Containing the Taliban: 3 factors
BY Javed Jabbar
Ideology, ethnicity and geography substantially explain the rapid advance of the Taliban in parts of North-Western Pakistan.
The on-going operation by the Armed Forces of Pakistan against the Taliban in Swat has resulted in a massive migration out of the conflict zones. About two million non-combatant children, women and men have migrated almost overnight to safer areas in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and other parts of the country.
The chief of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society estimates that, in reflection of the generous hospitality of the people, about 88 per cent of these forced migrants have already been accommodated in the homes of relations, friends or even complete strangers in NWFP itself.
That still leaves about 12 per cent i.e. about 250,000 people to be accommodated in camps, or in other provinces. Even on this scale the task is formidable. One estimate by the U.N. Relief Services office in Pakistan says that about 126,000 people are moving away from the areas of violence on every single day.
As society and the State of Pakistan cope with this sudden enormous emergency whose ultimate fall-out remains unpredictable and ominous, there is an inescapable irony. Contrary to the hysterical alarm bells rung in April by global media in general and western media in particular, it is not a giant wave of the Taliban that has swept out of Swat and NWFP to overwhelm the rest of Pakistan: it is simply innocent citizens who seek shelter and security as the might of the Armed Forces confronts the mysteriously well-armed Taliban.
It becomes relevant at this stage to take stock of the reality beyond the media-spread paranoia regarding the Taliban.
Three convergent factors substantially explain the rapid advance of the Taliban up to April 2009 in parts of North-Western Pakistan. Ideology. Ethnicity. Geography. Yet the convergence is unsustainable, if not impractical, beyond the NWFP.
Even though 97 per cent of Pakistanis are Muslim, the overwhelming majority are varied and heterogeneous in their practice of Islam. From small sects to large swathes of Sufism, from Sunnis to Shias, from one interpretation of religious texts to another, there is a dynamic diversity of viewpoints and practices. Such a range of strongly-held convictions cannot be steam-rolled by the one-dimensional, intolerant, unilateral version of the Shariah projected by the Taliban.
An all parties conference convened by the government in Islamabad in mid-May included several religious parties of differing persuasions. They strongly rejected the version of Islam propagated by the Taliban and supported the Army’s action.
An ethnic Pukhtoon sense of fraternity spans dozens of tribal, sub-tribal identities which constitute the predominant composition of the Taliban. This homogeneity is one of the major reasons for the fluency with which the force expanded.
At the same time, even within the NWFP, there have been several instances where purely local identities and perceptions have obstructed the movement. In the February 2008 election, the vast majority of Pukhtoons in NWFP including those in Swat, voted for the secular ANP. Such divergencies amongst Pukhtoons are far greater outside the province.
Over 1700 kilometres south of Peshawar in NWFP, the city of Karachi in Sindh has the largest number of Pukhtoons in the world. One reliable estimate is three million plus. However, the city throbs with a colourful diversity of over 16 million people, a virtual microcosm of South Asia and Pakistan. This scale and variety of features alongwith the pluralism within the Pukhtoons themselves become big deterrents against a walk-over threat from the Taliban.
Some madrassas and centres in and near Karachi are suspected to be sleeper cells of the Taliban only waiting for a signal to spring into action. Strategically located near vital points such as oil terminals, transport hubs, highways and roads, some concentrations of Pukhtoons are supposed to represent potential threats. Yet there is a counter-vailing diversity of other ethnic communities in Karachi. This is represented, in one major instance by the MQM, as much as by the non-Taliban dimension of many, if not most Pukhtoons. Facts such as these prevent the danger from becoming real.
In recent weeks there have been several intriguing attempts by unidentified elements to incite ethnic conflict between Pukhtoons and other communities in Karachi, and in other parts of Sindh. Fortunately, despite some bloodshed, restraint and balance have prevailed over anger and suspicion.
A recent limited influx of refugees from Swat is being misused to stoke tension but overall peace still prevails in Sindh.
There is an apprehension that the Taliban mentality has spread widely in southern Punjab. If correct, this aspect alone could negate the argument advanced earlier in this comment that neither the ideology nor the ethnicity of the Taliban have scope for concerted advance beyond NWFP.
Southern Punjab’s high poverty rate does offer fertile ground for the simple, austere, proletarian dimension of the Taliban’s otherwise religion-driven credo. But once again the sheer range and variety of ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, social and cultural features in southern Punjab ensure that the intolerant singularity of the Taliban’s message faces many obstacles. So far there is no sign of wide-spread empathy for them in this region.
Finally, the specific terrain of large parts of the NWFP’s hilly and mountainous areas has helped facilitate the elusiveness of the Taliban, their ability to evade operations by the Pakistan Army and to re-group later. This geographic advantage is not available on the same scale in most of Punjab and Sindh which together contain about 75 per cent of the country’s population.
In Balochistan, the largest of the country’s four provinces (about 45 per cent of the land) with the smallest population (only about 5 per cent of the total) there certainly are many hilly and mountainous areas. But here too, the scope for the Taliban is splintered. While the northern part of Balochistan is predominantly Pukhtoon, there is also a strong secular Pukhtoon nationalist base amongst the people, side-by-side with religious parties.
The central and southern parts of Balochistan are the real home of the Baloch. While being mostly Muslim and conservative, the Baloch are primarily secular, intensely nationalist and deeply alienated from the Islamabad-Punjab power structure. Yet most Baloch tribal leaders use the same power structure to reinforce their own local authority and privileges. In coastal Balochistan where the tribal chief system does not exist and where a comparatively egalitarian ethos prevails, prospects for the Taliban are dim.
The foregoing optimism is not meant to underestimate the dangers posed to Pakistan by the Taliban. Even confined to parts of the NWFP and to other northern areas they are a formidable challenge of obscurantism and brutality that feeds on a potent mixture of deprivation, pride, faith and resentment against America’s foreign policy. The violent tendency of the Taliban must be countered consistently and forcefully.
The principal response must address economic needs, strengthen governance, improve law enforcement, ensure justice and women’s rights and present them all in the idiom of a progressive version of Shariah that outflanks and debunks the narrow, punitive, false version practiced by the Taliban.
(The writer has served as a Minister in three Federal Cabinets of Pakistan and as a Senator.)
Courtesy: The Hindu, New Delhi