How to Deal with Taliban?

Dealing with the militants
By Anwar Syed, Dawn, July 6, 2008

PRIME Minister Gilani presided over a meeting of ministers and other officials on June 25 to devise ways of subduing the militants, mostly the Taliban, in the NWFP.

The Taliban used to be located mainly in our northwestern tribal region, but of late they have spread to other places in the province and the country. They are Islamic fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. They have two main objectives. First they want to expel American presence and influence from Afghanistan. To this end they attack the American and Afghan government forces in that country.

They want the government of Pakistan to dissociate itself from the American campaign against them. Since it will not do so, they regard it as a friend of their enemy and, therefore, an enemy. But their hostility to the state of Pakistan will not cease even if it abandons its American connection. For their second objective is to have Islamic law and morality, as they know them, to be enforced in this country.

Islamic law and morality have already been made part of our constitution and law. But they have not been fully enforced. Nor is it likely that any future government, emerging from the electoral process or military intervention, will enforce them. Knowing this to be the case, the Taliban aim to do the job themselves; by taking charge of governance in Pakistan.

They are enforcing Islamic law and morality in parts of the NWFP that they control. They go into other areas where they harass and intimidate residents. They close, demolish or burn down music shops and video stores, barber shops, cinema houses and other places of entertainment, and schools for girls. They force men and women to wear clothing consistent with their notions of modesty. They require Muslims to observe all the Islamic practices named in the Shariah and visit horrible physical violence upon those who defy them.

Since they want to overthrow the current political system and take power, they are in effect at war with the state of Pakistan. They attack civil, paramilitary, and military personnel, establishments and installations. They resort to kidnapping, arson, and murder and also kill persons who they suspect are pro-government. They have already taken a fair amount of Pakistani territory and they are poised to take more.

Bewildering reports appeared in this newspaper on June 25 and 26, saying that the Taliban were assembling their forces in the vicinity of Peshawar — the capital of NWFP and home to the army’s Eleventh Corps, Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary and the provincial police headquarters — to attack the city and that it was in serious danger of falling to them. The Taliban have grown into a formidable force, equipped with modern weapons and trained in their deployment.

Successive governments in Pakistan have been ambivalent, indecisive, and timid in dealing with the militants. This continues to be the case. The prime minister’s meeting, referred to above, came up with a strategy, apparently relating to the tribal areas, that contains the following elements:

(1) ‘Political engagement’ of the people through their elected representatives (probably meaning that they should be persuaded to reject the Taliban and their advocacies). This may be wishful thinking.

(2) Large scale economic and social development such as education, health, infrastructure, small industry, calls for private investment.

(3) Military operation following the principle that minimum force is to be employed and collateral damage is to be avoided.

(4) Tribal customs and traditions are to be respected by all concerned (meaning that the law of Pakistan will not apply in this area).

The army chief will be the principal agent for dealing with the militants, and he will decide which of the elements in the government’s strategy are to be employed. The governor of the NWFP will handle the political component of the strategy in consultation with the chief minister, federal officials, tribal leaders, and ‘important’ politicians.

The prime minister’s announcement included several platitudes:

(1) the writ of the state must be honoured in all places

(2) the tribes are not to attack personnel and positions belonging to the military and law enforcement agencies

(3) the tribal leaders must fulfil the engagements they have made with the government;

(4) Pakistani territory will not be used to make trouble for a neighbouring country, especially Afghanistan;

(5) the government will abide by the accord and commitments it has made with the Taliban in Swat. (These stipulations are platitudes because none of them will actually work.)

Except in the case of Swat, much of which seems to have been surrendered to Maulvi Fazlullah, I am not aware of any accords the government has made with the Taliban. Those made in the future will probably be violated. The political component of the strategy described above is too nebulous to yield any wholesome result. Economic and social development in the tribal areas is a great idea but it is one that will take years to carry out. Plans have to be made, projects identified, details settled; determinations made as to the kind, number and location of schools, clinics, roads and bridges, recruitment and training of the personnel needed to operate them. The likelihood is that in the absence of this preparatory work, funds professedly allocated for development will actually be used to buy the cooperation or acquiescence of the government’s opponents in the area.

The view is shared by many that America’s war with the Taliban is not our war, and that by joining it our government has been killing our own people. The proponents of this view evidently regarded the Taliban as ‘our own people’. The problem is that the Taliban do not and will not, even if our American connection is broken, treat the generality of Pakistanis as their people. They think of us as nominal Muslims, hypocrites, worse than infidels. They have no interest in our survival and well-being as individuals or as a state.

As noted above, they are at war with the state of Pakistan. There can be no negotiations and accords with them, for they do not believe in bargaining and compromise. They want total victory. If they agree to a pause in fighting, that will only be to replenish their forces. The state of Pakistan cannot respond to this war, which they have imposed on it, except by fighting back. And fight back it must with adequate force, enough to get them out of our lives, and do so without equivocation.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, was until recently visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics:


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