joint operations with the cross-transfer of knowledge, human and material resources to assist each other in their mutual goals. Given that there are significant differences in their local and regional environments, joint operations would have to be of significant mutual concern, such as attacking a common enemy that would aid their independent and shared interests and goals. In this respect, their mutual and extremely ardent sectarian views may be the point of convergence for joint operations to create a climate of fear amongst and against non-Sunni Muslims and governments that confront them. TTP has a known association with a number of other extremist VNSAs such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and a number of Chechen and Dagestani groups fighting for independence in the Caucasus.  Many of the fighters of these groups have resided and trained in TTP camps in FATA for prolonged periods, and have engaged in numerous attacks on Pakistan’s general civilian population and its state institutions, including law enforcement and the military.

At the strategic level, extremist groups may begin to identify with each other through shared ideological interpretations that facilitate trans-organizational alliances in depth and scope that would be similar to interstate military alliances. In addition to the tactical and operational convergences, strategic alliances may result in the coalescence of goals and interests to achieve a mutually shared vision. Currently, there is no evidence of such an alliance between disparate and dispersed extremist groups. This is largely because extremists groups, such as the Chechens, TTP, ETIM, IMU, and Daesh have largely evolved and emerged from and out of historically independent rationale that are limited to localized geographical environments, which are mostly nationally focused. Nevertheless, the emergence of a unified trans-VNSA alliance cannot be discounted, and would most likely be headed by the politically, militarily and territorially strongest group; which is, currently, Daesh. The implications of such an eventuality could have far-reaching and profound impacts on the current ethnic and sectarian balance in the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia; leaving current state regimes vulnerable to multiple internally and externally organized attacks on their critical vulnerabilities. Furthermore, the porous borders between the countries in these sub-continents may easily facilitate the transnational movement of financial, human, and material resources to assist attacks on relative state institutions and civilian populations; thereby, further undermining their credibility.

External Interference

Interstate interference is also of significant concern. The Baluchistan insurgency has had many twists and turns of events since it first erupted. Whatever the necessity for structural readjustment therein, it is not within the purview of any external actor or state to interfere in the internal workings of Pakistan, and especially to its detriment. There has been an ample supply of intelligence information to concretely and without reservation establish Indian interference in Baluchistan, their support of terrorist and other anti-Pakistan VNSAs, and separatists, to undermine the Pakistani State through violent terrorist attacks. These attacks only promote further volatility and detrimentally affect deterrence stability, as outlined earlier. Pakistan has been consistent in making India aware of such interference at the highest levels of political interaction.

Indian interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan, especially during this very turbulent period since the 9/11 attacks in the US, is illustrative of its intentions to hedge bets as to Pakistan’s future, while side-stepping requests to further amplify CBMs, which would have assisted in the amelioration of tensions between the two neighbors. In fact, India’s current course of action is not only tantamount to wishing for Pakistan’s collapse, which is exceptionally unlikely even in their most extreme scenarios, they are also directly encouraging such a course of events with false flag operations and, unbelievably, through the support of mutually adversarial TTP groups that are currently based in Afghanistan’s Khost and Nuristan Provinces on the western borders of Pakistan’s FATA and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province.

aqab1Deterrence Stability

Deterrence stability requires a high degree of attitudinal change, and recognition of an equal status in the relationship between the two states. It is a given that the current Indian attitude towards Pakistan is not one of perceived equality between neighboring nation states, which was the foremost founding principle of the International State System after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Although, we do recognize that large disparities in conventional force structure between the two countries do exist, Pakistan was forced to acquire strategic parity through the acquisition of nuclear technology because of India’s ill-conceived attitude and tendencies towards achieving regional hegemony, which it presently continues.

It is noteworthy that such overconfidence is a cause for concern, as such an attitude not only reflects the large degree of insecurity between the two nations, but also further reinforces the ability of historical currents to continue to invade present realities in the interstate narratives that are used during negotiations and confidence building measures. Such narratives are not restricted to the politico-military hierarchy, but are all-pervasive throughout Indian society in the perceptions they hold in regards to Pakistan.

As is plainly evident, it is much easier to blame Pakistan for all the problems that India is facing within itself and because of its exploitative historical actions, than confront the dire realities on the ground. Kashmir is a case in point. Indian unwillingness to deal with this unresolved issue is at the heart of the irregularities between the two nations. No doubt, responsibilities must be taken by both nations to ensure that such issues do not escalate tensions to outright hostility. However, what of the desire for independence by the Kashmiri people and their willingness to resist the forceful occupation of their lands? Is Pakistan responsible for their suppression by India too? And, is Pakistan to be made responsible for the inevitable independent reaction of the Kashmiri people to their forceful suppression by India?


To alleviate crises situations, escalation may be mitigated with the aid preventative measures through an equal partnership for the enhancement of the region. Whether India admits it or not, both countries face internal turmoil and upheaval due to inherent internal structural disparities. Opportunities for the betterment of interstate relations may therefore be exploited by cooperation towards mutual enhancement. Furthermore, mutual recognition of the necessity for regional cooperation in the realm of economic developmental and the lack of regional competitive advantage from South Asia should provide ample justification to pursue determined confidence building measure. However, the pertinent question is to ask, why is this not occurring?


[1] Daesh casting its shadow over Pakistan’, Pakistan Today [online newspaper], 11 November 2014, Accessed on 13 November 2014

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Prof. Dr. Aqab Malik completed his Doctorate of Philosophy on Conflict Dynamics in Afghanistan at the Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defense University, for which he conducted in-field research during numerous extensive visits to Afghanistan, especially while embedded with the Taliban and other militant/extremist violent non-state actors to understand their motivations and intentions. With extensive teaching and research experience in fields ranging from Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism to Strategic (Nuclear) Crisis Management, Irregular Warfare, Informational and Psychological Warfare, Strategic Studies, Grand Strategy, and Strategic Thought, Prof. Dr. Aqab Malik is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Strategic & Nuclear Studies, National Defense University, Islamabad, in which he also supervises, mentors and instructs domestic and foreign Senior Military and Civil Service Officers. Prof. Dr. Malik has also been a visiting Professor at Pakistan’s premier Quaid-i-Azam University, and other institutions; while he has also recently had a background as a senior consultant and National Advisor at Pakistan's National Counter Terrorism Authority formulating counter terrorism strategy, and at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. In addition to his existing responsibilities at the NDU, Prof. Dr. Malik has for the years 2013/14 been a resident Senior Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation, Washington DC.


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