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Ayaz Amir: Missing the essence of Talibanism – Talibanism is a form of radicalisation. The only way to fight it is through radical leadership.

Missing the essence of Talibanism
Islamabad diary

Friday, February 13, 2009
by Ayaz Amir

I think we are not getting it. Talibanism in Afghanistan is a revolt against the American occupation. Those who can’t see this deserve an extended stay in a re-education camp. From this perspective the true godfather of the Afghan resistance is the United States of America.

But Pakistani Talibanism, as represented by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and Maulana Fazlullah in Swat, is a slightly different phenomenon. It may have originated as a side-effect of the Afghan war but it has now mutated into something with a personality of its own. With all its primitive and even barbaric permutations — the bombing of schools, the insistence on what amounts to female segregation, the slitting of throats — it is a revolt against the Pakistani state. Or rather a revolt against the dysfunctional nature of this state.

Far from being defeated, much less crushed, this revolt is spreading. Hitherto it was confined to the Frontier Province. But on February 7 we saw this revolt cross the River Indus for the first time when a police check post in Mianwali (Qudratabad near Wan Bachran) was attacked by Taliban fighters. On Feb 11 another police outpost near Essa Khail came under attack.

Mianwali and Bhakkar along the River Indus are vulnerable districts, open to infiltration from the Frontier. If the Taliban acquire any kind of foothold here, God help us. My district of Chakwal is a short ride away, as are the districts of Sargodha and Khushab. From there to central Punjab is but a short haul.

But why should anyone be attracted to the Taliban? Don’t we know what they stand for? Why should Punjab, of all places, ever afford them a foothold? There’s no simple answer to these questions.

But an obvious fact should stare any observer in the face. There is a stratum of privileged people in Pakistan, a middle class which also lives comfortably or gets by reasonably well, and then an entire population of have-nots, with no stake in the existing order of things, whose existence may not be short but it is nasty and brutish all the same.

Which are the elements flocking to Mahsud’s banner in Waziristan and Fazlullah’s in Swat? Not the big Khans or Maliks but the have-nots. Beware Punjab’s huge under-class which will be fodder and recruiting ground for the Taliban if the revolt in the north-west, escaping the best ability of the Pakistan military establishment to suppress it, snakes its way into the adjoining districts of Punjab.

Every Punjab town, large and small, has a mosque, if not more than one, sympathetic to the Taliban brand of Islam [no need to explain that most of these mosques belong to either Sipah-e-Sahaba or Wahhabi/Salafi ideology]. So at least there is a handy network — a Ho Chi Minh Trail, so to speak — down which the ideology of the Taliban can travel, whether we like this ideology or abhor it being a separate issue altogether.

If this were Nepal this would be a Maoist uprising. If this were a Latin American country it would be a peasant or a Guevarist uprising. Since it is Pakistan, the revolt assaulting the bastions of the established order comes with an Islamic colouring, Islam reduced to its most literal and unimaginative interpretations at the hands of those leading the Taliban revolt.

But then we know that with our Pakhtoon brothers there are no halfway measures. They are given to extremes. No wonder then if evangelicalism in their hands has descended to primitivism and barbarism.

The ferment in Swat began with Maulana Sufi Muhammad when he called for the establishment of Sharia law. But what is now happening in Swat — under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah, his son-in-law — has outgrown its origins. It is far bigger than anything old Sufi Muhammad could have envisioned.

Similarly, the Afghan resistance and its fallout on Pakistan are now much bigger than Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda may be a factor in the larger situation but the Taliban revolt in Pakistan has acquired an impetus of its own. Like a runaway plant it is rearing its head wherever it can — freebooters, buccaneers, committed Islamists, all drawn to its cause.

There are people who don’t have enough to eat, who don’t have a job and no prospects in life. If they are wronged they have no redress. There are people tortured daily in our police stations, people caught up for years in the endless grind of court cases. There is endemic corruption all round. Every government department, without exception, serves itself, not anything as esoteric as the people. If this is not recruiting ground for Talibanism, what is?

Let me give a few examples. Currently in Chakwal a Rupees18 crore project for the laying of sewerage lines is being carried out. The department responsible is Public Health Engineering. It is creating such a mess — drains clogged, streets blocked by dirty water —and the work is so sub-standard that it has triggered a public outcry.

When I visited one of the sites officials came up with lame excuses but I told them they were inviting the wrath of the heavens. I asked them to fear the time when people took matters into their own hands and started administering Taliban-style justice.

And Chakwal is the place subjected just a week ago to a visit by the Punjab chief secretary. His cavalcade as he tore from one place to another, police hooters screaming in front, was most impressive and also a trifle overdone. Did no one tell him about the mayhem caused by the Public Health Engineering Department?

The central road through Chakwal is being rebuilt and wide drains are being laid on either side. The work is so shoddy that loose sand would be better than the material the contractors are using. Well, the chief secretary has come and gone but the work is as shoddy as before. What did his grand tour achieve?

In police stations across the country money is king. Every incoming chief minister threatens to clean up thana culture. Nothing changes. Indeed, matters far from improving are sliding downhill faster than most of us realise.

The Americans say they want aid to Pakistan to focus on development rather than military assistance. The Biden-Lugar bill, now dead, foresaw assistance of $15 billion over five years. The Obama administration is saying it will tie aid to Pakistan to its performance in fighting Taliban militancy. This thinking presupposes that American aid is what Pakistan needs and what can achieve victory over the Taliban. Experience tends to suggest otherwise.

The Americans gave Pakistan money when Musharraf was president. Well, what did we do with that money and did it enhance our capacity to fight the Taliban? If anything, we have a bigger catastrophe on our hands now than when this aid started coming in. The Americans are pouring money into Afghanistan. Has it stabilized the situation there? Now they are accusing the Karzai administration of massive corruption.

This is the way with third world countries on the dole, especially in a war zone. If dollars alone could do the trick the US would not have lost in Vietnam. Dollars alone cannot prove triumphant in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

If history is any guide, the American effort in Afghanistan is doomed. Not for nothing is it called the graveyard of empires. The Americans will come to this realisation sooner or later but by that time it may be too late for us.

Talibanism is a form of radicalisation. The only way to fight it is through radical leadership. But do we have anything of the kind? The PPP and PML-N are both wedded to the status quo. Both are pro-American, both terrified of getting on the wrong side of the Americans, both incapable of independent thinking.

At a conference in Qatar in December 2003 — attended from Pakistan by Mushahid Hussain, Ejaz Haider of Daily Times and myself — Richard Holbrooke came up with the astounding statement that if the participants chose to speak about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Iraq war they would be wasting their time. He spoke like one who was utterly sure of himself, someone who had all the answers. The impression he gave throughout the three-day conference was of being a stuck-up guy. And it’s on him that our leadership, civil and military, has been fawning these last few days. Just goes to show the kind of stuff we have.

But this is the best we have, the sum total of our collective political intelligence. And it is with this that we must fight the Taliban revolt. It is not going to be easy. (The News)