Friday, May 8, 2009

Pakistan: Will the military stand up to the Taliban?

It is good to read -- on the Net adn in teh international papers -- that the Pakistani government is finally taking on the Taliban inside Pakistan. Not only because of what that means for the rest of the world -- as the US administration has asserted -- but also because of what it might mean for Pakistan itself.

It has been sad to see that country slowly – and then quite quickly – succumb to the Taliban in certain areas. It has been sad also to talk to Pakistani friends who feel angry but helpless to stop the Talibs or to shake their own government into action.

In the past few days, we have seen the government finally make the decision to stand and fight the Taliban in Swat and perhaps in its neighbouring districts as well. However, one central question remains: how sincere is the Pakistani military in taking on the Taliban?

It dithered for 2 years while the Taliban consolidated gains inside Pakistan. It practically handed over Swat to the Taliban in February. It failed to fight for Buner in April. When the government finally decided to confront the Taliban, first reports said it had sent in paramilitary troops rather than the regular army, which remained massed along the frontier with India – even though there is no war or threat of war there.

In some recent statements, US President Barack Obama has appeared to show more respect for Pakistan’s military than its government. True, the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has shown itself to be a thoroughly ineffectual government. Perhaps worse – Zardari himself was known as Mr. Ten Percent when his late wife, Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minsiter of Pakistan.

However, I hope Mr. Obama has not forgotten recent history:

(i) The Taliban are very largely the creation of the Pakistani military, in particular of its intelligency agency, the ISI. The Taliban were created with US and Saudi money, but with Pakistani training and day-to-day guidance, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Many of them were indoctrinated in madrassas and refugee camps inside Pakistan under the military rule of Pakistani President General Zia ul-Haq.

(ii) It is true that Zardari’s government more or less handed over Swat to the Taliban on a platter in February, allowing them to take control of the district and impose Sharia (Islamic law). But let us not forget that it was under General Musharraf that the Pakistani government did its first deal in which it ceded government control (though not, ostensibly at least, to the Taliban).

Inside Pakistan, the military is still viewed with suspiscion. In a front page story on Pakistan this morning, the International Herald Tribune (Asia edition) includes this revealing passage:

Still, some of the refugees milling about the tuberculosis hospital [serving as a refugee camp in the city of Mardan] raised doubts about the agenda of the Pakistani Army. Some even echoed the widespread view, commonplace in Washington, that the Pakistani Army, or at least elements of it, had not merely failed to combat the militants but had also colluded to make them stronger.

“In some places the Taliban and the army are a stone’s throw away,” said Mohammed Javed, who fled his job as an armed guard for the aid organization Médecins sans Frontière [Doctors without Borders] in Mingora [town]. “They are just looking at each other, not doing anything. We are ordinary people, and we do not understand.”

“It’s a game,” a man shouted over Mr. Javed. “The Taliban are never killed. Only civilians are.”
Elsewhere in the camp, 50-year-old Mughdi Khan told the IHT correspondent: “We are Muslims; we don’t have much problem with people trying to enforce the religion – it’s when they cut the throats of the policement that people become angry. Yes, they are doing that.”

The police enjoy a better reputation than the army and are seen to be closer to the people. Until recently, it was the police and paramilitary forces that attempted to protect the local people from the atrocities of the Taliban in Swat and the neighbouring district of Buner. The citizens of Buner, with support from the police, themselves fought off the Taliban last year (without any support from the military).

In February this year, the government handed over Swat to the Taliban in a deal that allowed the Taliban to close girls’ schools, impose Sharia (Islamic) law, and publicly flog a 17-year-old woman for going out of her house without a male escort. In April, the Taliban once again attacked the neighbouring district of Buner. This time the people felt unable to resist. The military did not help. And Buner, 110 km from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, fell to the Taliban on April 5.

The Taliban appear to be deeply unpopular with the citizens of Pakistan. Last year’s citizen’s resistance to the Taliban was a stark demonstration of this opposition. In April, literally between terrorist attacks, about 1,000 people took to the streets in Lahore to protests against terrorism, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalist rule (which they called “Mullah rule”), and the oppression of women. They shouted slogans calling the Taliban “killers of mothers, sisters, and daughters.”

Pakistan is a of course a Muslim-majority nation and in fact a Muslim nation (not always the same thing) – Islam is the state religion and the reason for the creation of Pakistan. But Pakistan is not the Middle East. It is a country located physically in South Asia, with its own history and culture. Pakistani Islam is not the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia.

In recent weeks, some Pakistani journalists and bloggers have also spoken out against the Taliban and their fundamentalist understanding of Islamic society. (See links to some of these stories in the right column of this blog.)

However. I come back to the central question: what of the Pakistani military, which has been probably the most potent force in Pakistan since its earliest years as a nation? Where does the miliatry stand on the question of the Talibanization – or not – of Pakistan?

No comments:

Post a Comment