Tackling the Taliban

22 05 2009

This is the draft version I wrote for the editorial of the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLIV No. 20, May16 2009.

[A sole dependence on military solutions cannot defeat the Taliban]

The recent round of military action by Pakistan against the Taliban insurgents in its North West Frontier Province could not have started on a worse day. As Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari was about to leave for Washington DC to report to the new commander-in-chief of the “war on terror”, Barack Obama, the Pakistani military launched its, as yet, mightiest offensive against the Taliban inside the territory of Pakistan. Nothing could have highlighted in starker terms the manner in which this military operation is aligned to United States’ strategic interests. And therefore, nothing could have undermined more the credibility of this military action. The Taliban have long claimed that the Pakistani State acts at the behest of the United States against its own people and that the “war on terror” is a US sponsored war against the Pakistani and Afghan people. Therefore, such timing is sure to provide ballast to the Taliban claim and undermine further the credibility of the present action.

The influence and hold of the Taliban have only increased in the past few years within Pakistan. Not only militarily, but also in terms of social acceptance there seems to have been a growth of the Taliban. The foundations of this pernicious movement were laid by the cynical policy of the Pakistani State and the US administrations in furtherance of their geo-strategic and commercial aims. Though this policy was ostensibly changed in the aftermath of the  9/11 terror attacks in the United States, there is ample evidence to suggest that powerful sections of the Pakistani State have continued to sustain and support the Taliban till very recently. This relation has been so strong that even now there is a fair amount of scepticism among observers about the genuineness of the present action by the Pakistan military against the Taliban. All this has surely contributed to strengthening the Taliban and its military might. More importantly, it has created a certain acceptability for fundamentalist militancy within domestic politics in Pakistan.

There is no doubt that taking action against the Taliban and containing them, if not eliminating their political influence, has become imperative. A few weeks ago, when the Pakistan government had entered into a peace deal with the Taliban in Swat and other areas by promulgating the Nizam-e-Adl – a form of Sharia law based on local usage – we had written that it was necessary to combine political measures with military action to defeat the Taliban. While the wisdom of imposing Sharia inspired law was debatable, to say the least, the attempt to find a political solution to the issue was unexceptionable. The specific problem with that particular political solution was that it appeared akin to a surrender to the Taliban and enfeebled other political players of long standing in the region, in particular the Awami National Party (of which Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan had been a leader) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party. It also suffered from a fatal reliance on only political measures, as distinct from social and economic measures. Reports indicate that the Taliban are championing the issues of land reform and end to feudal oppression to gain popularity. In a country where two thirds of the rural population is either landless or have marginal landholdings, and where feudal forms of oppression, like begaar (forced labour), are still extant, it is not difficult to see how and why the Taliban gain popular support for their politics.

Therefore, it will be impossible to defeat the Taliban merely by military means, howsoever steadfast the Pakistani establishment is in its pursuit. Even during the time of the peace deal in Swat a few months ago, there were reports that half a million of the 1.3 million population of Swat had left the valley feeling persecuted by the violence unleashed by the military and the Taliban. The present military offensive with more than 20,000 crack troops, helicopter gunships and fighter jets, has already led to over seven hundred thousand registered refugees fleeing from the fighting and each day adds tens of thousands more to this number. Pakistan’s government has claimed that it has killed over 700 Taliban fighters and reclaimed large tracts of territory. Without independent confirmation of these facts and contradictory statements from government and military officials about extent of deaths and of operations, it is difficult to know how successful this campaign has been. Further, the experience of combating the Taliban through a purely military strategy has been an unmitigated disaster in neighbouring Afghanistan. Not only has this war in Afghanistan killed a large number of civilians, it has also strengthened the Taliban politically by making them appear like freedom fighters taking on a colonial force. It will be tragic for the people of Pakistan, and disastrous for the region in general, if the Pakistani State makes the same mistake they did in 1971 in Bangladesh and the Americans have made in Afghanistan since 2001. The soldiers are needed to control the Taliban but what remains unsaid and undone is to address the social and economic demands of the people of Pakistan which ultimately sustain the Taliban.

(This was written on 14 May 2009)

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22 05 2009

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