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Is Pakistan Using the Taliban?



Within a week of a drone strike killing the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud and the selection of Mullah Fazlullah in his place, Pakistan stands exposed for its dithering policy towards the tribal areas and, as a consequence, terrorism. So long as the militants stuck to their idea of a Sharia-ised nation, shooting people for going against their interpretation of god’s law, the establishment maintained a stoic distance. It had for long tolerated the men with AK-47s as guards outside banks and hotels in the true-blue manner of giving handouts to the good guys, a lesson learned from watching the Pentagon in Dirty Harry mode.

As soon as the urban streets were bloodied by the new Taliban, the non Mujahids, the ones who wanted a stake in the pie of what the country was carved out for, to begin with – an Islamic state – the political hierarchy became testy. There are 30 or so factions of the Taliban, and different clans have varied methods of operating and to an extent ideology. More important, their political allegiances are revealing. This manifests itself in how the urban class responds to the Taliban, or to terrorism.

There was outrage when the TTP and allied groups spoke of Mehsud as a martyr. In Pakistan ‘shaheed’ is a word used often, including for white sheets covering bodies with no names – the unfortunate victims of both terrorism and flawed government policies. Most of these do not have any ideology, or at least none that they could be identified with. Much of such destruction took place even before the TTP. So, what gave birth to the Pakistan Taliban? It seems to be an illegitimate child of the Afghan Talib and the people who run the country. From the isolation of the rule of law not extending beyond FATA to it snaking its way via American ‘protectionism’, Pakistan’s leaders had found a new constituency, a new area of darkness they could sell to the world and reap the benefits.

Is it any wonder that almost all the reports about the just-anointed TTP chief refer to him as the man behind the “assassination” attempt on Malala? Fazlullah’s sins have been encapsulated in this theme-bomb of the West. It is dangerous, but then there is a section of Pakistanis that loves courting drawing room danger. They are all quick to label themselves as victims of the Taliban, when many would not even leave their comfort zone and visit those beautiful areas they claim as their own. It is not fear of the Taliban; it is, and was, fear of their own people, of people they considered backward.

Even Imran Khan, a Pashtun himself, used to enact a role of tribesman. It is only in the last couple of years since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) became a force and now the government of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) that his role has become enmeshed. It comes with a price. He is now the man with the golden gun. An apologist of jihad. To an extent, the accusations are not unfounded. As a politician he does have greater responsibility, although the labels jihadi and apologist are employed loosely and carelessly.

The point is not whether Mehsud deserved to die, but whether his death is likely to end the reign of terror. It is rather disconcerting that the success rate of drones getting the ‘real’ men has been dismal. Why is that so? The U.S. announces a bounty, and no one needs to claim it. For, one day a drone finds the terrorist and claims temporary victory to distract the Pakistanis. If civil society is going to accept such killings, it will need to introspect also about giving a license for the killing of innocent people, and it will have to drop its liberal stance regarding capital punishment. Why should American justice prevail over its own laws?

Being a pawn has served Pakistan’s democrats well throughout history. Although most of its senior leaders have been arrested at some point in time, none of them had tried to deal with the strife in the northern areas.

On the eve of the meeting with the TTP, Mehsud was killed by a drone. Impeccable timing and aim. Pertinently, in the recent meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had expressed his opposition to the drone strikes, as any self-respecting leader ought to. Wham. They got one guy. Lesson for the leader.

Following the murder, the snarky response to Sharif’s government wanting to initiate peace talks with the Taliban exposed the political expediency of the elite. Surely, people are not naïve to imagine that the Taliban can run a parallel system without some assistance. Also, for whatever it is worth, the TTP is not a fringe organisation. As in many instances, it is a titular voice of the region, not unlike the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) of Altaf Hussain. They were born of violent struggle, and the umbilical cord with the establishment has not been cut completely. A dialogue with the Taliban is as crucial, if not more, to Pakistan as is a dialogue with the U.S. on its troops in the country.

In this noise, Imran Khan openly mourned for Mehsud. It was time for titters. These days, the best way to gauge how the Pakistani mind works is to watch the two well-defined conflicting reactions to Khan. According to his opponents, he has no right to call himself a liberal. They are unwilling to accept that talking with TTP militants is not any different than the killers from the air. To pass off such amorality as self-righteousness is disingenuous. The young leader of Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, called him a coward. Jogging memory might have worked better, for his mother Benazir Bhutto looked the other way during the Taliban’s early days. Nipping it in the bud was not considered an option.

The PPP is at a loose end. It is plausible that it saw in Mehsud’s killing not only the death of a terrorist, but a few points down for Sharif. However, in good old subcontinental manner, things have come full circle. Destiny or a more devious plan? With so many sparring groups within the Taliban, and barely a few days after the last rites and ritual mourning, the shura decided on Fazlullah as their leader. He does not live in the region anymore, and he was helming the operations during the regime of the PPP, when the schools were burned. In fact, in 2009 “it accepted all his conditions and enacted Sharia law in Swat but Mullah Fazlullah still refused to disarm”. There was no dialogue, no peace initiative. One is not suggesting cowardice.

But, it is rather amusing to read accounts that almost make Fazlullah appear like a supra-Mehsud character, taking the evilness of the Talib to the apogee when only a few days ago there were images of Mehsud watching a beheading of one of his own. It might not be wrong to say that it is the Pakistani leadership that is the Taliban’s nemesis rather than it being the other way. Perhaps, leaders of various parties are messing around with different factions to help them in their own ambitious plans.

Meanwhile, under the guise of avenging the “martyrdom of Mehsud”, TTP leader, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhitani, said: “The talks about peace between Pakistan and Taliban leaders is just a trap of enemies and to distract the masses. All political parties that are part of government are considered to be our enemies.”

The Taliban seem to be more astute politicians than the mainstream political establishment. They knew that when the Pakistani army entered Waziristan, it was using it as a showpiece of gym-toned abs for a celluloid performance. For the TTP, this was more like a green signal to spread their wings.

In 2010, I had the rather unnerving, but enlightening, experience of being introduced to Fazlullah in his Radio Mullah avatar. His sermons played in a cab for two hours. As I mentioned then, underground FM station sermons are not an unusual phenomenon. Ham radio broadcasts have been used during freedom struggles and insurgency movements. It is a smart strategy because it reaches people without the need for physical contact.

We now have a leader “in exile” further romanticised by distance. While ostensibly he will rule remotely, the infiltration into the Taliban by mainstream politics is how the cookie will really crumble.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer and author of ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’. She can be reached at Cross Connections

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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