Understanding the reality of the Taliban

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The Taliban’s ascendance in Swat and their brief foray into the town of Buner to the south sent leaders of the self-proclaimed superpower in Washington into panic that surpassed even that displayed by officials in Islamabad. US media reports repeatedly mentioned that Swat is barely 100 kilometres from the Pakistani capital. The intended message was that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were about to falls into the hands of bearded crazies with the distinct possibility that they would blow up the world. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs admitted that advances made by the Taliban in Pakistan were causing deep anxiety in Washington and that the issue was taking up a “significant amount” of US President Barack Obama’s time. “I think the news over the past several days is very disturbing, the administration is extremely concerned,” Gibbs said, pointing to “candid” comments on the issue by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 22. “What is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan is the central foreign policy focus of this administration.”

Gibbs told reporters that President Obama had decided to host a US-Pakistan-Afghanistan summit on May 6-7 because he wanted to get personally involved. “Understanding that this is a very important and very dangerous part of the world, the president wants to be personally involved,” Gibbs said. The purpose behind this move is to “find solutions to the problems that are in this region and to protect the United States,” he added. “The president will reiterate his hopes and his belief of the opportunities, but also the responsibilities that each leader has,” he said. Clinton had used even more blunt language when she said Pakistan was “basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists” with an agreement to permit implementation of Shari’ah in Swat valley. On April 23 US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates demanded that Pakistani leaders must act to stop the militants who have taken control of Swat and Buner.

Amid all the alarmist rhetoric, the Taliban announced on April 24 that they were withdrawing from Buner. Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed this in an interview with Agence France Presse (AFP) but the Swat-Buner developments had clearly raised fear levels in Washington and Islamabad many degrees higher. While the US is only concerned about pursuing its own agenda regardless of what damage it causes to other societies–”notably Pakistan’s–”and its media and that of the rest of the Western world only talk about how to confront this “threat”, it would be useful to examine the genesis of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was Sir Nicholas Barrington, then Britain’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, who together with the Americans and the Pakistani Interior Minister, General (retired) Naseerullah Babur under Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party government that had unleashed the Taliban in October 1994. Obviously, they had received training and money months or years prior to that in madrassas linked to the pro-Saudi maulana, Fazlur Rahman. The Taliban emerged because the various mujahideen groups that had defeated the Red Army in Afghanistan were locked in battle for control that frustrated American plans to build the oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan for onward shipment to the West.

Today the Western media do not tire of recounting the medieval ways of the Taliban but it was in December 1997 that a delegation of the Taliban was feted at UNOCAL’s headquarters in Houston in hopes that they would sign the agreement to allow construction of the pipeline. Several senior US officials, including Robin Raphel, US assistant secretary of State for South Asia (incidentally, the divorced wife of Arnold Raphel, US ambassador to Pakistan who was killed in the August 1988 plane crash with General Zia) had made several trips to Kabul to confer with the Taliban leadership between 1996 and 1998. By mid-2001 the Americans realized the Taliban were not willing to play according to their rules so they decided to attack and overthrow them. This was discussed openly at the Six-plus-two meeting on Afghanistan in Berlin in July 2001. The Taliban were attacked in October 2001 and driven from power in Kabul but they gradually regrouped and now control 72 percent of the country.

The rise of the Taliban in Pakistan is the result of several other developments, not all related. One is the brutal campaign by US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, especially aerial attacks in which thousands of innocent people have been killed. Such attacks have caused deep anger among the Afghans, driving them to join the insurgency in large numbers. The insurgency is strongest in areas bordering Pakistan because people on both sides of the border are Pashtun. The long and largely unmanned border facilitates easy movement by the people. Second, the Taliban or tribesmen on the Pakistani side rose up in revolt following the murderous assaults launched under US pressure in late 2003/early 2004 in Waziristan by the former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. After two years of bloody warfare in which Pakistan lost about 500 soldiers while thousands of tribesmen and their families were also killed, the army was forced to agree to a ceasefire but by then the rebellion had been triggered. Even while the Pakistan army scaled down fighting, the Americans launched drone attacks in 2006 that have so far killed nearly 1000 civilians in Waziristan. The region is now in the throes of a full-scale insurrection.

From Waziristan, the rebellion spread into the adjoining Kurram Valley (comprising areas from Kohat all the way west to Parachinar on the Afghan border). This regrettably has now taken a virulent sectarian twist and has attracted many criminal elements as well that are involved in kidnapping and extortion. Since the Kurram Valley borders Orakzai tribal agency and people move freely between the two, they were bound to be affected although in Kurram Valley, sectarian violence predates emergence of the Taliban. As early as 1980, there were sectarian clashes in Hangu that lies west of Kohat (in recent times, Hangu has become the centre of sectarian clashes and is a haven for kidnappers).

The other trouble spot is Durra Adam Khel that lies between Kohat and Peshawar. This area, inhabited by the Afridi tribesmen, has been outside government control since Pakistan’s creation. It is better-known as the arms bazaar. One can buy virtually any kind of weapons or smuggled goods in Durra market. About a decade ago, a tunnel was built through the mountains to reduce travel time between Kohat and Peshawar. While this provided welcome relief to travellers since the tortuous route up and down the mountain was so dangerous buses frequently rolled over hurtling passengers hundreds of feet down to their death, the tunnel became an easy target for anti-US tribesmen. This is one of the routes used by trucks transporting ammunition and other supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan. The tunnel has been attacked several times. The garrison city of Kohat has also been attacked and soldiers as well as the GOC Kohat have been killed, the latter together with several officers died in a mysterious helicopter crash.

The latest region to come into the picture is Swat and Buner. While Western media reports have focussed merely on last February’s deal between the provincial government and Taliban, they have ignored the underlying reasons for people’s anger. Fighting erupted in Swat two years ago. This can be traced directly to the brutal assault ordered by Musharraf on the Lal Masjid and Madrassa complex in Islamabad in July 2007 in which nearly 1400 students, most of them girls, were killed. The assault was widely applauded in the West as well as by the secular elite in Pakistan. This was presented as the government “asserting its writ” even though a deal was about to be struck. The fact that many girls were burnt to death by phosphorus bombs was dismissed as a small price to pay for Musharraf showing who was boss.

Since a majority of the dead girls were from Swat, their relatives appalled by army brutality took up arms to avenge their death. Instead of pacifying people through political means, Musharraf retaliated with military strikes, further escalating tensions. After two years of often bloody fighting, the ground reality had changed because the tribesmen were able to hold the military to a draw. They forced the provincial government to sign a deal whereby Shari’ah would be applied in the valley. The application of Shari’ah was a mere formality since it was practiced for quite a while due to the failure of government-run courts to deliver justice. Corruption was rampant in these courts and the rich and powerful were able to subvert the process, as happens in the rest of Pakistan even today. To get a glimpse of how justice was subverted and lawlessness spread, prior to the introduction of government-run courts, only 10 murders were committed in Swat in 1974; in three years this number had risen to 100 because people, especially the rich and powerful, bribed judges and got away free.

How the Taliban have been able to mobilise the masses to support them is both interesting and revealing. They have not mobilised people merely on the basis of religion. They have successfully exploited deep class differences by turning landless peasants against oppressive landlords who are also invariably political leaders. The landlords use their wealth to buy their way into power and once there, they use every means including their connections with government officials to subvert the judicial process. Even the New York Times (April 17) was forced to concede that the Taliban had successfully used the strategy to drive landlords out and to recruit landless peasants to their cause. “In Swat, accounts from those who have fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power,” wrote the Times. It went on: “The approach allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through terror and intimidation.” A senior Pakistani official who oversees Swat told the paper: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan.”

Nearly seventy percent of Pakistanis reside in the rural areas. The land-owning families have historically exploited their peasants and used the wealth they generate from the land to play politics. In Pakistan, the infrequently held elections are all about wealth and corruption. Candidates spent huge sums of money buying votes and as soon as they get elected, they begin to recover the money through bribes and other corrupt practices. These feudal lords are also extremely cruel and mistreat the landless peasants harshly. The plight of landless peasants is even worse in Sind and Baluchistan where the feudal lords also maintain private prisons. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was slain in December 2007 also belonged to a feudal family. Despite her polished exterior and clipped British accent acquired through prolonged stay in England, she did not allow even basic rights to the peasants working on her vast estates. She spent more on her dogs than her servants and serfs in a year. The same holds true for the rest of Pakistan.

To this cruelty must be added the subservience of the ruling elites to the US that most Pakistanis view as their enemy. The frequent drone attacks on Pakistani villages that result in the killings of innocent civilians have only added fuel to the fire. Additionally, nine years of secularisation and vulgarisation that Musharraf forced on Pakistani society left the mainly conservative people aghast. In this environment where the tiny minority of rich at the top have become richer while ordinary people have become poorer amid rising prices and shortages of basic necessities forcing people into abject poverty created an explosive situation. Pakistan was and remains ready for a revolution. If it lacks anything at all, it is a muttaqi leadership that can channel energies of the people in constructive directions. Regrettably, there appears nobody on the horizon to fulfill this role at present but one need not be pessimistic.

There may yet emerge a charismatic leader to channel this rage in a direction that will bring about meaningful change in Pakistan. Despite their obsession with minor issues like banning music and forcing people to grow beards, seeing these as signs of Islamic commitment, they are also showing awareness of broader social issues. For instance, the Taliban are promising speedy, if often crude Islamic justice, and good governance, something that have been distinctly lacking in Pakistan since its creation. They have now added economic redistribution to their agenda in a deeply polarised society. Similarly, they understand that the present political system is weighed against the masses; elections under this system will not bring about any meaningful change. It will simply facilitate the rotation of faces from one set of corrupt feudal-industrial politicians to another.

They have understood that the real enemy is the US that is causing murder and mayhem. They have also clearly seen through the elite’s corruption and cowardice. Pakistan is going through difficult times and may yet fall over the precipice but it would appear that the present order is unsustainable and major structural changes will have to be made before there is peace and stability in Pakistan.

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