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Recognising Taliban narratives — by Gulmina Bilal Ahmad

The Taliban are very intelligently shaping the narrative and we are falling in line, so to speak. What is a Punjabi Taliban? Or for that matter a Pakhtun one? It is being turned into an ethnic fight based on narrow understandings and considerations of provincialism

Public relations officers have a rule that they live by. The rule is that if you cannot change the facts, change the glasses through which those facts are read and seen. The Pakistani Taliban are masters at this. After Rehman Baba’s mausoleum, they strike Data Darbar, which is home to individuals of all religions, creeds, sex and social strata. It is perhaps one of the few places where Pakistan’s deeply divided society comes and seeks solace alike. The Defence begum might find herself rubbing shoulders with her cleaning lady while an imam of a mosque might find himself next to a Christian fellow at the langar. If it was not for Data, the twain would have never met, given the religious, social and political divide of our society.

However, after last week’s attacks, for the first time in over 900 years the famous langar at the Data Darbar did not function. The federal and provincial governments have called for organising an All-Parties Conference (APC) on Terrorism and every analyst worth his/her salt is debating the pros and cons of launching a military operation in South Punjab. Media reports as well as a host of political leaders have been very vocally opposing the ‘Punjabi Taliban’. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is also calling for urgently curtailing the activities of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ as according to them they are hosting, as well as providing technical assistance to the Taliban elements in their province. There are demands of some senior provincial ministers to be absolved of their ministerial responsibilities accompanying demands for their ouster from their political party for their alleged links to militant outfits. The Punjab government is equally vocal in opposing ideas about launching military operations in the province. The controversy sometimes acquires partisan colours and at times provincial.

Amidst this entire din, I stand fascinated and mystified. Fascinated at the PR management skills of the Taliban and mystified at our reactions. We are being led. Our adversaries are shaping our thought processes and understanding of the challenges that we are confronted with. The Taliban are very intelligently shaping the narrative and we are falling in line, so to speak. What is a Punjabi Taliban? Or for that matter a Pakhtun one? It is being turned into an ethnic fight based on narrow understandings and considerations of provincialism. As a friend remarked recently, previously on hearing news about a terrorist attack, one would pray that a Pakistani did not do it. Now one prays that it should not be a Punjabi.

Narratives determine our understanding. They shape it. Narratives are what PR agents normally call the ‘spin’ on facts. Facts are indisputable; narratives are not since they are the explanation of what happened. The answer to what actually happened or who is responsible depends on who is answering the question. For reasons of understanding, it can also be said that a court trial is essentially a process of determining whose narrative wins. The successful narrative is labelled the truth. That is why it is said that history is determined by the person who is writing it. In 1857, for South Asians the war of independence occurred. For the British, it was the Indian Mutiny. Same fact, different narrative. Hence different reactions.

As writer Stephen Blitz in his online magazine, Forces of Geek, states, “Narrative is not a story but rather the way in which a story is told. Ask Ernest Hemingway and Wally Lamb to write a story about a pregnant woman dealing with the prospect of an abortion and you will emerge with two very different narratives, one that appears as hills like white elephants and other about a woman who has come undone.”

Narratives are the basis of our worldviews. A paranoid mindset, for instance, is the result of a negative narrative that is based on an external locus of control rather than an internal one. In other words, if one is constantly being excused on the pretext that s/he is not to be blamed but only circumstances determine actions, then one is merely reactive and not pro-active. Blaming Zionist, Indian or American policies conveniently absolves us of our responsibility. Declaring that our present challenges are only because of militant madrassas or a certain province is to play into the hands of those who seek to confuse the narrative. This is similar to believing the Taliban-generated narrative that most Taliban apologists in the political and media circles have adopted: the means are incorrect but the end of establishing a just state is commendable.

This narrative fails to consider that non-state actors cannot take the law into their own hands and dispense justice. We have the judicial process for this. If justice is not being served and strengthened by the judiciary of any country, it is for the citizens to build public pressure on it to perform better. Not to dispense justice by flogging individuals, parading them naked on the streets, enforcing self-understood versions of morality while all the time funding your organisation and activities through illegal means, including money laundering and drug trafficking.

Writing on the importance of narratives, Stephen beautifully states, “Life is a story. We are born, we grow up, and we die. The way we tell that story, however, is a choice.” The Taliban are influencing this choice by clouding the facts. It is a fact that militant groups and their splinter cells are now all over the country because of not only the military operations in Swat and South Waziristan but also because of the 2007 Lal Masjid Operation Silence as well as increased intelligence and coordination all over the country. To describe militants on the basis of their ethnicity and indulge in a fruitless blame game is dangerous since under the present circumstances we do not have the luxury of time to do so. The sooner we move beyond this, the better.

The writer is a freelance consultant. She can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 9 July 2010

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  • The discourse on Punjabi Taliban

    Tuesday, July 06, 2010
    By Rahimullah Yusufzai
    A term that was first used by Pakhtun tribal people to describe Punjabi militants in their midst in Waziristan has become a matter of dispute between the leaders of the PPP and the PML-N. Interestingly, mostly Punjabis from the two major political parties of Pakistan are involved in this controversy at a time when unity is needed to tackle terrorism. There is no doubt that this is an ideal outcome for the terrorists and whoever is sponsoring them because terrorist acts are committed not only to cause death and destruction but also chaos and uncertainty.

    The PML-N leaders object to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has accused Interior Minister Rahman Malik, a lateral entrant in the PPP, of using it to create rift between the provinces. He argued that the statement by Rahman Malik, who is a Punjabi from Sialkot, using the word Punjabi Taliban and Punjabi terrorists amounted to a condemnation of the people of Punjab. Shahbaz Sharif also stressed that he has never used the term Pakhtun Taliban or Pakhtun terrorists.

    Nawaz Sharif also took exception to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban by remarking that terrorists are just terrorists as they had no boundaries and territories. Indeed this is the line now being taken by most politicians, but political point-scoring and backstabbing is prompting some of them to paint the terrorists and militants in ethnic and sectarian colours.

    Not long ago Pakhtuns were the villains as almost all Taliban were Pakhtun. Common Pakhtuns earning their livelihood in Punjab, Sindh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad were increasingly being viewed with suspicion and the police in some places rounded up innocent Pashto-speakers after accusing them of being militants or their facilitators. It would be a while before these poor souls are able to prove their innocence. Many wealthy Karachi and Lahore families stopped hiring Pakhtuns, known for their loyalty and for doing tough menial jobs, or fired those already in their pay. One wonders if those denied an opportunity to earn an honest livelihood wouldn’t consider returning to their wretched villages and joining the militants.

    Isn’t it a fact that the record unemployment, which is highest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa compared to other provinces, has already pushed many jobless young men into the ranks of the militants? It is also difficult to forget how attempts were made to prevent Pakhtuns displaced by militancy and military operations from seeking refuge and work in Sindh and Punjab and Sindhi nationalists and MQM, following a wink by the Qaim Ali Shah-led PPP government, staged strikes to keep out the largely poor Pakistanis of Pakhtun origin from a part of their own country. At the time, one felt all this talk about nationhood and national solidarity was rather artificial.

    Returning to the debate on Punjabi Taliban, Rahman Malik denied using this term and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said he was satisfied with his explanation. The Interior Minister is obsessed with media coverage and often he lands himself in trouble by talking too much and about matters, like military operations and strategies, that aren’t part of his job. Despite being proved wrong on a number of occasions, he didn’t stop claiming the death of top Taliban commanders in tribal areas that are beyond his mandate and where intelligence networks have usually been found wanting.

    The discourse about Punjabi Taliban is taking place at a time when a recent IMF report put Pakistan’s losses in the past five years due to the ‘war on terror’ at Rs2.08 trillion and when the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is attempting a comeback in South Waziristan, Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions by launching fresh attacks against the security forces and target-killing government supporters. Its jihadi allies are aiding these efforts by striking in the cities, particularly in Lahore, and in the process sowing the seeds of discord in the country’s political, religious and ethnic fabric. The faultlines in our society are being exposed and cleverly exploited. There is talk of the Deobandi-Barelvi divide as numerous organizations claiming to speak for the majority Sunnis clamour to grab attention and gain ascendance in the wake of the suicide bombings at the Data Darbar of Lahore’s patron saint Syed Ali Hajvairi. The Ahle Hadith sect and others that don’t like visits to shrines and condemn certain rituals that go on around the graves of the saints are attracting flak. There are fresh demands for more and tougher military operations against the militants not only in the tribal borderlands of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in southern Punjab.

    The same politicians fighting over the Punjabi Taliban terminology are loudly welcoming the holding of a national conference on the issue of terrorism. Those unable to agree on simple things due to politics cannot be expected to take major decisions. If the past conferences are a guide, one could say beforehand that this effort too would be an exercise in futility. The conference would make feel-good recommendations, which the PPP-led federal government would be unwilling and unable to implement considering its past refusal to take seriously the now forgotten unanimous parliamentary resolution on the subject. The politicians, ruling or otherwise, would have to keep in mind the reaction of the powerful military and the interfering Americans, who despite their failure to contain the Taliban in Afghanistan still believe that they are qualified to advise Islamabad on how to tackle the Pakistani Taliban. On a previous occasion, all these politicians almost absolved themselves of responsibility and gave a free hand to the military to carry out action against the militants.

    There is renewed demand by certain politicians for negotiating peace with the Pakistani Taliban to end their devastating bombings in the cities. This demand is unlikely to be accepted by the powers that be even though two peace accords, one with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led Taliban faction in North Waziristan and another with Maulvi Nazeer’s tribal fighters in Wana and Shakai in South Waziristan, are still in place and accepted by both the militants and the military. Besides, the other insurmountable hurdle is the TTP’s main demand that Pakistan should end its alliance with the US and stop being part of the ‘war on terror.’ Is it possible for our leading politicians and generals to accept this demand in view of the international situation and on account of the tendency of our ruling elite to cling to the US in the hope of advancing their personal interest? In fact, Pakistan would be better off if it wasn’t such a close ally of the US but it is a relationship that cannot be given up easily due to the ground realities and for want of better options.

    Even if the Sharif brothers are justified in objecting to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban, the fact remains that the militants themselves prefer its usage. Mohammad Omar proudly introduces himself as spokesman for Punjabi Taliban when he phones journalists from somewhere in North Waziristan and speaks in his Punjabi-accented Urdu. For him, all Punjabi militants presently aligned to the TTP are part of the network of Punjabi Taliban. Government officials have also being using the term Punjabi Taliban. When South Waziristan’s political agent Shahab Ali Shah convened a jirga of Ahmadzai Wazir tribal elders in Wana on July 4 to warn them about military operation in their area if they didn’t expel foreign militants, he specifically mentioned Punjabi Taliban.

    It is interesting though that the original Taliban in Afghanistan have curtailed the use of Taliban and prefer calling their movement the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan while those inspired by them insist on being identified as Pakistani, Punjabi or Swati Taliban.

    The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: