Seema Mustafa: What the people of Pakistan think about the Taliban

What the people of Pakistan think about the Taliban
Monday, March 02, 2009
Seema Mustafa


The tide is turning for the people of Pakistan. And the fear and apprehension is palpable as soon as one crosses the Wagah border into Lahore. The enthusiasm, hope and even joy visible just last February during the general elections have been replaced in less than a year with despair, and a realization that all is not well. What makes it worse is a sense of disillusionment with the political leadership that has embedded itself in narrow conflict and strife, and not stood up to the challenge of providing a stable and responsive government.

The Taliban is creeping into the heartland of Pakistan. And what makes the people of Pakistan, particularly the more aware civil society, despondent is the awareness that there is no one in a position to stop the onward march. The recent deal between the Zardari government and the Taliban in Swat, brokered by the Awami National Party, has created widespread resentment amongst the progressive sections of society, who see in it a total surrender and, as many of them said, a clear indication that the government had abdicated its responsibility.

It is common knowledge on the streets of Pakistan now that the Taliban are just moments away from Peshawar and already spreading their wings in southern Punjab. Posters have appeared in the villages around Lahore supporting the Taliban and their social and moral code that includes beards for men, and no education or rights for women.

The army is either complicit, or unable to take action with strategic experts divided through the middle on this issue. All agree that the terrain and inexperience in counterinsurgency operations is deterring effective army operations, but one view is that this is matched by the absence of determination and commitment to fight the Taliban.

The other view is that the army is still playing with the extremist forces, and using this to put pressure on the political leadership so that it can eventually get back into the seat of power in Islamabad. The truth probably lies in the middle as there are indications — from the 1500 or more soldiers who have died in battle — that there is some level of seriousness within the army to fight this war. But at the same time there are stories of how the army is using the operations to acquire more funds and more weaponry from the United States.

The one almost frantic plea heard across the board — from political parties and civil society — was that India should realise the problem Pakistan was facing and resume the peace process. There was all-round condemnation of the Mumbai terror attack from every possible quarter, accompanied with the demand that India should agree to have joint investigation with Pakistan. The argument was that this would ease some of the pressure on Pakistan, give the political government manoeuvring space within the country and force the army to admit its responsibility instead of using the “we have to place our forces on the eastern border and so do not have enough man power to tackle the Taliban” argument.

Civil society that is extremely critical of terrorism and admits very openly of the involvement of Pakistan’s terror groups, is clear that this cooperation would help stem the tide as it would strengthen the political and democratic forces to effectively counter the Taliban and the jihadis.

New Delhi has adopted the ‘wait and watch’ approach with government policy clearly reflected in its refusal to heed this plea. The government here continues to favour the army and even former President General Musharraf, who is still hated on the streets of Pakistan, even though it knows that it cannot conduct direct talks with the men in uniform. The assessment justifying inaction, that “if we help the process of peace there will be another terror attack in India”, is strange and inexplicable but sums up official government policy. Who should we talk to, is the other argument for inaction and that, to some extent, gets justified when the PPP uses the courts to get rid of the PML-N government in Punjab.

The fear of a Taliban take over is real. The truce has delayed the process, but perhaps only temporarily. It is not expected to work on the ground for long, and can only strengthen the Taliban that has ensured that its writ has now the mandate of the government. The courts have been closed in Peshawar, the schools are closed with girls being discouraged from attending, brutal assassinations are being carried out with the government watching helplessly from Islamabad.

Any sane person in India will realise that the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan will not secure India. Increased terrorism and the resultant growth of communalism in this country will be immediate results, leading to divisiveness and instability all around. It is therefore, imperative for the government of India to wake up to the dangers before these reach our doors, and formulate a policy that strengthens peace and the democratic forces in the region. Military action is never a solution, as probably even the United States can vouch for after the invasion of Iraq. (The News)

The writer is a former political editor of The Asian Age and was a member of an Indian peace delegation that visited Pakistan this past week. Email:


Sweeping Swat
Monday, March 02, 2009


The media is a fickle thing with a short attention span, and the events in the upper reaches of government in recent days has diverted attention from what is happening in Swat and the other troubled areas that have so preoccupied it in recent weeks. As change swirls through the corridors of power, change is being consolidated in the troubled valley. Power has shifted in Swat, and the deal done with the Taliban is the precursor of retreats yet to come. The way has been cleared for the government to make similar arrangements with other groupings of extremists in other parts of the country and it will be able to say, hand on heart, that these are ‘local solutions to local problems.’ Now that their hold is consolidated – at least for the time being – the Taliban are revealing their hand and it is clear that sweeping change is the order of the day, allowing us to see what is our likely future as the Taliban groups gradually take hold of the country.

The Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, has said that all non-government organisations working in the valley have to cease operation until the implementation of Sharia law. “All NGOs should leave Swat because they are creating problems for peace,” Fazlullah said in a speech which was for the first time cut short by jamming by government agencies. However, he added before being cut off that emergency medical crews were exempt from the order. Thus far it is not clear how many charities, national or international, operate in the valley. Fazlullah called on soldiers deployed in Swat to remain at their bases, vowing to retaliate against any troop increases. No date has been announced for Sharia law to take effect in the valley. It is not clear, either, how the system, which supporters say will be faster than the penal courts, will be implemented or who will be responsible for justice.

The Taliban and the NGOs have never sat easily together, if only because the NGOs represent that which the Taliban most detest – moderation and a degree of modernity. Although they are often reviled by commentators who know little or nothing about the work done by NGOs, the fact is that they are the indigenous backbone of much of our social care system. They fill in the blanks in government services, particularly health and education services, they provide support for poor farmers and artisans, they give vocational training, they work with government on public/private partnerships that are increasingly cost effective and, to the obvious distaste of the Taliban, employ women and promote women’s rights and opportunities. It is this latter aspect which is probably the underlying reason for the Taliban demanding that the NGOs cease their work in Swat. The NGOs are only creating problems for peace because they are doing something that the Taliban do not approve of, not because they are engaging in anything remotely warlike. This is the pattern that will follow agreements such as this wherever they are made, and with one agreement under its belt the government will seek others. (The News, Editorial)



One apologist is Imran Khan, who has otherwise done some good work. His achievements include the Cricket World Cup (although he did not acknowledge the contribution of his team in his winning speech) and the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. But despite the fact he has matured as a politician over the years, Imran Khan should also keep his idealism of tribal justice and the Taliban to himself. If during his years of education in the UK he had paid more attention to his books, he would realize how off the mark he is.

Why is it that most religious organizations are afraid to condemn suicide bombings and terror attacks? Not taking anything away from the terror wrought by the Israelis in Gaza, why does the same force of condemnation not come forth for the people who have bombed, killed and injured in Swat and the Tribal Areas?

This week was also interesting because we were told by the head of the army’s PR machine that the army could not win the war in Swat because the people were not with it. He also said that there was a paucity of resources and that the funding for the extremists came from a variety of sources.

This newspaper did a report on refugees from Swat in Karachi. They said that they were not sure who to fear more – the militants who killed them on suspicion of collaborating with the government or the army which bombed them on suspicion of harbouring militants. In the final analysis, poor governance is creating the space for extremism to flourish. And we are still not learning our lesson. (In the national interest, Monday, March 02, 2009, Kamal Siddiqi, The News).