Pakistan: difficult times 20 February 2014
The current situation in Pakistan is disturbing. While delegates from the Pakistan Government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been negotiating, other hardline Taliban elements have been continuing to attack innocent Pakistanis. The Taliban’s latest victims were 23 kidnapped Frontier Corps soldiers executed on Monday in Mohmand Agency, one of the seven agencies that comprise Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These executions apparently were in revenge for operations undertaken by Pakistani forces in FATA. The killers’ intention also may have been to scuttle the Government-Taliban talks. They succeeded, with the talks now suspended, possibly never to resume.
The Taliban, which has some popularity among poorer, disadvantaged Pakistanis, has long used violent, illegal and non-constitutional methods to push for the imposition of an Islamic, Sharia-based Pakistani society. The Government-Taliban talks have empowered, and further emboldened, them. They mean that the Taliban has been formally recognised by the Pakistan Government as a ‘player’ of significance. They also suggest that the debate has now moved from ‘How Islamic should Pakistan be?’ to ‘How much Sharia law should Pakistan implement?’ (The old discussion of ‘Whether Pakistan should be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state?’ ended long ago.)
The current talks have also, to some extent, legitimised the Taliban’s methods of operation—and denigrated past excesses for which they have not been held accountable. For an organisation whose purpose supposedly arises from Islamic scriptures, teaching and practices, the Taliban’s tactics surprisingly have included murder, intimidation and destruction. Since 2007, they have killed some 40,000 Pakistanis, and maimed and injured thousands of others. Ironically and tragically, the vast majority of these Pakistanis have comprised innocent fellow Muslims. Some Talibs may see these people as ‘collateral damage’. Equally, others may have engaged in the practice of takfir, by which they piously and without compassion decide who is or isn’t a pukka Muslim, with Shias or Ahmadiyyas expendable as apostates and others insignificant because they are kafirs (unbelievers or infidels). (The word takfir itself is derived from the word kafir.)
The Pakistan Government’s talks with the Taliban show that it is unclear about how to deal with these serious, and de-stabilising, anti-social elements. Admirably, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to be trying to be conciliatory and inclusive by engaging widely with many Pakistanis, including the Taliban. Perhaps he did learn something from his time out of power in exile. Equally, it is far cheaper, and easier, to talk with the Taliban than to send in troops. Conversely, Mr Sharif also appears to be consulting the Taliban because he does not have the ‘stomach’ to fight and defeat these serious extra-legal elements who, we should remember, in 2007-2009 conquered and controlled Swat, then entered Bajaur, close to Islamabad. Even more seriously, since September 2013, the Taliban have killed a further ‘308 civilians, 114 military personnel and 38 police officers’ (www.dawn.com/news/1088104/army-says-over-100-soldiers-have-died-in-five-months-of-fighting). In other words, give the Taliban ‘an inch and they’ll take a mile’.
In defence of Mr Sharif, he has a lot to deal with. The Pakistan economy is struggling, with low growth, insufficient revenues, and serious shortages of energy and electricity. Pakistan has major political problems, especially with volatile Karachi and seriously disgruntled Balochistan. Relations with India remain poor, despite Sharif’s overtures, while events surrounding Afghanistan are deeply concerning. Sharif’s (silent) mantra seems to be ‘give me stability’, so that he, and Pakistan, can consolidate, deliberate, then deal with these major issues. Equally, perhaps Mr Sharif is being clever. Now is a bad time to fight the Taliban as it is winter in FATA. He may be stalling while the Pakistan Army, Air Force and paramilitary forces prepare to launch counter-offensives or targeted operations when warmer weather and better ‘fighting’ conditions return to this remote, backward and difficult-to-access area.
It seems inevitable that, given the Taliban’s inflexibility, brutality and sheer bloody mindedness, Pakistan will have to fight, and defeat, them. This will be difficult. More than once, I have heard Pakistan Army officers proudly and defiantly state that, since 2004, over 3,000 soldiers have been killed in anti-militant operations against the Taliban, al Qaeda and other such elements, in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa. These soldiers know that their enemy is serious and that it operates in difficult areas. (Equally, the Pakistan Army’s losses could suggest that its counter-insurgency capabilities have been underdeveloped, partly because of its excessive focus on fighting a conventional war against India.)
It is difficult to know where, when and how the Pakistan Taliban will stop their ruthless attack on Pakistani society. Moderate Pakistanis—which is most Pakistanis—are feeling severely threatened by these anti-social elements. Particularly vulnerable are moderate people in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa bravely opposing the Taliban. Also vulnerable are non-Sunni Pakistanis, including Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Christians and Hindus, with some of the latter apparently feeling pressure to convert to Islam or to leave for India. Many other Pakistanis are moderating their behaviour to makes themselves less of a Taliban target.
In 2009, I suggested that Pakistan become a secular state as this would ‘reduce the volatility of the issue of Islam’ there (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2009/07/19/is-a-secular-pakistan-the-answer/). One respondent suggested, correctly, that this would only occur when the majority of Pakistanis wanted it—something most unlikely. I also suggested that Pakistan’s battle with Taliban-type elements ‘will continue for some time, including for as long as neighbouring, and Taliban-infested, Afghanistan is highly unstable’. This remains so. Indeed, Sharif’s indecisiveness in quelling the Taliban is possibly because he is terribly concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan after ISAF withdraws and how this will impact on Pakistan. As noted, Sharif’s major desire is for stability in Pakistan so that he can address the major issues confronting this nation. This means that we may see further efforts to engage the Taliban in order to try to bring them ‘in from the cold’. However, the current trend suggests that Nawaz Sharif will need to deploy Pakistan’s powerful military to deal with this major menace. Given the Taliban’s intransigence, he has few other effective options.
Christopher Snedden 20 February 2014