Can the Pakistani Army defeat the Taliban? In terms of military capacity and financial resources, yes it can. However, when it comes to political support and ideological convictions, that is where it starts to get worrying.
If it wants to, the Pakistan Army can easily track down Taliban commanders. It can also tip off or ask the Americans to target the Taliban commanders and do Pakistan a favour. The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, is a case in point for the latter. It is erroneous to think that when an high profile militant is killed or captured in Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities did not know about his whereabouts prior. Important militant commanders are targeted when they outrun their usefulness to the army. This can happen when they are no longer required to do the bidding for Pakistan in the War on Terror, or they become too independent and start to dictate the rules of the game to the army, or when they turn their guns against the state and the army in order to gain more territory and clout inside the country. The War on Terror is also a business for Pakistan. Many of these militants have a price on their heads worth millions of dollars. Pakistan first creates high value targets by sheltering and supporting them, before selling them off to the international world.
The drone attacks have been taking place inside the country with the cooperation of the army. In many cases, militants are targeted at the request of Pakistan. This is because American and Pakistani interests sometimes align when it comes to combating the Taliban. Notwithstanding this fact, there are occasions when the army openly criticizes the US and shows its anger towards its benefactor. This happens when the US attacks militants without Pakistani permission. In such cases, the Americans go after targets that Pakistan considers strategic assets in the Afghan endgame and therefore does not want them to be eliminated. The reason behind public fallouts between Pakistan and the US is over the control of the drone operations. The army does not want the US to target militants that are vital proxies of Pakistan. Pakistan Army has even requested the US to transfer over the drone technology to it, which goes on to show that the real dispute is over who calls the shots.
Those are some of the features of Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban. In the upper echelons of the army, there seems to be a desire to take tough action against the militants. Given the fact that the Taliban have waged an open war against the army, the generals do not want to take it sitting down. Several large-scale operations have already taken place in Waziristan and the Swat valley over the years. In recent weeks, the army as well as the airforce have targeted militant hideouts.
What what kind of political support does the army have? The previous PPP government worked hard to build consensus and took full political responsibility when the army launched its operations against the Taliban. The current government, however, is in no hurry to combat militancy. In publicly supporting peace talks and dialogues with the Taliban, the government is giving legitimacy to the Taliban. Negotiations take place between two parties who present their demands in hope to reach a compromise. Inviting the Taliban to the negotiation table means that their demands are deemed worthy of consideration. Imran Khan, for his part, has consistently been the biggest apologist for the Taliban even before he came to power. He has become a helpful tool to the Taliban thanks to his vehement opposition to any criticism of the Taliban whatsoever. In the political spectrum, nobody has done more to normalize the Taliban than Khan. He is so blinded that he even ignores Taliban attacks against his own party members. It comes as no surprise that the Taliban have requested the government to give a seat to Imran Khan on the negotiation table, so that he could lobby for the Taliban.
Nawaz Sharif, though, is not the same as Imran Khan. PML-N’s public show of support for the peace talks is likely to be a political strategy aimed at not disappointing its religious and nationalist voting base in the Punjab. It appears that the government could be pursuing a two-track policy: publicly calling for a dialogue with the Taliban but at the same time working with the army and the US to target the militants. Nawaz Sharif knows that the Taliban are an eventual danger to his province of Punjab. His party, till present, has adopted a policy of tolerating militants inside and outside the Punjab as long as the Punjab is left untouched. Nonetheless, some of the most high-profile attacks against the army in the past and recent present have taken place inside the Punjab with the help of local militants and radicals inside the army. Since the safety of the Punjab is his main priority, he would not let the Taliban touch his home province. Up until now, his concern over the security of the rest of the country has been in doubt. It is possible that PML-N could try to reach a deal with the Taliban as long as the Punjab remains safe. However, the army understands that conceding territory to the Taliban in any part of the country is dangerous since it would only help them regroup, recover and strike again. It seems highly unlikely that Sharif will prevail over the army in this matter.
During the last month, it seemed that a military operation against the Taliban was imminent. But the government has come out in the last few days to announce a committee that will hold talks with the militants. The framework of the talks is unclear but what is evident is that the state has not put up any ideological challenge to the Taliban whatsoever. In fact, the government has been using religious radicals to carry out backchannel talks with the Taliban. It would appear that the talks are between two estranged brothers.
If the past is any indicator, the latest peace talks are bound to fail. There have been several treaties with the Taliban where the state made numerous compromises, only for the Taliban to break each and every agreement. If the current efforts also falter, only a military operation seems the likely outcome.
But does the army have the necessary ideological support in its battle against the Taliban? More than a military challenge, the Taliban are an ideological challenge. They need to be defeated on the intellectual level and on moral grounds. The army can perhaps easily defeat them on the battle field but it is not so straightforward to curb the Talibanization of the Pakistani mind. More importantly for the army, the Talibanization within its ranks is matter of life and death for their institution. Secondly, the religious fever in their main support areas such as Jhang, Jehlum, Sialkot, Attock, etc. makes the matter equally difficult. The Talibanization of Pakistan did not begin with and is not limited to Waziristan and the War on Terror. The stronghold of Jihadism in Pakistan is the Punjab province. It is from the Punjab that Jihadis and their ideology are produced and exported not only to the rest of the country, but to the entire world. Jihadism and Islamism are an integral part of the Punjab’s politics. It is part of the process of the Pakistani nation-state, led by the Punjab. Pakistan is a country where there a deep cleavages along the lines of ethnicity and language. What is called Pakistan is a fictitious political entity, not a nation. This entity is dominated by the Punjab due to the fact that it inherited the vestiges of British colonialism such as its bureaucracy and, most importantly, the army. Since the creation of Pakistan, the Punjab has slowly extended its control over the rest of the country’s provinces, amounting to colonization. Hard power has been used to subdue the nationalism of the provinces. The ideological justification of the use of violence and the Punjab-led Pakistanization of the provinces has been Islam: one nation under Islam, with no place for ethnic differences. With severe structural imbalances between the Punjab and the rest of the provinces, it is the Punjab and its ideology that dominates the country when every other ethnicity is erased.
Aside from the regular army, violent and sectarian Jihadi groups have been used by the Punjab to suppress nationalist movements in other provinces. Fanatic religious propaganda has been exported to the rest of the country via these Jihadi groups in order to contaminate the minds of the youth. In recent years, religious schools have proliferated in Balochistan in order to combat the Baloch nationalist insurgency. Jihadi groups are involved in the killings of Baloch nationalists alongside the Pakistani secret services. In Sindh, too, the Talibanization of the society has been accelerated and more and more religious schools are springing up.
The ideology of Pakistan is interchangeable with that of the Jihadis. There is hardly a difference between Jihadi groups, political parties like the Jammat-e-Islami, and the army in terms of their ideological outlook. Under the auspices of the army generals and their ideologues, both the soldiers of the army and their Jihadi proxies have been taught that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and should be a bastion of the religion. Not only should it be defended from the outside forces but also from the enemies within. Regionalism and provincial nationalism is equated to being anti-Pakistan – and anti-Pakistan is the same as anti-Islam. Therefore, when the Bengalis, the Baloch, the Sindhis and the Urdu-speaking mohajirs are violently suppressed, they are suppressed not only in the name of Pakistan, but in the name of Islam as well. The suppression of these ethnic groups upholds the supremacy of the Punjab, in the name of Pakistani nationalism and in the name of protecting the religion.
In the case of the Taliban, they have received ideological support and legitimacy thanks to the already existing discourse in Pakistan of taking up the sword in the name of Islam. The first Jihads to be sent from Pakistan to fight an foreign occupation was not when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; but it was right after the creation of Pakistan when the state and the army armed and sent tribals to Kashmir in order to ‘liberate Muslims.’ Jihadis and the army have been occupying space in the country under similar slogans ever since. However, now there is a huge dilemma on hand for the Pakistani army: there is another group of soldiers who shout the slogans of Jihad louder than the army, who claim to be better Muslims, and who also want to Islamize Pakistan by taking over not just the state but also the army itself. The public is confused to such an extent that it cannot comprehend what has hit the country. Years and years of Taliban attacks against the state, the army, mosques, shrines, schools, religious minorities, and journalists have yet to convince the people that Pakistan is suffering from a cancer, which, if not removed from the body immediately, will become terminal.
But how can it see through the haze when it has been fed with delirious religious rhetoric for decades? How can the army motivate its men to fight the Taliban when the army has only taught soldiers to take up arms against the enemies of Islam? On one hand, the army maintains the discourse of Jihad against India, but how can it convince its soldiers that the Jihad of the Taliban is not the right Jihad? If the state and army ideologues say that the Taliban Jihad against the US is justified then why is their Jihad not justified against the Pakistan army, which is an American ally? The battle between the army soldiers and the Taliban is that of a older brother vs. his younger brother. It is not very easy for Pakistan’s soldiers to kill their kin. Also, the prevalent view in Pakistan that the Taliban are exclusively a product of the American invasion of Afghanistan and of drone attacks and will thus disappear when the Americans leave has numbed the Pakistani mind into inaction.
The anger inside the lower ranks of the army has intensified. Low ranking soldiers and officers cannot accept that their brethren engaged in a holy war are being targeted by the army. This is the reason why they have on many occasions turned against their superiors. The attacks on Musharraf and on major military bases were carried by internal dissidents. The growing dissatisfaction in the lower and middle ranks has caused great concern within the army. The generals realize that the future of their institution depends on whether they are able to eliminate the Taliban or not, especially from within their ranks. Along with religious solidarity, what compounds the anger is class hatred. The gulf between the lifestyles of the lower ranking army officers and their superior is immense. The different modes of living between the two amounts to social apartheid. The luxury in which the generals and the majors live is seen as further proof of moral denigration and decadence by the lower ranks. In the eyes of the dissidents, not only does the upper class of the army not practice what it preaches, but is happy to collaborate with the US and throw their brethren under the bus.
The Pashtun Taliban have support of the Punjabi Taliban. The Taliban in the Punjab are the brain and soul behind the ones from Waziristan. The Punjabi Taliban have long dreamt of taking over the country and the coming of age of the tribal Taliban is a step towards the fruition of that dream. Terrorist operations inside the Punjab are carried out by the Punjabi Taliban. The Jihadi monster that this province had up till now used against other provinces has turned the tables around and its the Punjab and the army who are facing down the face of the monster. There are more Taliban in the Punjab than in the tribal areas. The challenge facing Nawaz Sharif government and the army is how to tackle the Jihadis in their own backyard without upsetting the entire house.
The Taliban are much more dedicated in their project and their ideology than the army. The Taliban are sincere in their ideals, goals and objectives, which is why they have been ready to sacrifice their lives for it. The top cream of the army, on the other hand, can hardly be said to be sincere to the ideology it perpetuates. The army is a business, source of high income, and of upward social and class mobility. The army is the biggest employer in the country; men join it for economic and social privileges, not for the defence of the country. Those who dedicate their lives to such comforts are not the ones who are true followers of an ideology. Ideology demands personal sacrifice and the Taliban foot soldiers have spent more blood and sweat than the army officers living in their opulent houses in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Who is to say that they, with their family connections and much of their wealth abroad, will not jump ship when it really starts to sink?
One way of combating the Taliban would be to strengthen the democratic and progressive movements in the country. However, the backward leadership of Pakistan is busy killing off secular and educated Baloch nationalists, while the Punjab can never stand the sight of a flourishing Sindh and Karachi.
Once the Americans leave Afghanistan, the war in the region will enter a new phase. The next phase will be much more significant than the entire Afghan war put together. The departure of the American forces will free up the Taliban to the focus solely on Pakistan. Those who call for an immediate American withdrawal and an end to drone strikes should keep this scenario in mind.
The battle against the Taliban is a battle for the very soul of Pakistan. It is the ideological premise of the country, created by the Punjab, which is the root of the problem. If the ideological infrastructure of Pakistan is not built anew, the military victories against extremism will be short lived. The army might win the battle but to win the war, larger and much more radical steps need to be taken.