By Praveen Swami
February 26, 2014
He resembles nothing so much as a supermarket Santa, the man in the dust-brown Pakul cap who drags the corpses off the blue pickup truck, each missing the head that was severed by a Taliban executioner’s axe. There’s no pretence at dignifying the dead, their blood etching dark red stains as they are dragged across the road. Then, for reasons we’ll probably never know, the man carefully rearranges their clothes, covering up unseemly displays of flesh.
“The pornography of death,” the scholar Geoffrey Gorer called it, except, in a Pakistan washed over by a tidal wave of blood, even images like these seem to have lost the power to shock.
Last week’s execution of 23 prisoners of war by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, its macabre ending displayed online by the jihadist group, is remarkable mainly for the absence of impact it has had in Pakistan. The government has suspended peace talks with the Taliban, which began early in February; combat jets have bombed jihadist-held territory in North Waziristan.
Yet, there’s been little real outrage: no giant protest rallies, nor politicians vowing vengeance. Nor has the door been closed on future talks, even with the killers. “Such incidents have an extremely negative impact on the ongoing dialogue aimed at promoting peace,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — words with all the passion of a telemarketing call.
For reasons that aren’t hard to understand, the massacre will most likely be remembered — just like a welter of other massacres of both civilians and troops — as just another milestone towards Pakistan’s disintegration into a theocratic dystopia.
Failing Peace Talks
In another video, this one recorded in the spring of 2004, Nek Muhammad Wazir stands on a stage set up near his home in the Shakai valley, happiness suffusing his face as the commander of Pakistan’s XI corps places a wreath around his neck. “The tribal people,” he tells Lieutenant General Safdar Husain, “are Pakistan’s atomic bomb. When India attacks Pakistan, you will see the tribals defending 14,000 kilometres of the border.” Less than a few months later, the two men were at war again.
The years after 9/11 had seen foreign jihadists from Afghanistan seep into Pakistan’s north-west. Helped by Pakistan’s intelligence services, who had long seen them as strategic assets, they allied with Islamists in the region, violently displacing the traditional tribal leadership.
Facing intense pressure from the United States, President Pervez Musharraf eventually ordered a limited offensive into South Waziristan, only to find his commanders didn’t have the resolve or skills to win the war.
He turned, instead, to deal-making. The so-called Shakai agreement, with Nek Muhammad Wazir, was hailed as a major success for this policy.
The dispiriting experience didn’t stop the Pakistan Army from trying again. In February 2005, the Pakistan Army signed another peace deal with South Waziristan warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who would go on to lead the Tehreek-e-Taliban. This time, the Pakistan Army tried to solve the problems it faced with Hakimullah Mehsud, by not calling on him to surrender his al-Qaeda linked allies. Like in the earlier peace deal, though, fighting continued apace.
In August 2009, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone strike finally eliminated Mehsud — but attacks on the Pakistan Army still continue carried out by the men he commanded.
Maulana Fazlullah, now the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, himself built his power on the back of these peace deals. For years, Fazlullah had used radio broadcasts — and violence — to call for shari’a law in the Swat Valley. The Pakistani armed forces gazed on benignly.
In 2008, voters backed the secular Awami National Party (ANP)-led coalition government in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Fazlullah’s violence surged, and in February 2009, battered by assassinations and suicide-bombings, the ANP conceded his demands. Swat became a dystopia, characterised by floggings and beheadings.
The author of last week’s massacre, warlord Abdul Wali — who prefers the pseudonym Omar Khalid Khurasani — was among the Lal Masjid jihadists. He himself signed a prisoner-exchange and peace deal with the Pakistan Army in May 2008. In return, the army allowed the Islamist warlord to exercise power across the Mohmand Agency. “Polio vaccination was stopped, shariah courts were established, women were directed to wear the veil in public and criminals were arrested and judged in Sharia courts,” the journalist Amir Mir records.
“None of the agreements with Taliban factions involved in attacks in Pakistan,” expert Daud Khattak has noted, “lasted for more than a few months.”
In a CIA archive somewhere there’s a video of this too: less than three months after the Shakai deal, a ‘Hellfire’ missile locked on to Nek Muhammad’s home as he was eating lunch, guided by a signal broadcast from a chip planted by an Inter-Services Intelligence agent. It was the CIA’s first drone strike in Pakistan. Last week’s executions, the Taliban says, were intended to avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the peace-deal beneficiary of 2005. Abdul Wali, more likely than not, will die, too — but that won’t end the war, either.
This is because the conflict isn’t about primitive religious fanatics battling the state: it is, instead, an irreducible ideological conflict about what Pakistan ought to be. The jihadists see themselves as revolutionaries fighting to overthrow a corrupt oligarchy, and build a utopia based on the word of god. Their methods might be repulsive, but many Pakistanis don’t disagree with their ideals.
From its moment of birth, this conflict has stalked Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding patriarch, appeared to promise a secular state in his August 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan: “you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques.” Yet, as the scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy has pointed out, Jinnah’s speeches “do not contain a single occurrence of the word ‘secular’.” “He refers repeatedly to the ‘fundamentals’ of the Shari’a and Quranic law,” Dr. Hoodbhoy notes, “without ever specifying what those fundamentals are.”
Like Muhammad suggested in his speech at Shakai, the Taliban see themselves as patriots — determined to realise that dream.
In this, the Tehreek-e-Taliban are in fact a descendants of a tradition that dates back centuries: clerical networks regularly battled both imperial power, using faith as a language for resistance. The clerical push for power over Pakistan’s destiny resumed soon after its independence. In 1951, the Majlis-e-Ahrar, a religious alliance, initiated an agitation calling for members of the heterodox Ahmadiyya sect to be declared non-Muslims. They precipitated massive violence, forcing the imposition of military rule in 1953. Pakistan’s 1956 constitution, hoping to deny the fundamentalists ground, decreed it an “Islamic republic.”
Later, in 1961, General Ayub Khan gave institutional form to the idea of the Islamic state, setting up an Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology to ensure there was no conflict between the laws of god and the laws of man. Now remembered as a socialist, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who declared Islam the state religion. He also introduced the first new blasphemy laws. Finally, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq decisively transformed the state into an instrument for the perpetuation of neoconservative Islam.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League has been long allied with religious reaction, has less reason to change course than most. The murderously anti-minorities Lashkar-e-Jhangvi helped ensure his party’s sweeping success in Punjab during the last elections. Mr. Sharif hopes that he can use anti-jihadists in Punjab, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s Masood Azhar Alvi, to serve as counterweights to the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Even a victory for this project, though, will strengthen the jihadist vision of Pakistan — not roll it back.
For decades, Dr. Hoodbhoy wrote, Pakistanis have been taught that the country’s “raison d’être was the creation of an Islamic state where the Shariah must reign supreme.” The battle is over who can best manufacture this dystopia, not the idea itself.