Split on the Taliban —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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Militancy and terrorism are so deeply entrenched in Pakistan that the government and the military will need to deal with it on different fronts over a long period of time

The May 18 All-Parties Conference on Swat approved a ‘compromise’ resolution to accommodate the sensitivities of some political parties. The unanimous resolution condemned violent challenges to the state of Pakistan and its constitution. It emphasised the need for preservation and protection of the constitution and state structures, and also called upon everybody to work for the safety and well being of the refugees from the conflict zones.

However, the resolution did not mention the Swat operation. Nor did it directly endorse or require its closure. Similarly, the Taliban were neither condemned nor were they asked to give up arms. No reference was made to the role of the United States in Afghanistan and its fallout on Pakistan, although some leaders criticised the US in their speeches.

The APC manifested a split in the political class on the issues of the Swat operation and the Taliban. The major divide is between the Islamist parties and most of the others; the former opposing the Malakand operation at the APC. Post- APC, they have been either defending the Taliban or engaging in a virulent campaign against the military operation, blaming it for the suffering of the ordinary people. These parties are appealing to religious emotions by arguing that Pakistan’s Muslim army is killing its own Muslim citizens.

Islamist parties never made such statements when various militant groups executed civilian and military personnel in public, hanged the dead bodies of clerics from trees, bombed barber and music shops, burnt down girls’ schools, flogged people in public and launched suicide attacks.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf is the only party that is not labelled as Islamist but it opposes military action and sympathises with the Taliban.

The PPP, the ANP, the MQM and the PMLQ are very categorical in their support for the military operation. Other political parties also support these efforts. It can be safely argued that most of the political class is supportive of the efforts to check religious extremism and militancy, especially the efforts to dislodge the Taliban from Malakand. Such support also exists at the popular level, although people are deeply concerned about the problems of the refugees and want them to return to their homes in safety at the earliest.

The Taliban’s fatal mistake was their interpretation of the agreement between the TNSM and the NWFP provincial government as their victory and a sign of the government’s weakness. Therefore, Sufi Muhammad declared Pakistan’s constitution, parliament, democracy and the judicial system as un-Islamic, began to drag his feet on the selection of qazis and asked the regular courts to wind up their work in Swat.

On the other hand, the Taliban led by Fazlullah, moved their fighters to take control of the adjoining areas. Some government officials were kidnapped and the Taliban adopted aggressive posture even within the Swat valley.

These developments forced the NWFP and federal governments to change their disposition towards the TNSM and the Taliban. A large section of the public realised that the Taliban do not believe in a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the problem, and instead want to establish their authority at the expense of the Pakistani state.

Further, taking a cue from the defiance of Sufi Muhammad and the Swat-based Taliban, their denominational allies began to assert themselves selectively in cities like Lahore and Karachi.

This perturbed large sections of civil society, which was not associated with any political party, causing a major shift in public opinion in favour of stern action against the militants.

PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif argued at the APC that tough action must be taken to control terrorism and that the military operation should be taken to its logical end without giving any concessions to extremists and terrorists. His support was very reassuring for the government.

However, Sharif’s statement could not remove ambiguity about the PMLN’s stance on the Taliban. Prior to the APC, some of Sharif’s leading lieutenants took the government to task in the National Assembly for launching the military operation. Even after Sharif’s statement of support, PMLN parliamentarians Saad Rafiq and Ahsan Iqbal were not willing to support the Swat operation. Chaudhry Nisar Ali khan and Khwaja Asif were also not in favour of military action to control the Taliban menace.

The divergent perspectives of PMLN leaders reflect their desire to simultaneously pacify different foreign and domestic interests. Nevertheless, the PMLN position recognises the threat, and distinguishes itself from Islamist parties that defend the Taliban in an unabashed manner.

Jama’at-e Islami leaders are orchestrating a campaign against the Swat operation, describing it as a threat to Pakistan’s solidarity. The PPP-led coalition government is the main target of the Jama’at’s criticism and, at times, the army is also taken to task for “killing Muslims and country-men”. Pro-JI elements in the media are also quite active in advancing the Jama’at’s perspective.

The JUIF is part of the ruling coalition but its chief, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, is also critical of the Swat operation, though he does not want to quit the coalition on this issue. Other Islamist parties are also critical of the Swat operation. However, their appeal has no relevance beyond their members and supporters.

Islamist elements are facing an internal divide based on denominational differences. Religious leaders and groups subscribing to the Deobandi/Ahle Hadees/Wahabi Islamic traditions are generally supportive of the Taliban. They want the Swat operation to be stopped and the government to negotiate with the Taliban. They also view the Taliban as friends of Pakistan, and argue that if the government stops pursuing American agenda in the region, the trouble between the Taliban and the government would come to an end.

This perspective is rejected by most religious leaders from the Barelvi Islamic tradition, who want tough action against the Taliban. This group argues that the Taliban have adversely affected the reputation of Islam and thus cannot be allowed to enforce their version of Islam by coercion. Followers of the Shia tradition also share the Barelvi perspective on the Taliban. This division has weakened the clout of pro-Taliban Islamist parties and religious leaders.

The government and military authorities are determined to subdue the Taliban in Malakand because both are convinced that these elements cannot be allowed a free rein to expand their domain and threaten people.

The Swat operation is a turning point in Pakistan’s official disposition towards religious extremism and militancy. Pakistan will no longer tolerate such activity. However, militancy and terrorism are so deeply entrenched in Pakistan that the government and the military will need to deal with it on different fronts over a long period of time. If they stand firm in their resolve and succeed in subduing the Taliban, Islamist opposition will wither away.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Article reproduced by permission of Daily Times



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