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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 23, May 23, 2009

Talibanisation or Disintegration?

Saturday 23 May 2009, by Sukumar Pathak

Pakistan had started out with five provinces in 1947: Punjab (its west part), North-West Frontier Province or NWFP, Sind, Baluchistan and East Bengal (or East Pakistan). Of these East Bengal seceded from the parent body after a bloody war of liberation in 1971. Among the remaining four, the North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, has come into prominence of late because of the resurgence of the Taliban who were defeated by the Americans in 2001. The NWFP consists of six settled districts of Hazara, Mardan, Bannu, Peshawar, Kohat and Dera Ghazi Khan. The inhabitants are mainly Pathans and their language Pushtu. The tribal belt between the NWFP and Afghanistan is held by four tribes, namely, Afridi, Mahsood, Waziri and Mohmand. The whole area was taken out of Afghanistan and made into a new province by Lord Curzon in 1901. (See Thrown to the Wolves by Pyarelal, p. 23)

Originally, the Taliban was a joint venture of the USA and Pakistan. The original purpose was to use it, along with sundry other groups called Mujahideen, against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. A network of agents was created by the CIA through the eighties of the last century in the wild hills of the Frontier Province of Pakistan. The CIA had to do this through a sister service, namely, Pakistan’s own Inter-Services Intelligence or the ISI. The Americans poured in money, gadgetry and weapons while the ISI did the recruitment and training. The combined efforts produced an elite corps of guerrillas, the equals of the Hamas or the Hezbolla in the art of sabotage, arson and assassination. At the instance of the CIA, the then President Zia-ul-Haq placed a high-ranking Pak military officer in charge of this elite corps, the Taliban, that is to say. That officer was none other than Pervez Musharraf. (‘Taliban’, by the way, means ‘a student’.)

Pakistan devised and put into effect a plan to place Afghanistan within its sphere of influence with the Taliban used as its instrument. The plan was a success with the defeat by the Taliban of the other militias in a civil war. This had the full support of the USA. Such was the situation in the post-Soviet Afghanistan. Then something happened which wholly altered the situation. In September 2001 the Al-Qaeda made a shocking terror attack on the American soil itself. A stunned America took but little time to invade Afghanistan, the centre of the Taliban who were hand in glove with the Al-Qaeda. At 24-hour’s notice from George Bush, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had to make a U-turn in his attitude and policy towards the Taliban, his protégé. The Pak General had to offer every facility to the US Army to use the Karachi port and Pak territory to proceed to Afghanistan. Indeed, General Musharraf became overnight America’s chief ally in the latter’s war on terror.

The “co-operation”, however, was forced upon General Musharraf, placing him in a quandary. Considering the might of the USA he could not refuse to fall in line with the US-led battle against terror. On the other hand, the organisation embodying the terror, namely, the Taliban, was his own handiwork. Not only that. He was at one with its aim and objective and with the method of its working. The result, therefore, was such as to be expected. Soon after its defeat at the hands of the USA, reports began to pour in about the Taliban’s resurgence through regrouping and rearming, the objective being the reconquest of Afghanistan. A corollary of reconquest by the Taliban would be to do away with all traces of Indian presence in Afghanistan. These twin objectives of the Taliban happen, incidentally, to be identical with those of the Pak Army and of that ‘state within a state’, the ISI. In September 2006 troops of five NATO countries, namely, the USA, Britain, Denmark, Holland and Canada mounted an attack, code-named ‘Operation Medusa’, against the Taliban in Afghanistan. ‘Operation Medusa’ brought to light the deep involvement of the Pak Inter-Services Intelligence in the rejuvenation and war-preparedness of the Taliban. The NATO commanders on the spot were frank about their disappointment with the trust their respective governments placed in Pak action and intention regarding the Taliban. The resultant situation in the tribal areas of Pakistan is not tolerable or acceptable.

The NATO commanders feel they have to be more assertive. Orders newly issued reflect the NATO concern about the safe havens for the Taliban inside Pakistan. These reflect also the view of the NATO in Afghanistan that Pakistan lacks the will to combat the Taliban. Today the Taliban not only settle disputes in their domain where they have consolidated their position; they also levy taxes and impose their own brand of justice, complete with courts and prison. From the security of this border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan the militants deploy their fighters, including suicide bombers, in two directions: in one direction against the American (and other NATO) forces in south Afghanistan and in the other direction towards the major cities in Pakistan itself. Attacks in Islamabad and its main commercial hub have rattled the country and raised questions regarding the new Pak Government’s policy towards the militants. Investigations were undertaken probing the seven blasts in Karachi and a suicide bombing in Islamabad in July 2008. The attacks coincided with the first anniversary of the deadly military seize of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque).

The Pak political leaders are facing increasing charge of a policy incoherence. “Any observer of the scene will be struck by what appears to be a lack of resolve on the Government’s part to crush this mischief that by any standard is the greatest threat to Pakistan,” said an editorial in the Dawn newspaper. The News daily noted: “So far, there is considerable confusion in policies regarding militancy.” ‘Confusion’ stands here for ‘ambiguity’. Or even ‘double-facedness’. For, as a matter of fact, there does not exist a chasm between the internal/external policy of the Pak authorities and the Taliban. Rather there exists complete congruence between the two.

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The July 7, 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, for example, bore all the hallmarks of the ISI. Said M.K. Narayanan, India’s National Security Adviser: “We not only suspect but we have a fair amount of intelligence” regarding the ISI’s hand behind the bombing of the Embassy. Which demonstrates beyond all doubt that Pakistan’s foreign policy is executed through terrorist organisations. The coherence in the aims and objectives of the Pak administration in general, and of the Inter-Services Intelligence in particular, and those of the Taliban is so deep-rooted that whenever the NATO forces go to attack a Taliban post in southern Afghanistan or in the areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan the Taliban get the information of the ensuing attack beforehand from the ISI. So much so that the former US President, George Bush, who had described Pakistan as his “chief non-NATO ally”, had to approve orders in July 208 to allow American Special Operation Forces to carry out ground attacks inside Pakistan without the prior permission of the Pak authorities. This secret order signals a watershed for the Bush Administration after about seven years trying to work with Pakistan to combat the Taliban. American officials say that Pakistan will henceforth be notified when the NATO forces conduct ground assaults inside Pakistan without, however, asking for its permission.

Every few weeks from some remote corner of Pakistan’s untamed frontier region reports have been filtering out of another truce having been struck between its government and a local warlord who commands a batch of Taliban fighters. For nearly months Pakistan’s newly elected government has been reported to be engaged in intensive negotiations with Islamic militants who have been using the rugged tribal areas as both a sanctuary and a springboard for attacks. These negotiations with the Taliban have been between Pak officials, on the one hand, and Maulana Sufi Mohammad and Maulana Fazlullah, on the other. As for the background of these two leaders of the militants, Sufi Mohammad had led a revolt in 1994 to bring the Islamic Sharia law back to the Swat valley while Maulana Fazlullah had led a Taliban rising in Swat in late 2007. Critics in the West are apprehensive that the Pak Government has caved in to the Taliban. They are of the opinion that this policy of appeasement is likely to turn the Swat valley into another safe haven for the Taliban and that the Pakistan authorities have been really negotiating from a position of weakness. Under criticism from the international community on the Swat peace deal, Pak Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has countered it with the argument on February 21, 209, that the truce or pact with the Taliban was within the country’s Constitution and that there was nothing to worry about it. The Prime Minister’s assurance failed to pacify the NATO, the USA or Britain. They have voiced concern over such pacts with the Taliban-linked groups from their fear that such a truce can be a ploy for the militant organisations to regroup.

President Barack Obama, however, has set his heart on ending the Taliban and the groups allied to the Taliban. Another 17,000 troops have reinforced the troops the USA already has in Afghanistan. Britain has also contributed an increased quota. So far the NATO has taken upon itself the task of eliminating the Taliban from Afghanistan proper while the task of tackling the Pakistani Taliban inhabiting the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan (who are closely working with the Afghan Taliban) has been given to the Pak authorities. This part of the ‘war on terror’, the part, that is to say, that has devolved upon the Pak Government (which includes the ISI) is of doubtful prospect regarding the result. For the Pak military since President Zia-ul-Haq’s days has been imbibing the jehadi ideology. This ideology, the motivating factor, stands for rooting out every element from Afghanistan which is anti-Taliban while on Pakistan’s eastern border with India, the motivating idea is to spread terror through Taliban-like outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and notably through the Student’ Islamic Movement of India (the SIMI). Not just in Kashmir but throughout India, a sort of ‘second front’ in case their proxy war becomes a direct war. The aims and objectives, the tactics and methods thus happen to be identical with the terror group: the Taliban (a very much Pak-nurtured outfit) on the west of Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba/SIMI on its east. Who will then fight whom?

Induction of more troops by the NATO countries will be hard put to change this inter-relationship between the Taliban, and the ISI and Pak Army. In November 2008 a shocking report had appeared of the resignation from their posts of nearly 2000 policemen as an aftermath of the serial terror strikes in Pakistani cities. General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pak Army Chief, is aware of the difficulty for it to take up the challenge of the militants. First, because of the undercurrent of a similar ideology and also because in quite a few cases of the possibility of a similar ethnicity. Under the latter circumstance a Baluch Regiment may refuse to use their guns against militants who happen to be Baluch or a Pathan Regiment may behave identically against militants who happen to be Pathans. General Kayani may remember how dozens and dozens of soldiers of the Peshwar-based XI Corps had deserted their units rather than shoot down brother Pashtuns during an operation in March 2004.

If under US pressure the Pak Army is more fully employed in the ‘war on terror’ there is every likelihood of a civil war in Pakistan which may see some more territories seceding from Pakistan. For, as at present, only the jehadi ideology is capable of holding Pakistan together and the present Pak Government is proceeding towards recognising this fact, though only gradually and on the sly. The alternative is disintegration. A third alternative would have been an extended democratic process. This, however, is an impossibility in the feudal-military set-up which has kept Pakistan under its stranglehold since its birth.

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