The struggling kebab-maker told me that he had owned a video shop, until a few days earlier, at least. Now he was trying out a new career, but it seemed like he didn’t have much of a future in Pakistan’s booming barbecue business, either; his eyes were teary from the smoke billowing off his improvised pit. He tried to make a handful of minced meat stick to a skewer, and said, sardonically, “See here, true Sharia has finally arrived in Swat.”
In 2009, the Pakistani Army launched an offensive to drive the Taliban out of Swat—and forced Fazlullah across the border, into Afghanistan. These days, the valley is relatively peaceful, and Pakistani tourists have returned in droves.
Fazlullah kept himself busy in exile: among other things, he issued the order to shoot Malala Yousafzai, the young education activist from Mingora. But he got a promotion earlier this week, when the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (usually known simply as the Pakistani Taliban, or T.T.P.) elected him as their new leader. In his very first statement, he declared that he would refuse any peace talks with the country’s government, which had finally managed to get a mandate from all political parties to hold such talks. Instead, Fazlullah’s first priority will be to take revenge for the death of his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Mehsud, who had been “killed” by American drone strikes on at least two previous occasions, was actually killed by another drone strike at the start of November—transforming him overnight, in the eyes of Pakistani politicians and commentators, from a mass murderer into a martyr.
During his four years as the head of the T.T.P., Mehsud raised the Taliban game in Pakistan. No longer were they just tribal men fighting to preserve their way of life; they started dreaming they could convert everyone to it. Mehsud consolidated a number of small but ruthless militant and sectarian groups into close-knit fighting units that seemed able to strike anywhere at will. He ordered attacks on Pakistan’s military bases, organized a couple of spectacular jailbreaks, and sent an endless stream of suicide bombers after politicians and religious scholars who didn’t meet his exacting standards. After his men kidnapped an Army colonel, Mehsud delivered a short speech, and then shot him in front of a video camera.
Yet the state seems to have lost the will to fight its old foe, Fazlullah, and his followers. When Mehsud was killed, instead of celebrating or letting out quiet sighs of relief, politicians and journalists reacted as if they had lost a favorite son. He had killed many of us, but we weren’t craving vengeance; we were ready to make up and cuddle.
Why does Pakistan’s political and military élite celebrate the very people it is fighting? The logic—or its absence—goes like this: Hakimullah Mehsud was our enemy. But the United States is also our enemy. So how dare the Americans kill him? And how dare they kill him when we had made up our minds to talk to him? If the United States is talking to the Afghan Taliban, why can’t we talk to our own Taliban?
According to Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, our Taliban are not a fighting force with clear goals but merely people “who are mentally disturbed and confused.” These confused people have attacked mosques, Air Force bases, and anyone who looks remotely like a Shiite; in Swat, they barred all women from leaving home without a male companion. Not to mention shutting down girls’ schools. (One of my friends and fellow-journalists once told one of Fazlullah’s commanders, You can get away with slitting people’s throats in public squares, but shut down girls’ schools, and there will be a lot of very irritated and angry parents. The commander was not persuaded.)
The popular narrative in Pakistan holds that the Taliban’s fight is simply a reaction to American drone strikes: it’s a war between American kids sitting in front of LCD screens eating their TV dinners and our own men in the north, who are better Muslims than we are. The Pakistani logic seems to be that if America stops killing them, they’ll stop killing us. But the truth is that the Taliban leadership has made no such promises. They have only said that if the government stops drone strikes, and stops coöperating with America’s war in Afghanistan, they would be willing to talk. But what would they talk about? The little problem they have with Pakistan is that it’s an infidel state—almost as bad as America, but with some potential; they believe that they can somehow make us all better Muslims.
Our Taliban are simply saying, “Save us from the U.S. drones, so we can continue to kill you infidels in peace.”
Pakistan’s rulers have developed a strange fetish for lionizing its tormenters. Watching the proceedings in Pakistan’s parliament last week, after Mehsud’s murder, you could have mistaken it all for a Taliban meeting. “This is not just the killing of one person,” Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said. “It’s the death of all peace efforts.” It was mentioned, but only in passing, that since Pakistan had proposed talks with Mehsud in September, the peacemaker and his allies had killed an Army general, blown up a church filled with worshippers, and killed hundreds of other civilians.
One of Pakistan’s leading religious and political leaders, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose party is a member of Sharif’s ruling coalition, probably summed up the situation best when he said that even if a dog was killed by the Americans, he would call it a martyr.
The head of Pakistan’s oldest religious party, Maulana Munawar Hassan, has declared that Pakistani soldiers killed at the hands of the Taliban are not martyrs—so, in a way, worse than dogs. In an usually strong and emotional statement, Pakistan’s Army condemned Hassan’s remarks and demanded an unconditional apology for “hurting the feelings” of families whose loved ones had died at the hands of the Taliban. As a result, we now have a raging national debate, in which serious-minded journalists are asking even more serious-minded politicians and religious scholars if the godless Soviet soldiers killed by American-funded mujahideen in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties should also be declared martyrs.
This debate was still going when Nasiruddin Haqqani was martyred last weekend, while buying bread at a bakery in the suburbs of Islamabad. He was the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, whom the Pakistani Army considers a valued ally—a tenacious commander who spares us and restricts his jihad to Afghanistan. The Haqqanis, who spread terror on the other side of the border, are our friends—unlike Fazlullah, who lives over there but kills over here. You can see how this might get complicated. It’s no wonder our politicians are so confused.
Pakistani soldiers are trained to shout “allahu akbar” when attacking their enemies. But the enemy they face shouts “allahu akbar” much louder. The Taliban are not mentally disturbed, as our Prime Minister suggests—they believe in something. The state doesn’t. There is no real threat that the T.T.P. will take over Pakistan: there are far too many girls’ schools for them to blow up, and they face a huge military, which may fight on both sides of the war but knows that there can be no Army without a state. But in their collective hankering for one true Sharia, the leaders of Pakistan’s political and security establishment—and their American backers—have long since lost their bearings.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of two novels, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.” He lives in Karachi.
Above: Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader who was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike, speaks to the press in 2008. Photograph by A. Majeed/AFP/Getty.