A tough choice for Pakistan: face bitter truths or perish
First deafened by the terrifying noise of Taliban attacks, then put on notice that the army would strike back, and now awaiting the outcome of peace talks, Pakistanis remain as confused as ever about the violent phenomenon that has plagued their country for six years, and has been a mounting threat to it for a lot longer.
Increasingly, however, they are beginning to ask the right questions: can we beat the Taliban? What would a peace deal with the Taliban mean? What will happen after the Americans leave Afghanistan?
The answer: ultimately, Pakistan can’t win until the state and public open their hearts and minds to the bitter truths of their situation.
The inference to be drawn from that is that the dishonest, often duplicitous political narrative of Pakistan’s domestic power struggles and regional security objectives is the root of the problem.
Let’s draw up a list of home truths that need to be accepted if Pakistan is to wriggle itself out of the tightest of corners.
First, there is no such thing as the “good” Taliban.
The reason Pakistan has a Taliban problem, which has caused more than 40,000 deaths (and counting), is that its military is still addicted to using covert militant warriors as the primary means of pursuing its so-called national interest.
Over the past year, the anti-India militant groups sidelined for a decade, and particularly since the November 2008 terrorist rampage in Mumbai, have been reactivated. It’s no coincidence there was significant warfare along the disputed Kashmir border last year.
Worse, the military relies on the Haqqani Network terrorists to keep the peace in South and North Waziristan, allowing them to operate a state within the state, because it gives them a seat at the Afghanistan end-game, and helps keep the Pakistani Taliban at bay.
Sure, that is characteristic of the so-called Great Game played in Afghanistan since the 19th century. But, time and again, it’s also been proven that once a genie has been released from the lamp, he won’t want to squeeze back in.
Second, talks are an admission of defeat.
Since Pakistan’s general election last May, the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his rival, former cricket star Imran Khan, have been committed to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. They’ve even allowed the notorious Mullah Fazlullah, the would-be assassin of the celebrated student activist, Malala Yousafzai, time and space to establish his leadership of previously divided factions of the Pakistani Taliban. Now, the government has initiated talks through two teams of intermediaries.
Neither Mr Sharif nor Mr Khan seems to have grasped the cultural ramifications of calling a unilateral ceasefire and seeking terms of negotiation. That might, conceivably, sound like diplomacy. Not to the Taliban, however. In ethnic Pashtun culture, the quintessential ingredient of Taliban thinking, if your combatant ceases fire, it’s because they’re demoralised and tired of fighting. And if they ask the Pashtun to set the agenda, that’s taken as a request for terms of surrender.
The government has allowed the Taliban to dictate the pace. Obviously, it should have been the other way round.
Third, the Taliban are politicians, not champions of a religious cause.
In Pakistan, it seems every angry mullah has declared it is his mission to turn the world into an Islamic super-state governed by God’s laws. The cleric politicians can say what they want and where, and usually with impunity, because the civilian state is too scared to challenge them, while the military state does not even want that to change.
The result has been violence and human rights incidents that have been hugely embarrassing to Pakistanis.
Instead of fearing the mullah, Pakistanis should flip through the Holy Quran. It bans the use of religion for the gain of material benefit, such as political power, saying such Muslims will spend eternity in hell, irrespective of their declaration of faith.
Similarly, it forbids the clergy from judging the fidelity of an individual’s faith, and declares clerics are in no position to assume the validity of their own faith is valid. It also warns Muslims to beware of people who spread chaos in God’s name.
That’s about as definitive as it comes. The Taliban, obviously, are not furthering Islam’s cause – just their own. It applies equally to the Pakistani military’s use of militant proxy warriors.
Fourth, citizens aren’t cannon fodder for political gain.
The obvious cost of Pakistan’s military-driven regional agenda is the human suffering of its citizens. The horrendous death toll and associated injuries is just one aspect. Another has been the plight of the hundreds of thousands of residents of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Such has been their plight that they’ve coined ironic Pashtu phrases about living in-between the military, the militants and Central Intelligence Agency drones, and target-practice for all of the above.
The psychological impact of not knowing who’s friendly has become deep-seated and has long-time ramifications for the country’s solidarity. One day, they might forget why they are proud to be Pakistani. However unlikely that may seem now, it has happened before – in 1971, when East Pakistan separated and became Bangladesh.
The public, and the politicians they elect, need to take charge of their own fate. But Pakistanis are hardly likely to do that if they remain in denial of ugly home truths.
Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad
On Twitter: @tomthehack
Updated: February 9, 2014 04:00 AM