Snake Charming the Taliban

Following the attacks on the airport in Karachi, Adnan Qaiser investigates the political and security landscape in Pakistan.
By: /
June 12, 2014
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Pakistan is not only at war with its brand of Taliban but also with itself. Having lost 48,994 precious lives including 5,272 law-enforcement personnel in 13,721 terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2013, half of the nation—suffering from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’—insists on talking with its ‘estranged sons,’ while the saner voices demand extermination of existential threat using force.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pakistan’s terrorism phenomenon did not start following 9/11 and NATO’s war in Afghanistan. It began with the Afghan Jihad during 1980s when a variety of Muslim fighters gathered to stop the onslaught of the Soviet Union. Indoctrinated with the revolutionary philosophies of extremist Muslim scholars like Ibn-e-Taymiyyah, Hassan al Banna and Syed Qutb, these rebel ideologues laid the foundation of Al-Qaeda under the banner of ‘Maktab al Khidmat’ in 1984 following a religious fatwa (decree) by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam with the goal of “defeating the infidels.”

Since the events coincided with February 1979’s Islamic Revolution in Iran that further alarmed the Muslim World with the ‘Siege of Mecca’ by a group of zealots led by Juhayman Ibn Sayf al Otaibi on 20 November 1979, Gulf Kingdoms and Emirates used Pakistan as a proxy battleground to contain Shiite ‘spill-over’ into neighbouring countries. The Middle East’s geopolitics and polarization led President General Zia ul Haq create violent sectarian and jihadist armed groups like ‘Sipah-e-Sahaba,’ ‘Lashkar-e-Tayyaba,’‘Jaish-e-Muhammad’ and ‘Hizbul Mujahedeen’ etc., which after becoming the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ are now threatening the writ of the state itself. Moreover, religious parties in Pakistan were well-funded to establish Deobandi Madrassas (religious seminaries) to churn-out highly radicalized youth who believed jihad was a religious obligation. The Afghan civil-war and then the Taliban’s rule over Kabul during 1990s also brought militancy and extremism to Pakistan—popularly described as the ‘Kalashnikov Culture.’

With the end of Afghan Jihad on 16 February 1989 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops under the April 4, 1988 Geneva Accord, the Mujahedeen were diverted towards Indian-held Kashmir to begin an uprising in December of the same year. The Kashmir insurgency that kept simmering due to the territorial dispute of Subcontinent’s Partition since August 1947 turned into a full-blown Intifada after the kidnapping incident of Rubiya Sayeed, the daughter of the Indian home minister in Srinagar on 8th December 1989.

Pakistan’s Swat region experienced its first insurgency in 1994-95 when Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi led by Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah demanded Shariah law be enforced. Despite the government putting down the uprising using Frontier Corps, the insurrection continued until 2008-09 when a major military operation (Rah-e-Rast) was needed in May 2009.

The war in Afghanistan gathered Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda fighters and Pakistani jihadists at one platform in the tribal areas (FATA). Pakistan’s cooperation in the War against Terror before abandoning the policy of cross-border infiltration led the Punjabi Taliban to join the vicious Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 to unleash a spate of attacks from bombings to suicide attacks. TTP’s indoctrination into Al-Qaeda’s philosophy of Khuruj (revolt against deviant Muslim rulers) and Takfir (expulsion of heretic rulers from Islam) in order to establish Abu Bakr Naji’s ‘Edarat-ul-Wahash’ (governance in wilderness through management of savagery) and turn Ibn-ul-Balad (sons of soil) into blood brothers made their particular brand of terrorism even more lethal.

The TTP—banned by Pakistan on 25 August, 2008—is an umbrella organization comprising of some 43 militant groups with diverse agendas ranging from establishment of a Caliphate to the enforcement of Shariah, criminal activities, control over tribal areas for an Islamic Emirate and preparing for last battle of Islam—‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’—to be fought in ‘Khorasan’ (South Asia, Central Asia) fulfilling Prophet Muhammad’s prophesy.

The dithering, however, displayed by the political leadership of Pakistan in addressing terrorism shows a distinct lack of vision and courage. In what has become a collective national denial of reality, politicians and religious leaders keep supporting negotiations with the militant groups based on a misguided belief that this will somehow mitigate the threat posed to Pakistan’s nascent democracy. So far, eight All Parties Conferences (APC) and Joint Parliamentary Resolutions have unanimously proposed holding unconditional talks with the Taliban. The resolution adopted in the last APC held on 9 September, 2013 had been largely seen as a ‘document of surrender’ for staying quiet on the issue of talks under the ambit of Constitution of Pakistan while identifying the terrorists as “stakeholders” in the negotiation process.

Resultantly, under threatening Fatwas from Taliban, Pakistan’s electronic and print media was intimated and threatened to take a soft stance on the militants and Judges hearing terrorism related cases acquitted 1,964 arrested terrorists since 2007, out of which 772 have reportedly rejoined armed groups. Glorifying weakness and irresolution in the name of statesmanship and statecraft, the government has put an indefinite moratorium on the hangings of convicted prisoners after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Chief Minister Punjab received life threats.

With that said, Nawaz’s offer to begin negotiations with the Taliban in his address to the nation on 19 August, 2013 remained a non-starter only to be scuttled by a U.S. drone attack killing TTP’s Emir Hakimullah Mehsud on 1 November, 2013. The public mourning and lamentation by Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan on Hakimullah’s death surprised many. Summoning the U.S. ambassador and threatening a review of bilateral ties for “sabotaging” the talks the government demonstrated its lack of resolve in tackling terrorism.

Nawaz’s renewed talks offer on 29 January, 2014, and setting up a four-member committee, not only upset the military but also undermined Pakistan’s Constitution, its democracy and judicial system as Taliban demanded enforcement of Shariah that quickly found resonance in the media and religious segments of society.

Since Article 256 obligates the state to disband private armies, the Taliban set conditions for talks to be held outside the purview of what they called an “un-Islamic Constitution.” Elevating a terrorist network that is driven by blind ideology and criminal motives to state stature put in question the legality of the talks-process besides discrediting the existing state of Pakistan and its democratic underpinnings.

The government’s seriousness in countering terrorism can be gauged from its coming out with a ‘National Internal Security Policy’ (NISP) after eight months in office. While the NISP’s viability has already been termed fictional, the 2009 instituted ‘National Counterterrorism Authority’ (NACTA) continues to be dysfunctional today. The promulgation of ‘Protection of Pakistan Ordinance’ on January 23 that granted powers and safeguards to the security agencies in countering terrorism has already been challenged in the Supreme Court and rejected by opposition senators as “blackest of black laws,” considering it an infringement upon the basic human and fundamental rights. In reality, however, the political parties fear the nefarious activities of their ‘militant wings’ will also be subjected to the PPC. Supreme Court, intelligence agencies and Director General, Rangershave a consensus that criminal elements and militant wings supported by the political parties are involved in Karachi’s law and order situation.

The political leadership in Pakistan also remains visibly divided on the issue of counterterrorism. Religious parties calling it an ‘American War’ foresee any military operation as a “debacle.” Imran Khan, the novice politician, showed the disconnect with reality by linking terrorism to U.S. drone attacks, blocking NATO supplies and suggesting a political Taliban office. What is ironic is that secular political parties including the PPP, MQM and ANP, who otherwise condemn TTP, had been unanimous in suggesting peace talks in APC, disregarding the fact that terrorists keep killing innocent civilians and decapitating security force personnel with the latest barbarity of slaughtering 23 Frontier Corps personnel in January this year.

Despite changing its military doctrine in the ‘Green Book’ last January from India-centricity to internal security, the Pakistani army’s stance on the Taliban is confusing. For years, the United States called for an operation in North Waziristan (NWR) to flush out the Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups. However, the military dragged its feet stating, “Operation (Tight-Screw) will be conducted at the time of its own choosing.” While it was meant to protect Pakistan’s ‘strategic assets’ for a favourable dispensation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops, the military’s sudden keenness displayed through pounding of militants’ hideouts by F-16s and Cobra gunship helicopters supported by a ground offensive under the name of Operation 'Zarb-e-Azb' shows a change of heart. Despite giving an ultimatum of withdrawing support, however, it is unclear if Pakistan’s army has finally decided to abandon the Afghan Taliban after Mullah Omar and Haqqanis failed to rein-in the TTP’s domestic terrorism. Although hard to believe, the recent mysterious murders of senior Taliban commanders in Hangu, Quetta, Islamabad and Peshawar including that of Nasiruddin Haqqani on 11 November 2013 and of Mullah Abdul Raqeeb Takhari on February 18, 2014, could mean a revision in policy.

While the military cleared six out of seven tribal areas, it did not respond to the TTP’s threats of retribution in the name of seeking a so-called ‘national consensus’ or ‘government’s approval.’ However, expecting a massive blowback across the country after the NWR operation, the army frustratingly awaits an elusive political mandate and national support. Fearing Taliban retaliation in major Punjab province, its law minister, Rana Sanaullah, confided to Guardian that 174 areas of the province need to be cleared from Taliban influence

While the politicians follow a policy of appeasement towards militants, the military remains preoccupied with a post-2014 Afghanistan and fixated upon identifying ‘good and bad Taliban.’ It is time both civil and military leadership adopt a joint strategy to eliminate the menace of terrorism that is not only unravelling Pakistan, but is also a threat to world peace and security.

Caught between paralysis and war, Pakistan should be mindful that in war there is no substitute for victory.