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Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Besieged Land A Paralysed State

SAEED MINHAS tracks the advance of the Taliban and analyses the capitulation of the Pakistani state
SAEED MINHAS is a senior journalist based in Islamabad
IT WAS almost 11am in the morning when I received a frantic call from my wife, asking me to rush to our childrens’ school and pick them up. A panicked school administration had called her up because of the threat to the school from the Taliban. As I rushed from my office to the jam-packed gates of the school, barely 10 minutes from Parliament, I called my sources in the army and the local civil administration. They confirmed my fears: the threat was real and I should pick up my children, I was told. We kept our children home for the next few days, as did many families in our neighbourhood, our worry heightened by television stations that constantly added to the fear psychosis by running tickers warning of five suspected suicide bombers that had entered and vanished “somewhere in Islamabad”. Since a strike anywhere and anytime seemed very possible, the city in the lap of the Margalla hills wore a deserted look, as embassies issued warnings to staff and markets and workplaces stayed empty.
The next day, I received a call from a source telling me that a young ‘ninja’, or a lady in an all-covering burqa, had arrived in a chauffeur-driven black car at the gates of a well-known private school in Islamabad’s posh F-7 sector and had asked the guard to let her enter. Without waiting for an answer, she just barged in. The ‘ninja’ reached the school’s office and found a teacher there. Shrugging off the queries of the teacher, the ‘ninja’ told her in a commanding voice, “This is a co-educational school. You had better stop being a co-educational school immediately and display a notice on the front gate announcing this change within the next couple of days. Our men will come to check if the notice is there. If you do not comply, everyone here will have to bear the consequences.” The ‘ninja’ left the trembling and utterly speechless teacher and drove off. The incident was repeated in a school in Sector F-6 that afternoon.

Thanks to extremists in religious organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami, both factions of the Jamaat Ulema-e- Islam, rogue elements of various national and international secret agencies and the terror franchises sponsored by those agencies — ranging from al Qaeda to the Taliban — Pakistan is at a crossroads. With the civilian government in limbo, it faces various dilemmas ranging from Talibanisation to Balkanisation and from Americanisation to corporatisation. What leaves 80 percent of Pakistanis completely befuddled is the fact that a 700,000-strong professional army — the only institution Pakistan has been able to nurture in 62 years, at the cost of political, administrative and judicial institutions — is not able to contain 20,000-odd Taliban or prevent them from usurping the hospitable culture, traditions and economy of the land, despite the fact that it has almost three divisions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
What befuddles Pakistanis is the fact that a 700,000-strong professional army is not able to contain 20,000-odd Taliban or stop them from usurping the culture and economy of the land
Since there is little independent reportage, whatever information we can get is either from the military or from the militants. Contrary to popular belief, the Taliban is not a homogenous group but is made up of local, ethnic, sectarian and foreign groups and even criminal gangs. Despite internal ideological and commercial differences, they seem to be fighting in unison for their survival — and for booty. State inaction encourages them and allows them to flourish.
The scenario is bewildering because on the one hand Talibanisation is exaggerated by all stakeholders and the media (which adds fuel to the fire by placing militants and military on the same footing) while, on the other hand, most Pakistanis seem to underestimate them due to historic and cultural biases. Their first premise is that religious parties have never been able to gain more than five percent of the votes in any election, with the exception of the doctored 2002 polls, when they got 11.1 percent. The second reason is that religion has totally different connotation for Punjabis, Balochis and Sindhis, compared to Pathans, who are relatively more influenced by mullahs. Besides Pathans, the other major portions of Pakistani society have a liberal view of religion that is deeply influenced by the mystic world of Sufism. In Punjab and Sindh, for example, a mullah is considered little more than a peasant. He gets a share of foodgrains during harvest and, in return, conducts various religious rituals. Villages in Punjab and Sindh have panchayats where elders make decisions, while in the NWFP, jirgas are held in which mullahs hold the trump cards.

No matter how we look at the Taliban, either as Pakistan’s dispossessed, poor students who have grown up in miserable conditions in madrassas or as the rogue experiments of the ‘khakis’ (the army), their advance shows a pattern. They infiltrate an area, paralyze its civil administration with a show of force or with suicide bombings and thereby create an administrative void. They fill that void by using a ‘quick justice’ route — executing known criminals — and then use portable FM radio transmitters to announce their edicts and spread terror among the populace. The al Qaeda factor in this process cannot be ruled out because it is Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs — muscular, tall and well built fighters — who spread the initial reign of terror and conduct executions, thus paving the way for local Taliban to control and run the show. Strangely, we have also witnessed a complementary pattern of state behaviour. Wherever they go, the civil administration and the khasadars (the local armed police) surrender without any resistance. This has happened in many parts of FATA and the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). Based on these patterns, one can see a clear Taliban advance, applying the same tactics to capture not only all major cities of the country but even the capital, Islamabad.
Three armed Taliban ordered 20 rifle-wielding local police to surrender and walk towards them. The frightened police complied, telling the journalists to obey or risk death
IREMEMBER THE first such incident in June 2007, when, in a lull among the on-and-off military operations, drone attacks and peace deals of the Musharraf era, the Taliban ventured into Darra Adam Khel, an agency of FATA, executed a known criminal, Charg, and displayed his body at a local crossing. Then they went on to kidnap and execute the Income Tax Commissioner, Yunus Khan, which prompted action from the government. Journalists were then invited to witness the ‘writ of the government’ in the area. A group of journalists in the area was told to enter a bunker along with some khasadars for safety. To the utter surprise of the journalists, three heavily armed Taliban appeared and ordered the group, including the 20 riflewielding khasadars, to surrender and walk to them. The frightened khasadars complied and told the journalists to obey or risk death at the hands of the Taliban. Though all were released within a few hours, that episode was a telling demonstration of the writ of the state and the terror of the Taliban.
Some wonder if the Taliban are part of a 21st century ‘Great Game,’ with players including the US, NATO, the EU, China, Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan. Game or no game, what stops the Pakistani Army from taking decisive action? Is the army’s strategy one of using this terror as a strategic tool to ‘sell fear’ not only to the Americans and the world, but more importantly, to our immediate neighbours? Are Zardari and company in control of the situation or are they, like many bewildered Pakistanis, banking on the Three As (America, Army and Allah) to stave off the threat to the very existence of the country? Or is this all part of an American plot to use the US’ old links with Soviet-era Mujahideen to stop China from realising its cherished dream of a warm water port at Gwadar, with Swat as gateway to China? Is America experimenting with hit-or-miss antidotes for the rise of the Taliban, using Pakistan as a laboratory without considering that if Pakistan falls to the Taliban it might become just another Afghanistan? Or is India dabbling in this mess, lured by economic opportunity in Afghanistan and the prospect of revenge for what it has been facing from the ISI since 1979?

As menace deepens and the air grows thicker with such conspiracy theories, it remains a fact that the Taliban have gained ground not only in FATA and PATA but also in parts of the Northern Areas like Chitral, besides reaching out to Balochistan, Southern Punjab and even in the heart of MQM-dominated Karachi. The Taliban have bought time with the Pakistani establishment and are venturing into every niche they can get a foothold in, in order to spread their version of Islam. First Swat, then Buner, and now Swabi have been infiltrated by the Taliban. The fear now is that since Swabi is next to Haripur district, which is connected to Islamabad by the Margalla Hills, the Taliban might try an assault at the capital, if their march is not checked in time.
The Taliban have infiltrated Swabi, which is next to Haripur district. The fear is that since Haripur is connected to the capital by the Margalla Hills, Islamabad might be next
THE ARMY has four cantonments in Peshawar, Nowshehra, Bannu and Kohat — ‘settled’ areas of the NWFP and four cantonments in Parachinar, Landi Kotal, Wana and Miran Shah in FATA, besides the Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force. Why, then, can the army not contain the Taliban? Army sources respond that all of FATA and most of PATA is made up of rugged mountains, making movement difficult and slow. But the real issue for the Army is the absence of political will and clear directions from the government. The elected government is trying to shift the burden of both operations against the militants and negotiations with them, to the army.
It is highly fortunate for the current disposition that the current leadership of the armed forces is busy rebuilding its image after the catastrophic last two years of the Musharraf era and is not currently interested in taking advantage of the weakest of all civilian governments of Pakistan. However, in case Zardari and company fail to show the required political acumen, scenarios such as the Bangladesh model might become a reality in the near future.

The confusion and hardships of the political leadership in Pakistan seems to have been made worse by the statements of Gen Petraeus, chief of the US’ Central Command, who stated that the political government could be defeated by the Taliban within the next two weeks, and President Obama, who admonished Pakistan’s political leadership for poor governnance, and praised the Pakistani Army for its commitment.
A feeble democracy is reeling from American verbal assaults on one side and from drone attacks on the other, bombings which cause great public outrage and unacceptably high levels of collateral damage. President Zardari is in the United States to sort this out and it is expected that he will bring back some hope and some borrowed zeal, so that both he and the government are able to deal with this and other burning issues at hand.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 19, Dated May 16, 2009

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