By Irfan Husain
Jan 24 2010
Jan 24 2010
Often, I am asked by readers or friends abroad what the Taliban want. Why, they ask, are they slaughtering hundreds of innocent people wherever they can? What is their purpose? What is their agenda? The short answer is, power. Other excuses for their murderous excesses are a fig-leaf: demands for the Sharia and the expulsion of foreign forces from the region are no more than window-dressing.
These terrorists realise that they cannot achieve power through peaceful, democratic means as they have no support. Even relatively moderate Islamic parties have been repeatedly trounced at the polls in Pakistan. So extremists reject democracy as it does not give them access to power.
Established religious parties in Pakistan have exploited the repeated bouts of Army rule to further their agenda. So far, they have been remarkably successful. But while jihadi groups might cut secret deals with intelligence agencies, even Pakistan’s Army is reluctant to enter into open, formal agreements with them.
This leaves only the path of terrorism open to them. Pakistani extremists watched enviously as the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar were propelled to power with help from Pakistan’s Army. Seeking to replicate this success, they have mounted a sustained campaign of destabilisation against the government.
Another thing Islamic extremists oppose vehemently wherever they are operating is modern, scientific education. Educated only in the scriptures, they have little understanding of the physical and social sciences. While they may have many operatives who are highly educated, the top ideologues are seminary-trained zealots. Although they use Islamic rhetoric and rationalisations, their true goal is to seize and wield absolute power.
In Nigeria, an obscure Muslim sect recently launched a deadly campaign under the banner of "Boko Haram", meaning that modern education was haram, or sinful. Hundreds died as they went on a rampage before being ruthlessly crushed. Nevertheless, their primitive credo lives on.
In Pakistan, the Taliban and their murderous partners have destroyed hundreds of schools. They have focused on girls’ schools, issuing threats to those they haven’t yet demolished. Underneath their theocratic justifications for their violent opposition to rational education lies the knowledge that they are not equipped to compete in the modern world. They are thus locked in a battle to tear down a system that marginalises them, and to force everybody else to obey their diktat since, according to them, only they are qualified to interpret the scriptures.
Their apologists — and they are legion in Pakistan’s ruling classes as well as our media — demand that we must negotiate with them. What they do not say is how this should be done. How do you talk to ruthless killers who saw off their victims’ heads and gleefully post the videos of their acts on the Internet? Or force young boys to gun down tied and blindfolded prisoners? Or flog young girls screaming for mercy?
Hakeemullah Mehsud of the Pakistani Taliban and his cohorts want nothing short of absolute power. The only thing they are willing to discuss are the terms of surrender of the Pakistan government. If we cede territory to them — as we did earlier in Swat — we are consigning our citizens to the kind of nightmare the people of Swat had to undergo.
The first thing Fazlullah did when he was handed Swat was to shut down the schools that had not been blown up earlier. Barber shops and video shops were ordered to follow suit. All forms of entertainment were effectively banned. Is this the kind of life we wish to condemn our countrymen to?
Remember that we have a model of this kind of barbaric society: under the Afghan Taliban, our neighbour was rapidly pushed back to the dark ages. Women were flogged for the crime of showing an inch of their ankles as they walked wearing all-enveloping shrouds. Male doctors could not attend to them, even in life-threatening cases. They were not allowed to leave their homes to work, and girls were forbidden from going to school.
Those urging the government to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban need to be clear whether they want their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters to lead the lives their Afghan counterparts had to not so long ago. To the Taliban, these are non-negotiable conditions to their stated desire to impose their version of the Sharia on the rest of us.
Largely due to the shrill voices that have crowded out reason from media debate, there is a lot of confusion and ambiguity about what the Taliban want, and how far the government should go in meeting their demands. Some argue that their excesses are the result of the Western presence in Afghanistan, and our government’s military anti-Taliban operations in the tribal areas. How the extremists hold school-going children responsible for these policies, and destroy schools is something their apologists in the media have failed to explain.
What sustains this mindset is the steady inroads madrasas have made in Pakistan during and since the Zia era. The decades since the 1980s have witnessed a rapid erosion of modern, secular values. The voices of reason have been muted, and we are caught in the grip of a mindless anti-West hysteria that pushes even moderates into the Taliban camp.
As the threat of the Taliban looms larger over Pakistan, schools in Karachi and Lahore have come to resemble armed camps. The fear of terrorist attacks unsettles children and parents alike. Ever the enemies of education, the Taliban will stop at nothing in their quest for power.
How should the government respond to this deadly threat? The voices of appeasement clamour for concessions. But the Taliban have repeatedly said they will halt their campaign of terror only when their version of the Sharia has been imposed, the Army withdraws from the tribal areas, and the Americans cease their drone attacks.
Even if the first two demands are conceded, it is unlikely the Americans will stop using the only weapon that is proving effective in this conflict. Should Pakistani Army actually pull out, it is more than probable that American troops will partially replace them in fighting the Taliban on Pakistan’s side of the border. There is no way they will allow the jihadis in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) to target them without retaliating.
So much as I wish it were otherwise, I fear a military solution is the only one currently available. Negotiating from a position of weakness is a sure recipe for disaster.
Source: © 2010 DAWN Media Group