Can Pakistan take on the Taliban?

pakistan-talibanThe December 16 killings of over 130 school children in Peshawar by terrorists was generally described as the 9/11 moment of Pakistan, a moment in which the Nation is shaken to its core and resolves to strike at the enemy with all its might. Even by the annals of terrorist killings in Pakistan, this was by far the most gruesome and barbaric incident. And it called for the most resolute response. What then was the response of the Pakistan government? The Prime Minister of Pakistan called for an all-party meeting.

The Army Chief flew to Kabul, seeking a meeting with the President of Afghanistan, apparently to seek extradition of Mullah Fazlullah, the head of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that claimed responsibility for the massacre of the children. How would Gen. Raheel Sheriff respond if President Ashraf Ghani demanded the reciprocal handing over of Mullah Omar or Haqqani from the sanctuaries of North Waziristan? It is surprising that the Prime Minister felt compelled to call for an all-party meeting and build consensus on retaliating against such chilling brutality of the Taliban. This tells the whole story of the power of Taliban, both as an ideology and as a movement in Pakistan.

Multiple Talibans 

First, the Taliban is not one homogenous monolith nor is it a ‘non-State’ actor. There are two distinct groups that are most powerful and active, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. Then there is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Baluchistan which was created by the ISI to counter the Baluch nationalist organisations fighting for their independence. And there is the Punjabi Taliban which consists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e Sahiba and other groups that have all sprouted to take on different targets.

The first two are aimed at India, while the last two are aimed at the Shia community in Pakistan. Taliban’s origins are very much in the State agencies hence it cannot be called a non-State actor, particularly the Afghan Taliban which owes its survival and success to the Pakistani State. The TTP was born out of a misadventure of Gen. Musharraf who permitted the siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, in January 2007, to take on larger than life proportions as he let the media focus on it to steal the thunder from Chief Justice Choudhary’s battle to unseat him through the legal process. Finally, when he ordered it to be cleared of all the clerics and their Talibs in July 2007, the security forces ended up killing the two mentors Maulana Abdul Aziz and his younger brother Abdur Rasheed Ghazi and 108 young men and women who were demanding the imposition of Sharia. Almost all the Islamist and jihadist organisations condemned the Army action as ‘desecration of a holy place’ and as ‘an assault on an Islamic institution being run by two revered brothers Aziz and Ghazi’.

The TTP was formed in reaction to this, in December 2007, with Baitullah Mehsood as the founder leader. Its sworn enemy was the Pak State and the Army. Since then, it has consistently launched spectacular attacks on Pakistan Air Force, Army and Naval bases, ISI provincial headquarters, the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi and now at an Army School in Peshawar. In fact, a week after the attack on Jinnah International Airport, i.e., on June 15, 2014, the now famous Zarb-e-Azb campaign was launched by the Army with about 30,000 soldiers. The operation was aimed at flushing out all the militants hiding in North Waziristan, including the TTP, Al-Qaeda, ETIM, the IMU and the Haqqani network. More than 600 militants have already been killed, according to Pak government sources. Yet, the Taliban is too large and too fragmented to be taken up as one enemy. For Nawaz Sheriff to declare that there is ‘no good or bad Taliban’ is just an empty rhetoric and still part of the same old double-speak. They will continue to distinguish the good, bad and the ugly Taliban and take on only the one that hurts them most.

Structurally incapable 

Pakistan is structurally incapable of taking on the Taliban, as a whole. First, every group of terrorists has a political godfather. While the Sheriff brothers find it convenient to support the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Punjab due to its large support base among the poor and landless labourers, Imran Khan’s anti-American stance finds ready takers in a large section of the army and the TTP, both essential constituencies for him firstly, in taking on Nawaz Sheriff at the national level and secondly, for his electoral success in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Imran Khan’s refusal to name the Taliban (TTP) for the school massacre indicates that he is not fully on board. He has all along blamed the American War on Terror and the nature of Pakistani State’s rentier relationship with Washington for all the evils in the country. The political consensus, therefore, between the PML (Nawaz) and PTI of Imran is unlikely to last. Second, Pakistan has ceded far too much political, religious and social space to the ideology and movements of the various Talibans. Talibanisation is not confined to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the FATA. It pervades Punjab, Sindh and Baluch provinces too. Taliban are now seen as the defenders of Islam in the first ever Islamic State.

To fight them on the religious front is almost impossible, particularly for a political class that is widely seen as corrupt and mercenary. The corruption of the clerics, both moral and material, can neither be exposed nor challenged by the media or the State. Third, the failed education system has created thousands of madrassas with millions of Talibs being produced every year. A Pak Ministry of Interior Affairs report stated that ‘there are 20,000 seminaries in the country with 3 million students. … 64% of them were Deobandis, 25% of them Barelvis and 6% of them Wahabis.’ This was the position in November 2001. After 13 years, the number of seminaries and the Talibs has gone up multiple times. No government can afford to shut the seminaries down.

Even an attempt to have them registered and regulate them during Gen. Musharraf’s time failed miserably. Fourth, how does the Pakistani State cleanse its own army and the ISI of all the handlers, trainers, supporters and sympathisers of the Taliban? For years, they were a critical service wing for the Army just as the National Logistics Cell (Army’s transport wing) was for the Taliban during their rule in Kabul to smuggle drugs out of Afghanistan. It is a symbiotic relationship that cannot be severed without crippling the State. Finally, the record of Pakistan army’s intermittent battles with the Taliban (TTP), punctuated by several peace accords (all broken before the ink is dry) just does not evoke confidence in the most recent proclamations. Despite the fact that the military operations in South and North Waziristan have been ongoing since 2002 as part of the War on Terror, the Pak Army’s performance is hardly inspiring.

The fact that Baitullah Mehsood with just a few dozen militants could ambush a 17-vehicle convoy of armed officers and soldiers of Pak Army and take all 247 of them as hostages, in September 2007, without firing a single shot speaks volumes of the Army’s intent/capabilities as well as the prowess of the militants. This is not to assert that there have been no casualties in the war. According to Pakistani claims, over 40,000 people including 3000 soldiers and 63 ISI personnel have died. 20,000 militants have either been killed or captured. Yet the war continues with no clear victory in sight. Whether the TTP and all other militants hiding in Waziristan will be eliminated or not, the 200,000 people that have been displaced from that area will forever remain a thorn in the flesh for the government of Pakistan. More refugees mean more recruits for the Islamic Jihad.

(The writer is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi) Courtesy: ORF

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