The News, Feb 1, 2009
The Taliban among us
By Omar R. Quraishi
Much is being said and written about the tyrannical Taliban rule in Swat. This newspaper has been inundated with letters from people who live there, who have lived there, who know people who live there and from people who know people who used to live there, on the terrible situation in the region.
Understandably, many of the letter-writers are angry and frustrated. Frustrated at the promises of the government and angered at what many say is clear complicity by some institutions of the state in the violence wreaked by the Taliban. They quote information minister Sherry Rehman's recent remarks to the press including a statement to the effect that the government will not allow the Taliban to stop girls from going to school. Also just today (this column was written on Jan 28) we received a furious letter from a resident of Peshawar who had written in response to a statement by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that his government would not allow Taliban courts in Swat. In all such letters the writers point out that the ministers and the prime minister better start doing something concrete and refrain from statements which don't make sense. After all, they rightly argue, it's not like the Taliban are asking for the government's permission to set up 'Taliban courts.'
We have also received a number of letters from people who question the strategy, or the lack of it, adopted by the military in its operations in Swat. One correspondent said that the case of Pir Samiullah aptly illustrated what many people thought: the Taliban and the ISI are two sides of the same coin. After all, it was not too long ago that the Taliban were used as proxies by the military establishment as part of the controversial and often-discredited doctrine of strategic depth, vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The correspondent – and one cannot but agree with his assessment – saw similarities between what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 1990s and what the Swat Taliban are doing now: banning female education, stopping them from leaving the home without a burqa and a male family member, killing and/or maiming nationalist and secular elements, attacking the state's physical infrastructure and so on. The correspondent argued that there must be some level of tacit complicity between the Taliban and their former(?) handlers.
Obviously, no proof can be given for this by a laypersons other than circumstantial evidence like how come the Taliban kidnap, kill, behead and then hang dead bodies in Swat overnight during a night curfew? Or that how can a few thousand Taliban control a region with such impunity despite the presence of four brigades of the powerful Pakistan Army? In this context, one correspondent letter-writer wrote that he asked a serving army major why the military did not come to the aid of civilians being targeted by the militants. He was informed that the military's strategy was to target terrorist/militant hideouts only on explicit orders.
Then there are those who criticise the general public and particularly the religious leaders for not speaking against Taliban atrocities. In this regard, I would like to quote Waleed Khan, resident of Peshawar, whose letter was published in this newspaper on Jan 28. He wrote: "There are many people who expect our religious leaders to condemn the Taliban and their brutalities. But they ignore the fact that this will be difficult for the ulema because the Taliban are their own people. And lest I be accused of giving a bad name to our religious leaders, please read the following facts. Sufi Mohammad of the TNSM was initially a member of the JI, which he left to start the TNSM. Similarly Haroon Rasheed (a JI MNA from Bajaur Agency) resigned after a seminary of his friend Maulana Faqir Muhammad of the TTP was bombed. The madrassah was allegedly training teenagers to become suicide bombers.
"Previously whenever a rift would happen in the Taliban ranks in South or North Waziristan, JUI leaders would play a role in bringing about reconciliation – this is a matter of public record. Also, it is known that Hafiz Saeed of the now-banned JuD played a role in settling an intra-Taliban dispute in Mohmand Agency. Our religious parties do not want the Taliban to be weakened, for in them they find their best allies. To expect them to condemn them is to expect too much."
The examples drive home the point that as far as ideology is concerned there isn't much that separates most of our mainstream religious parties from the Taliban. Both want the imposition of Sharia, or at least their version of it, and both do not hesitate from using force to shove their rigid interpretation of faith on the rest of the population. The extent to which their tactics are successful depends where they operate – and hence in a place like Lahore or Karachi, they don't meet with much success, i.e. the religious parties. In Lahore and in Karachi, nonetheless, there are many people – not even members of religious parties – who agree in principle and ideologically with what the Taliban want. They may disagree with the tactics being used but how many ordinary Pakistanis have spoken out unequivocally against suicide bombings or even against the atrocities being committed in Swat or parts of FATA on a daily basis by the extremists?
Does that mean that the bulk of ordinary Pakistanis are just plain lazy and don't care what happens in the rest of the country. Or perhaps that they are too busy trying to make ends meet and feed their families. Or is it that they secretly sympathise with the Taliban, given the way the latter couch their so-called 'struggle' i.e. to impose Islamic rule. If there are indeed many among us who agree and sympathise with the Taliban and their desire to impose Islamic rule then the Taliban may be far stronger than we think.
The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.