The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
In a strange twist of circumstances, Pakistan is today at war with the same Taliban it had once pampered.
Pakistan is fighting against the same Taliban which it created years ago.
Like Frankenstein fleeing in horror from the monster he created, Pakistan disavows the Taliban whom it invented and is engaged with in almost a lifeand-death struggle. The scenario could be entertaining, but for the blood being spilt.
During the Soviet occupation and even when the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan, the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban were not different entities. Therefore, when the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban, on both sides of the Durand Line, took up arms to resist the occupation, much as they had done against the Soviet forces. But this time, instead of supporting the Taliban’s fight for freedom, Pakistan allied with the invader and, for a sumptuous fee, trained its guns on them.
Baitullah Mehsud yoked splinter groups of militants together in 2007 to form the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Mehsud also adopted a wider agenda. While fighting the Americans and their allies was foremost, he added the application of Sharia as an ideological underpinning. This brought him into direct conflict with the government of Pakistan. But the strongest casus belli has been Pakistan’s alliance with the US against the Taliban, which resulted in a prolonged war between the TTP and Pakistan troops.
During the last nine years or so, the Pakistan military has launched nine fullfledged and several small-scale military operations against militants. But it has failed to take them out. Some commentators argue that attempts have been half-hearted thus prompting a crescendo of liberal voices to clamor for the army to launch an all out military action in North Waziristan and cleanse the territory once and for all of the Taliban.
Because of the TTP’s terrorist activities, the killing of 40,000 civilians and several thousand soldiers and officers of the Pakistan army, besides reneging on several agreements in the past, a strong lobby denounces any suggestion about talking with the group. However, only the charges about mindless killing through suicide attacks may stick. But army fatalities should be treated as normal occurrence in a war, where both sides take casualties. Taliban were also killed but their number remains unknown. As to going back on agreements, the allegations against the TTP have not been proven through an unbiased inquiry.
Apparently, there are two basic factors behind the ongoing war. The first is Pakistan siding with the US; the other is the implementation of Sharia. But some more have further muddied the waters. First, in this conflict, the record of the army’s relations with the Taliban is murky. Second, is the matter of foreign nationals firmly settled in N. Waziristan; many of whom have taken local spouses. Even otherwise, asking the locals to drive them away or handing them over to the army would amount to asking them to renege on their hallowed tradition of “Pakhtunwali,” under which a host must protect anyone whom he has given shelter under his roof. That is why Mullah Omar faced American invasion but did not surrender OBL.
There is no question that the TTP have made a menace of themselves. Mindless murders, like the latest attack on Justice Maqbool Baqar of the Sindh High Court, are the perfect recipe for suicide. These acts may swing public opinion against it, achieving what President Zardari’s proclamation that fighting TTP is “Our War” and Gen. Kayani’s hortatory speeches have failed to do.
The army’s capability to kill or drive away every soul from the area is beyond any doubt. But an all out military action may spawn more consequences than its sponsors seem to have bargained for. For example, it would be seen as ethnic cleansing and invite the charge of genocide from the international community. Moreover, this time it may not be easy to shake the charge off as in the case of East Pakistan. The killings and the displacement of thousands of families would sow bitterness among the people that would stay fresh for many years. Anger may find expression in sniping and kidnappings as during the British rule. And the dream of establishing the state’s writ may remain unrealized.
Ironically, despite its excesses the TTP has an edge over its detractors. Its demands for the implementation of Sharia Law and Pakistan withdrawing its support from the US against the Taliban are understood by the common man and therefore draw immediate support. On the contrary, the idea of “state’s writ” is vague and beyond the common people’s comprehension.
The TTP is fighting the government but it does not defy Pakistan’s sovereignty. It has never called for independence. Its demand amounts to full autonomy and nothing else. That autonomy it wishes to apply is for the purpose of introducing Sharia. The allegation that the Taliban defies the Constitution also does not gel. Indeed the contrary would be truer, because, TTP’s demand for Sharia supports rather than contradict what has been stated in the Objectives Resolution (Article 2A) and Article 227 of the Constitution.
Actually it is the American factor that has vitiated the atmosphere and destabilized FATA. The US dictates the Pakistan government’s policy towards the Taliban. It therefore sabotages any steps taken by the government for engaging with the Taliban. For example, the US was aware that Nawaz Sharif was inclined to talk with the Taliban after he was sworn in. Yet it killed TTP’s second-in-command, Waliur Rahman, in May with a drone attack. The consequence was foretold and the TTP promptly withdrew its earlier offer to talk. This is one reason why, in spite of the Taliban’s brutal killing of innocent people and other excesses, the rightist lobby and religious political parties have never uttered a single word of reproof against the group. People like Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Mahmood Khan Achakzai openly favor dialogue. Nor is Imran Khan opposed to it. Ultimately, talks may offer the only way out of the quandary.
Those who fire verbal bullets on newspaper pages against the Taliban will have to have second thoughts. The idea of talking from a position of strength or only with those Taliban who lay down their arms, should be dismissed. As Gen. De Gaulle once said, “You talk to people who shoot at your soldiers. You do not talk to people who do not have blood on their hands. They are irrelevant.”