Taking on Taliban

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

Taliban militants before leaving Buner on April 24.-NAVEED ALI/AP

Taliban militants before leaving Buner on April 24.-NAVEED ALI/AP

WHEN Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani made a sombre appearance on national television on the night of May 7, it was to declare a full-scale war and to ask the people of Pakistan to back their government and the armed forces. But not for the kind of war as Pakistanis have thus far understood the word, against India, the traditional dushman humsaya enemy neighbour. This war was to be against their own countrymen.

On May 8, the Pakistan Army announced it had moved additional forces into Swat valley in the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP) for an all-out operation against Taliban militants. The Swat Taliban militia had virtually taken over the district by January and, emboldened by a peace agreement with the provincial government the next month, went on to entrench themselves in the region. All semblance of government rule vanished rapidly.

The February peace deal has, however, unravelled. Under the agreement, which was concluded between the NWFP government and the pro-Taliban militant group, Tehreek-e-Nifas-e-Sharia-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), the government had to set up sharia courts in seven districts of the Malakand division, including Swat. In return, the TNSM chief, Sufi Mohammed, promised to persuade the Taliban in Swat to disarm and submit to government rule.

While Parliament endorsed the agreement on sharia courts, President Asif Ali Zardari signed legislation to usher in the new legal system in the Malakand division and the NWFP government began to implement it, Sufi Mohammed showed no interest in keeping his part of the bargain.

Instead, he made it clear that it was far from his agenda. In interviews that gave an insight into the 79-year-old militants mind, he made statements about the anti-Islamic nature of democracy, against the education of girls and about how women should not be allowed to step out of homes.

Two generations of Pakistanis from the beginning of the Zia era in 1979 have internalised a version of state-sponsored Islam that has applauded jehad and jehadists. As a result, the majority of the Pakistani public opposed military action against their brother Muslims, who, it was argued, had risen up in arms against the state only because the Pakistan government was cooperating with the United States. Their prescription: talk to the militants, forge peace deals with them and stop assisting America in its war on terror.

But Pakistanis love their democracy even the Jamaat-e-Islami does not challenge the notion of the modern democratic nation-state as the Taliban does and constantly hark back to Jinnahs vision for Pakistan, although the details of this vision are a subject of dispute, chiefly between those who say he wanted an Islamic state and those who believe his vision was for a Muslim state. At any rate, people were chilled to the bone by Sufi Mohammeds statements because the man still lived in the medieval era. The turning point really was the Talibans advance into Dir and Buner districts and the total absence of a government response.

With Buner located only 100 km from Islamabad, a sudden public alarm spread about the possibility of the Taliban coming down the Marghalla hills that flank the capital city. And then there was a spike in worldwide concern at the goings on. The U.S. goaded the Pakistan government to act, while trying to persuade the Pakistan Army that it was these militants who posed the bigger threat to national security, not India.

The NWFP government held out against military action in a densely populated region. The Pakistan Army initially sent its troops to wrest Buner and Dir back from the hundreds of black-turbaned, rocket-launcher toting men who had occupied these two districts.

Both the NWFP government and the Pakistan Army continued to maintain that they were holding back operations in Swat to give Sufi Mohammed an opportunity to fulfil his part of the deal. On May 2, it became clear this would not happen. The previous night, the NWFP government had announced the setting up of a sharia appeals court in Malakand for the lower sharia courts in the region ushered in by the new Nizam-e-Adl regulations. It announced the appointment of two judges to this bench of the Peshawar High Court.

As expected, Sufi Mohammed, who said he had not been consulted in the appointments, demanded that in any case the government should first halt the military operations in Dir and Buner. Immediately, the Taliban militiamen swarmed in from their mountain hideout and moved into Swats main city Mingora, occupied government buildings, schools and hotels and moved around on the streets. The Taliban blew up the power grid, looted banks and attacked police stations. A military operation became inevitable.

Justifying its capitulation to the Taliban in February through the Nizam-e-Adl agreement, the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) in the NWFP held that it had agreed to the sharia courts because this was a peoples demand. Before their integration with Pakistan in 1969, the people of Swat had their own rewaj, a moderate mix of customary and Quranic laws through which they quickly settled their disputes. Pakistans judicial system moves glacially. When the Nizam-e-Adl was introduced, the people of Swat welcomed it as they believed their old system had been restored and peace would be restored as that was the main demand of the TNSM.

Swatis were dismayed that Sufi Mohammed had his own interpretation of the kind of laws under which the Nizam-e-Adl would function. To top this, there was no sign of the promised peace.

The ANPs argument was that the TNSM and the Taliban, which tried to use a popular demand to further their own ends, now stood totally exposed and bereft of any public sympathy. Vocal supporters of the Taliban fell silent. Claiming a political victory, the NWFP government said it was still committed to implementing the sharia law but, as Information Minister Mian Ifthikar Hussain declared, all options were open before the government to reclaim its writ in the affected areas.

Coincidentally or not, these fast-paced developments took place as Zardari and his entourage arrived in Washington, for his first meeting with President Barack Obama. Also on the cards was a tripartite meeting with Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on May 6.

It was after the Washington meetings that Gilani told the nation he had called out the army. Thousands of Swatis had already begun leaving the district by then, in anticipation of an operation, adding to the tens of thousands already displaced by the army operations in Buner and Dir, and before that in the Bajaur tribal agency. Holding the Taliban responsible for the plight of the people, Ifthikar Hussain said the number of people displaced from Swat could reach 500,000. The fate of the civilian population, both the displaced people and those who have chosen to remain behind in Swat and the other affected areas, may hold the key to the militarys ability to sustain the Swat operation.

Despite the unprecedented and overwhelming support for the military operation, commentators are warning that there is little public appetite for a long-drawn-out battle, and that the army has to end it quickly. As the fighting began with army helicopter gunships and heavy artillery providing support to ground troops, the army cautioned it could not guarantee there would be no collateral damage, even though it had taken all measures to avoid it.

On the other hand, the Pakistan Army is under pressure to carry out a successful operation. With the Taliban now accepted as the enemy, the armys reputation as a defender of the nation is now on test.

It was the failure of the army either because of inability or unwillingness to take on the Taliban in Swat twice before that led to the ANP governments controversial peace agreement. This time, the nation wants the army to act, and it has to show results.

The question now is if the Pakistan Army will take its operations into other Taliban strongholds, namely the Federally Administered Tribal Areas? As ANP leader Hashem Babar said, FATA is the mother ship of safe havens for the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the main source of the threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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