Sunday, November 29, 2009

The awkward question

The awkward question
The News, November 28, 2009
Samad Khurram

“When I heard Taliban voices, I told myself: this was it,” exclaimed a young officer in white shalwar-qameez as he addressed a rally in support of the Pakistani troops. He adjusted his walking aid to steady himself, “I was ready to die but was not prepared to let my badge be humiliated.”

Captain (then Lieutenant) Omar Tirmizi said that since the injury to his leg made movement impossible, “I took out a grenade from my pocket and put it in my mouth. I decided to take the enemy with me.” The crowd was deeply moved; so was I. Capt Tirmizi, of FF Regiment, was moments away from sacrificing his life when his comrades rescued him.

Given the severity of his injuries, doctors had advised Capt Tirmizi complete bed rest. But, he came to the rally. despite the pain. “Please know that we have given our everything for this war and it hurts us dearly if the people we die for accuse us of not being serious about the war or playing double games.” The very next day, another critical newspaper column claimed that the operation was a whitewash and the army was deliberately ignoring the Taliban.

Why are people still unsure about the seriousness of our forces after a thousand soldiers have laid down their lives for this cause? The answer lies in the miscalculated position of the army, particularly its mantra of “Good Taliban.” The crux of the “Good Taliban” argument is that the Taliban fighting against Pakistani forces are evil, while those who fight elsewhere are “good.” There are many reports indicating that the sympathy has evolved into some degree of cooperation between disgruntled elements in Pakistan and the Afghani Taliban. Leaders like Imran Khan and Fazlur Rehman and self-proclaimed analysts like Zaid Hamid elevate the Afghan Taliban to the status of heroes.

Both Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have to depend on each other. Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, points out that a significant portion of Taliban revenue comes from the drug trade. The Taliban do not grow poppy, but instead get money for providing security to drug shipments. When some of these shipments cross Afghanistan and enter Pakistan, it is the Pakistani Taliban who transport them down to the coast.

Peters writes that the other half of the deal is getting money to the drug lords. Some of this money follows the drug trade route backwards. Pakistani Taliban smuggle money to their counterparts in Afghanistan. This trade works on trust ties that have been nourished with time and the Pakistani Taliban earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year for their services. As long as the Afghan Taliban remain and benefit from the drug trade, they will hire business partners in Pakistan.

There are many other influences of the Afghan Taliban which have spilled over to Pakistan. The death formulas of hit-and-run assaults, suicide bombings and forceful imposition of a myopic mindset are gifts from the Afghan Taliban. Fazlullah was so inspired by Mullah Omar that he mimicked Omar’s strategy for conquest. Afghan Taliban first weakened the Afghan state by repeatedly attacking the Afghan army and police and creeping into more territory. They would destroy the morale of the army and people by spreading terror through attacks and by beheading and displaying mutilated corpses of their enemies until the Taliban swept through Kabul with ease in1996.

Twelve years later, Swat fell victim to the same formula. Fazlullah would hang spies and Pakistani soldiers at the “Khooni Chawk” in Swat, another page from the book of Mullah Omar who hanged enemies like Najibullah in Kabul.

There is also reasonable evidence that the Afghan Taliban support the TTP’s activities (“TTP gets Afghan Taliban support,” The News, Oct 18). Escaped Pakistani Taliban are given safe havens in Afghanistan. Fazlullah enjoys protection from the Afghan Taliban, from where he phoned Associated Press a few days back to inform them that he was still alive. Azam Tariq, the current spokesperson of the TTP, released a propaganda video last week. The video proudly displayed the logo of Al-Sahab, the media publicity wing of Al-Qaeda. Al-Sahab had earlier released videos of many Afghan Taliban. Of course, the Afghan Taliban realise they need the sympathy of certain pockets in Pakistan for survival and will try to deny any connection with the bombings in Pakistan.

With this backdrop the only comprehensive strategy of eliminating Pakistani Taliban is the total eradication of the Taliban through a joint Pakistani-Afghan-US effort. This would require cutting off all backchannels with the Afghan Taliban, strict surveillance of the former handlers of the Taliban and a crackdown on smuggling through the Pakistani-Afghan border—in addition to military and political offensives.

While the current operation against the militants suggests that the army is really serious about eliminating the Pakistani Taliban, it does not shed much light on its attitude towards the Afghan Taliban. Until we get clear evidence of the army going against the Afghan Taliban as well, we must continue to ask the awkward question. Is our army really serious about eliminating the Taliban?

I know I will get my answer when I hear Zaid Hamid oppose the Afghan Taliban.

The writer is a Pakistani student at Harvard University. Email: skhurram@fas.

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