Seema Mustafa, Covert, 16-31st March, 2009
Lahore: A new army is taking over Pakistan. Young men, dressed casually, exuding confidence, armed with heavy weapons and prepared to die. They were visible in Mumbai, and more recently in Lahore when they moved out of the shadows to attack the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. They earn salaries higher than the Pakistan Army soldiers. They are equipped with better weapons. And their working conditions are better, as they are encouraged to go back to their villages on “home leave” as there are too many of them and the leaders want to ease the “congestion” in the camps.
They are the Taliban. And in less than two years they have extended their control from Waiziristan to Swat. They are now eyeing Punjab, with the attack in Lahore a measure of their reach and influence. Their army is drawn from the Al Qaeda, from Afghanistan and from within Pakistan, with the Lashkar-e-Tayaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Harkat-ul-Ansar having pooled their resources in what their leaders declare to be a jihad against Islam’s enemies.
The modus operandi is simple, and they usually always announce their arrival into towns and cities. Posters are the first to appear, directing women to wear the veil, internet cafes to close down, shops to stop playing music. Soon those who violate the directive are targeted and killed brutally. These posters have started appearing in the villages and towns of southern Punjab now. Businessmen in Muzaffargarh recently received death threats, but while they reported it to the local authorities, they were too scared to file an official complaint. Women have stopped going to the bazaars and the terror that overran Swat is now creeping into mainland Pakistan.
The fear is palpable as soon as one enters Lahore. The enthusiasm and hope visible on the streets during the elections have been replaced, in less than a year, with apprehension and tension. The people are living in dread, and speak now of living in and with terror as part of their daily existence. The Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in the heart of the city. Five policemen died and the rest fled. Locals point out that the police are now fearful, hundreds have left the force, and they are badly equipped to deal with the growing threat of terrorism. In Swat, for instance, the police have been targeted, with its men being brutally killed by the Taliban. It is an open secret: the police in Pakistan are no longer in a mood to fight.
Islamabad is a fortress city, with the heavily barricaded Marriott Hotel wearing the desolate look of a hotel that was heavily attacked just a few weeks ago. Over 60 persons were killed. PPP leader and the supposed power behind President Asif Ali Zardari, his sister, Mrs Faryal Talpur meets us at Zardari House in Islamabad. All that she keeps repeating is, “We are also victims, please realise that, we have also suffered, we want to do everything to keep them away, we need your help, please understand.” Her voice quivers with passion, while several PPP members of the National Assembly sit by in quiet agreement. She assures Indian visitors that her Government wants to get to the bottom of the Mumbai attack. “Please believe us, we want to solve this as much as you do,” she says. A few days ago, her brother President Zardari also expressed a similar helplessness when he admitted in an interview that the Taliban was gaining control over parts of the country.
No one in the PPP is able to say what the Government is doing to check the menace. There is no visible plan of action, with local journalists, former generals and civil rights activists claiming that the Government has been reduced to the role of a bystander. The Taliban is now just 160 km away from Islamabad, but there is a strange sense of complacency in the PPP camp, despite assertions of the Faryal Talpur kind. Well-known professor A. Nayar, who has been active in trying to mobilise public support on this, says, “The Taliban is creeping slowly and steadily forward and no one here seems to be in a position to stop it.”
A disconnect with reality is visible in the palatial palace of PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif at Lahore. Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shahbaz and other PML-N legislators greet us over a resplendent tea of several courses. Nawaz admits there is a problem and blames martial law for it. “If we had moved along the democratic path this situation would not have been created,” he says. He is more upset, however, that India is still praising and entertaining former President Pervez Musharraf. “You have not learned,” he says. He is also vocal against Zardari, drawing a distinction between the President and the PPP. “Our difference is not with the PPP, they are not responsible for what Zardari is doing,” he points out, “Zardari’s personal agenda is blocking Pakistan’s national agenda to make Parliament sovereign and the judiciary independent.”
He does not volunteer information about the Taliban, but when asked admits that “first we have to get our house in order”. But the sense of urgency to tackle this problem is missing, and there appears to be more focus on the differences with President Zardari than in tackling the spread of the extremists. A day later, the courts disqualify the Sharif brothers under what the PML-N said were Zardari’s instructions, and within minutes the streets are full of agitating party workers. There is shock and dismay all around, and the gloom in Lahore sinks into deep despair. The PPP reacts by imposing Governor’s Rule, and in the chaos, with all authority having disappeared, the Taliban — cohesive, united and determined — moves in to attack the visiting cricket team in the very heart of Pakistan. Cricket, say the mullahs in control, should not be played in Pakistan. And with this one act they ensure this, as there seems to be no one in command in either Islamabad or Lahore.
The rise of the Taliban in the last year has been rapid. The foreign elements — the Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs — control Waziristan, with Baitullah Masood in command. The Taliban, according to all reports, is flush with arms and money, and after the US invasion of Afghanistan, has not wanted for recruits. The first hint that the Taliban is moving in comes through posters directing people to observe a draconian code of conduct that it justifies in the name of the Shariat. Those flouting it are systematically targeted and attacked. Most are brutally killed, with their bodies hung for all to see. Residents of Mingora in Swat wake up to public executions, with the bodies being thrown in a square that the locals now refer to as Zibahkhana Chowk [Slaughter Square]. Human rights activists, journalists — no one is safe, with the women paying for perceived violations with their lives. The brutal murder of a young television reporter has had a major impact on newspapers and television channels, who are now afraid to send reporters to the Swat Valley.
The courts stop functioning, students stop going to school, hearing music, the women stay at home, the men grow beards and the Taliban moves in with its weapons. The police either join the Taliban or leave, with desertions having become a serious problem. A specially trained force of 600 police commandos, according to reports here, refused to report for duty in the Swat Valley. Nearly 50,000 persons have fled from the area. Taliban’s Maulana Fazlullah [also known as Mullah Radio], who runs his own radio station makes sure that the brutality and deaths are well-publicised, serving as an effective deterrent. Professor Pervez Hoodboy points out: “This radio has been broadcasting for five years and was never stopped by the Government. When we asked them they said that they did not have the technology to jam it.” It was jammed just three weeks ago, after the damage had been done and Swat brought under Taliban control.
The takeover of Swat is so complete that the Government has had to surrender the land, once the destination of honeymooners, to the Taliban, through a shameful deal that has sent shockwaves through the liberal sections of Pakistani society. The deal was negotiated by the father-in-law of Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad who was released from jail for the purpose. He had started the Tehrik-i-Nafiz Shariat Muhammadi, the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law. A delegation of 30 members from this “movement” arrived as official delegates in Peshawar to negotiate the deal. Ironically the Awami National Party leader Afsandyar Wali Khan, who has fled to Islamabad after a suicide attack on him, helped negotiate the deal. He denies that the Government has surrendered to the Taliban, maintaining that there has been no change in laws in Swat. “There have been only two changes really, one that land records will now be maintained, and two, court cases will be speedily processed,” he insists. Two persons from Swat listening to him whisper, “He is lying.” Wali Khan points out that the Taliban had started looking upon Swat as a sanctuary because of the terrain. He says that there is a “continuous flow of arms, ammunition and money”, maintaining that the finance is coming from “West Asia”. Others are more specific, naming Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He insists that the schools have opened, although independent sources make it clear that this has not happened. In fact, school buildings have been destroyed all over the Valley. Wali Khan is visibly nervous and hopes that the deal will hold. Nawaz Sharif too is also not sure whether it will succeed, maintaining, “It is a major gamble, we do not know which way it will go.”
Pakistan’s ruling elite and civil society have condemned the deal as a “surrender”, and say so in writing and at meetings being organised on the issue. PML-Q’s Mushahid Husain speaks more of the past, justifying the steps taken by former President Pervez Musharraf, than the present. There seems to be a certain reluctance amongst the political parties to confront reality and admit that Swat has been turned into a Taliban stronghold where local resistance has been wiped out through sheer brutality, and the locals are being forced to live in a virtual prison. Interestingly, one chieftain, Mohammad Afzal Khan, is holding out, and the unpopularity of the Taliban can be gauged from the fact that he is already a legend of sorts. Residents of Peshawar visiting Islamabad told this correspondent that this one man is being lauded for his courage, and has rebuffed several Taliban advances into his little village. Khan, an 82-year-old ANP politician, has refused to leave his village Kuza Drushkhela in the Matta area. He has been attacked, injured, his bodyguards have been killed, but he has shown up the Army and his own party [most of the ANP leaders have fled] by speaking out against the Taliban. The locals are deeply disappointed in Afsandyar Wali Khan, who they had expected to lead the war against the militants. But by running away to Islamabad, he has let them down.
Peshawar, sources say, is about to fall and the so-called peace deal with the Taliban will only delay the process somewhat. Not many believe that the deal will hold. They believe that the Taliban will use the pause to strengthen itself. A lawyer from Peshawar says that the courts have been closed, schools are not functioning, women have started wearing veils and stopped going to the bazaars, and the internet cafes are closing down as well. “They [Taliban] are there, and there is no one who can stop them,” she says. It is just a matter of time, according to renowned activists like Asma Jahangir, before the Taliban moves into the bigger cities and overruns Pakistan. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami is not particularly happy with these developments, with its chief Qazi Hussein Ahmed maintaining, “We do not want the Taliban.” Baitullah Masood and Maulana Fazlullah are working together, and both claim allegiance to Taliban Afghan leader Mullah Omar. Masood’s forces consist largely of foreign and Afghan Taliban, while Fazlullah is managing the Pakistani Taliban and the terror groups that have all merged into one large whole. There are of course any number of local Taliban leaders who issue directives on a daily basis. For instance, one Khalid Mehsud is the local leader in Kot Addu in southern Punjab who is credited with sending out threatening emails to owners of internet cafes, music shops and cable networks, asking them to shut business.
The question on everyone’s lips in and outside Pakistan is: what is the Army’s role? Is it supporting the Taliban or fighting it? The answer appears to lie somewhere in the middle, with the Army, clearly, still a very disliked force on the streets of Pakistan, and in no position to take over the Government just as yet. Relations between the Army and President Zardari are not particularly good, but perhaps a little better at this stage than between the Army and Nawaz Sharif. It is common knowledge, however, that the Army is not taking instructions from President Zardari and is an equal, if not an independent, entity in current Pakistani politics. The Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani still appears as somewhat of a recluse, although his relations with Washington are seen as close and strong. At the same time, he is respected, and seen as a sober “soldier’s man”. He is certainly not seen as a general supportive of the Taliban and extremists.
Civil society is divided about the role of the Army under him, with many insisting that he is doing all that he can, and many others equally adamant that sections of the Army are not listening to him and are following another agenda altogether. The first lobby points out that over 1,500 soldiers have died battling the Taliban, and this in itself is indication of its commitment to rid Pakistan of the extremists. The second lobby points to the Matta chieftain who has been able to resist the Taliban. If he can, why can’t the Army, is their argument.
Terrain is a real problem for the Army which is not used to fighting in this area. This everyone concedes. The soldiers are also not trained in counterinsurgency operations and are finding it extremely difficult to locate the Taliban cadres, tackle them effectively and secure the area. In most instances, the Taliban wait for the Army to move on, and then return to the same place that had supposedly been secured. As PML-Q’s Mushahid Husain points out, the Army was trained to fight “Hindu India”, and is finding it extremely difficult to train the guns against its own people. There appears to be, what a former Army officer said, “muddled thinking” within the Army that has still not stopped looking at Taliban and Afghanistan as its “strategic assets”. As Pervez Hoodboy points out, “An Army with 400,000 soldiers, with all the weaponry, has been put to shame by a ragtag army. Terrain is a factor, but not the only factor.”
Many in Pakistan suggest a degree of complicity between the Army and Taliban. Others feel that this might have been the case at the beginning as the Army felt it could control these forces, but now that the Taliban is in command, the Army is as worried as the rest of the nation. Whispered about, but seen as a real threat by many in Pakistan, is the very grim scenario where the Army comes under Taliban control after ridding itself of its more secular and liberal officers.
The Army is under US pressure for not doing enough. Its officers point out that there is so much and no more they can do in tackling the militants, as the force is taking a “severe knocking”. Large-scale civilian casualties have ranged sections of the population against the Army, which is now neither a dreaded force in the “occupied” areas, nor respected in Punjab and Sindh, where the people see it as an “agent of the US”. Masood and Fazlullah leave no opportunity to attack the Army, with the senior officers particularly worried about the desertions and the deaths.
The differences between the political leadership and the Army are not helping either, as Kayani finds himself under fire from the ruling political parties as well. No one can really answer the question whether the Army is totally involved in the incidents of terror, or whether these are planned and executed by non-state actors. However, it is true that Masood and Fazlullah have their own trained, fully-equipped army which no longer appears to need the ISI or the Pakistan Army to handle the logistics. Their band of 20-30,000 foreigners, along with Afghan and Pakistani “soldiers”, is now the occupying force in large tracts of Pakistani territory. They do not appear to need the Army to the same extent as before. There might be elements in the Army and the ISI that support these organisations, but to what extent is again another question that does not have a definitive answer. No one appears to have an exact assessment, not even Army officers, who vary between “it is a secular Army” to an admission that “many of Zia-ul-Haq’s recruits are now senior officers”.
It is true, however, that Army and Taliban checkpoints co-exist in different parts of the Swat Valley, and residents from the area said that they have become quite used to having their papers checked by both the “authorities”. Wali Khan admits this is happening, but is unable to explain why the Army allows the Taliban to co-exist.
The Taliban is no longer just the vehicle of Pashtun nationalism. It is sweeping Pakistan now on a broader agenda, with a new wing started formally in Balochistan just recently. The Pakistani state is being pushed back, with fear and a lack of will replacing authority. The political parties are too divided to care, and the Army is either incapable or unwilling, or both, to secure the nation against the force that it was trained to treat as its own.