The South Asia Channel
The Clash between Strategy and Implementation
How Pakistan Fights the Taliban.
Prior to 9/11, while sipping drinks in the home of a dear friend, a colleague of Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari’s family in one of Karachi’s posh neighborhoods, the issue of Talibanization of Pakistan was rebuffed as an alien concept.
Based on intensive field observation of the region, I had to push my argument that the mushrooming madrassa, particularly across the harmonious and liberal southern Sindh and the Balochi belt of the southwest Balochistan provinces, were a potential threat. The unbridled growth of this phenomenon has destabilized the interfaith harmony that existed before Pakistan’s participation in the glorified Afghan jihad against the former Soviet Union in 1979.
Puffing Cuban cigars, the closely-knit group of seasoned politicians from Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had difficulty seeing the scarecrow of extremism and militancy in their monarchial backyard. Specifically, the idea that an area considered to be under absolute control by an absentee feudal lord, was actually a mirage was hard for these individuals to grasp.
During the past decade, the political space hijacked under religious motivates has not only increased the gravity of the issue, but has also posed an existential threat to Pakistan — an area where “zero-tolerance” to terrorism has become a stale slogan.
The military has formulated the strategy, policy, and determination necessary to achieve its goals and that has to work in tandem with an effective civil apparatus. However, without political involvement, it cannot be put into effect. Here, even if politicians express their desire to implement the required strategy aimed at wiping out the plague of militancy and extremism from Pakistan, this attempt will be met with opposition. These impediments will likely act to prevent the eradication of radicalization and militancy in the country.
The issues that stand in the way to achieving a remedy in Pakistan can be narrowed down to the following:
- Saudi/Wahabi nexus: The ultraorthodox Sunni nexus, encouraged by Saudi Arabia to keep the sectarian hate-mongers off the soil of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, flourishes in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
- Fear: There is a general sense of fear prevailing among the community of Pakistani polity, policy makers, and politicians exposed to the Taliban. These individuals are quite capable of combating challengers using their own barbaric methods of execution. The carnage at the Army Public School in Peshawar, that took 149 young students’ lives, is quite evident. Multiple attacks on sensitive installations and on the hub of power quarters are evidence of the gravity of this deep-rooted fear. Fear leads to silence, which many falsely believe is an indicator of sympathizing with the Taliban. Additionally, recent hate-motivated suicide bombings add another dimension to the existing challenges facing Punjab province, the power hub of the government.
- Political Compromises: The political compromises occurring within Pakistan and Afghanistan incubate a multi-billion dollar illegal economy in narcotics, arms, and smuggling. This economy promotes political and strategic compromises that overshadow the majority of counterterrorism strategies.
- Cleric-Criminal Alliance: A product of deep-rooted social imbalance and state patronized jihad in the 1980s and the harnessing of strategic assets from rogue elements during the 1990s, anchored thousands of downtrodden Sunni clerics further into orthodoxy. This phenomenon created a crop of oxymoron militants associated with the Taliban and provided officials with an unimaginable hulk to deal with.
- Traditional Religious Forces versus a New Genre of Islamists: The traditional conservative religious entities in Pakistan possessed moderate attitudes and their conduct aligned with the Pakistani Constitution. An example of this can be seen by looking at Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl ur Rehman group) — groups who sympathize with the Taliban but are within mainstream politics, having held positions in the cabinet of ministers. However, the aggressive and violent nature of the new generation of Islamists poses an immense challenge to the views of these individuals. This new generation of Islamists believes in violence, militancy and extremism in all manifestations, a very different perception of the Islamic state than their traditional predecessors.
- The Ungoverned FATA: The Pashtun brotherhood, located in the northwest of Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, remains united by ethnic and linguistic ties. The Durand Line, drawn by the Colonial British for administrative purposes in 1893, was not strong enough to sever these ethnic and linguistic ties. Protective towards its territorial integrity, culture, customs, and an absolute intolerance to any external influence, the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA), comprising seven tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, is a lawless frontier of smuggling, narcotics, and gunrunning. The Pakistani government has imposed little regulation to this territory, instead focusing on the archrival India and their shared border.
It would be too simplistic to declare that Pakistani politicians do not want to take on the fight against the Taliban and the sectarian motivated extremists.
As of now, it appears that combatting the Taliban is still an exigent task for politicians as the political space in Pakistan has been hijacked by extremists and militants. The biggest challenge faced by the government is sustaining the religious beliefs of all citizens without hurting their own beliefs. The problem, however, is that the government appears to lack the capacity to deal with the militants without violating the religious sentiments of conservative traditionalists.
Based on the above-mentioned arguments, the immediate future appears to be uncertain. However, this uncertainty does not mean that it is okay to give up. The Taliban’s presence in Pakistan can only be eradicated when all Pakistani stakeholders are on the same page. In theory it seems as though the government and the military are on the same page but in reality, this is not the case.
Would the continuity of this “diffident political-will” lead to disruption of democratic process in Pakistan? Or will the regional compulsions prevail over the specific interests of an organization or a party? Given the simmering situation, it could be make-or-break year, as the foreign troops continue to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Note: The author had several discussions with Pakistani politicians and senior military officers that formed the basis for this article.
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