Benazir Bhutto and the Taliban

COMMENT: Benazir Bhutto and the Taliban —Zafar Hilaly
Daily Times, February 16, 2009

Created as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan is ironically being destroyed in the name of Islam. The pace of this meltdown is bewildering.

In the course of a few months, the writ of the federal government has ceased to exist in four of the seven tribal agencies that comprise FATA, and is being seriously challenged in the remaining three.

In the settled areas too, like Swat, Dir and Mardan, where local law and order forces are weak, poorly equipped and indifferently-led, it seems only a question of time before they too are overcome by the contagion.

A discredited provincial leadership, an incompetent federal government, a confused public, fractured national parties, a broken economy and, not least, an army ill equipped to fight this war make up a lethal mix, presaging disaster. No wonder then that the resistance of the Frontier citizenry has been half hearted and an exodus of families from Swat and portions of Peshawar has already begun.

In December 2007, I asked Benazir Bhutto whether Pakistan could withstand the Taliban onslaught and survive. Her response is as relevant today as it was then.

Bhutto viewed the Taliban and their ilk as the detritus of a failing state and a broken economy; the victims, if you like, of a rapacious and corrupt military and a civil elite who had by their transgressions and ineptitude reduced the country to the present, sorry pass.

For the failure of the state however, as distinct from civil society, Bhutto blamed the military. And if politicians too must carry a portion of the blame, their share in comparison, Bhutto felt, was only a fraction of that of the generals. Zia-ul Haq, in her view, carried by far the largest onus of blame followed by Pervez Musharraf.

In the circumstances, it is small wonder, Bhutto said, that impoverished and angry segments of the population had turned in desperation to Islam for deliverance and, as often happens in Islamic republics, into the waiting arms of religious charlatans that promised not only a living in this world but also a glorious life in the next; visions of a new dawn; the privilege of being God’s warriors chosen to visit retribution and mayhem on His enemies, in this case the state.

The lack of any effective countervailing force meant that the extremists prospered and commensurately their conviction in the righteousness of their cause. So much so that gorged with success, the Pakistani Taliban now proclaim as their final goal the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan.

Reinforcements from Al Qaeda, the Punjabi Taliban, Central Asian and South East Asian terror networks, assorted militant and criminal elements which operate relatively unhindered and unmolested across international borders, have augmented the Taliban numbers and their fighting prowess.

Lucre from the heroin trade, smuggling, money laundering, the black economy and foreign and local sympathisers ensure a source of ready funds, just as the international black market in arms, old Soviet era weapon caches in Afghanistan and captured and looted arms serve as a source of weapons. Of course, not to be excluded from the list are secret agencies of foreign governments who are eager to aid and abet the Taliban to destabilise Pakistan even as they feign ignorance.

Taking on such a foe on its home turf and in a difficult terrain, Bhutto believed, was no easy task. It would require extraordinarily resolute and united leadership, public support, a large, well equipped and skilled fighting force and, not least, pockets deep enough to bear the cost of the war; all of which, she conceded, was a tall ask but nevertheless not an impossible one. In any case, as the fight was one for Pakistan’s survival, failure was not an option.

Bhutto, who was by instinct a fighter, believed that the battle had to be a no holds barred contest and one that was to be fought to the finish. Casualties of all types, collateral or targeted, would be high. As the Taliban believed that the end justifies the means and gave no quarter, they could expect none in return — “They say that they seek death well, perhaps, we should oblige.” No bargains would be struck, no truces concluded; and the only negotiations conducted would be those to determine the moment and place of the enemy’s surrender.

In sum, Bhutto felt that while there was a time to talk and a time to fight, the present (i.e. December 2007) was the time to fight. She would, albeit only in my opinion, have scoffed at the “Dialogue, Development and Defence” strategy propounded by her party. There can be no dialogue with an enemy that craves martyrdom, or for that matter, any development in a warzone.

Bhutto did not equate the use of force exclusively with army action, while that may be necessary. She said that equipping the lashkars and the FC with appropriate weapons and training, with the army in reserve, would be more effective. Pashtuns, she believed, should do the fighting because those who were killing and were being killed were overwhelmingly Pashtuns. If they were not prepared to fight their killers or sided with the Taliban, then nothing the army did would work.

By way of preparation, Bhutto intended to announce the incorporation of the tribal areas into Pakistan proper — “One country, one law, one people, is what I believe.” Similarly the Political Parties Act would be extended to the tribal belt with each constituency being represented in the federal and provincial assemblies, thereby giving every tribe a stake in the governance of the country.

Accompanying such a move would be a massive development project for the tribal areas with focus on those projects that build the state’s legitimacy and create a demonstration effect throughout the tribal belt; for example, schools, roads, small health units and infrastructure improvements.

Unregistered madrassas, the Taliban’s ideological nursery, would be closed or made to operate under government supervision. It made no sense, Bhutto said, to fight the Taliban on the one hand and allow the madrassas to churn out recruits for their cause on the other.

A ‘Task Force’ and an ‘Education Corps’ would be created to oversee or take over the madarassas which had been proscribed and army protection would be afforded to all learning institutions in troubled areas.

The writer is a former ambassador

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