(Editor’s Note: The article below was published in The International News of Pakistan on Saturday, May 02, 2009. The Diplomatic Times Review is publishing it with the permission of the author, a Harvard educated lawyer and practicing attorney based in Islamabad, Pakistan.)
By Babar Sattar
ARGUMENT ONE: PAKISTIAN IS FIGHTING AN ALIEN WAR
Those propagating a policy of pusillanimity and appeasement toward the Taliban make at least two flawed arguments. One, that Pakistan is fighting an alien war in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] as a mercenary of the United States and the drone attacks and the hatred against US imperialistic agenda somehow justifies the Taliban insurgency against the state and people of Pakistan. Instead of fighting ‘our own people’ to please the US, we must negotiate with them and stand together against imperialists. Two, where there is popular local support for a political agenda, the army cannot attack such agenda or those articulating and promoting it. Thus, it is fine for the state and the army to act as a neutral arbiter when it comes to a disagreement between the Taliban and the rest of the citizens of Swat or Buner for example, and act as a facilitator to promote reconciliation between the Taliban (as the dominant local group) and the state through peace deals.
HATRED FOR THE U.S.
Let us address our hatred for the US first. There are two sets of truths that fuel this hatred. One, that the US has pursued a shamelessly selfish foreign policy that is bereft of principles. And two, our successive political and military elites have not had the spine to enunciate a policy that squarely focuses on promoting and protecting Pakistan’s national interest where such approach might be at odds with the US foreign agenda. Together, these truths leave the people of Pakistan indignant, and the slavish disposition of incumbent rulers toward the US shames and angers us by exposing the gulf between our self-perception as a sovereign people and our reality of being led by a self-serving elite beholden to foreign masters.
It is understandable that there is some cheering and support for anyone who takes on a bully. We saw that during the first Gulf war when many in Pakistan (and in the Muslim world more generally) rooted for Saddam Hussain and Iraq, despite the fact that Saddam’s Iraq had never been a friend to Pakistan. Similarly the Hugo Chavez ‘the-devil-was-just-here’ speech against George Bush in the UN a couple of years back attracted loud cheers from all around. But amidst this understandable opposition to US foreign policy, must we cut our nose to spite the face when it comes to the Taliban and their insurgency within Pakistan?
That the Taliban have couched their domestic political agenda in anti-American terms and a majority of Pakistanis are angry with the US for its drone attacks and resentful over its foolishly apparent stick-and-carrot policy doesn’t automatically align the interests of a majority of Pakistanis with those of the Taliban.
It is indeed marvellous that even people like Imran Khan (forget Jamat-e-Islami) are oblivious to the fact that in their opposition to the US agenda they have emerged as apologists for the Taliban. We must not act against the Taliban because the US wants us to. But we must neither underplay the genuine threat posed by creeping Talibanization to democracy, civil liberties and constitutionalism in Pakistan, nor embrace the Taliban in order to spite the US. There is no need to root our national agenda in anti-Americanism. So long as we are committed to upholding and implementing the Constitution across the four corners of Pakistan, opposition to both, drone attacks and the Taliban-leashed barbarism creates no paradox.
ARGUMENT 2: THE STATE AND ARMY MUST NOT FIGHT ITS OWN PEOPLE
The second argument supporting inaction against the Taliban concludes that the state and the army must not fight its own people by making two subtle assumptions. One, the Taliban and those that they wish to impose their edicts over are in the middle of a political disagreement and the state and the army should not take sides. Two, the state should never use coercion or violence against its own people irrespective of their actions. Both these assumptions are misconceived. Let us remind ourselves that the Taliban are a product of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. The state created, supported and sustained madressas that propagated a brand of religious ideology that encouraged non-state actors to become agents of violence under the banner of jihad. The leaders of such madressas also had a penchant for a medieval society that shuns modernity and all things associated with the west.
The jihadi project didn’t only create mercenaries driven by religious zeal, but also imbibed them with the ancillary objective of creating a backward society once the jihad against infidels succeeds. The state cared little about such collateral effect of a deliberate state policy to recruit jihadis to promote its geo-strategic interests. Unfortunately, the more esoteric calling of the militants – of creating an obscurantist society – has now merged with the primary objective of fighting the infidels, as they see the rest of Pakistan as one big agent of the infidels. It is then farcical for the state to act as if we are witnessing a difference of agreement between different political groups in Swat, Buner, Dir and FATA that needs to be sorted out by these groups themselves. The state destroyed the level playing field between citizen groups when it transformed one group into professional merchants of violence.
To sit back and watch citizens with opposing points of view stake it out and develop a consensus in the tribal belt simply amounts to allowing the Taliban to make minced meat out of those opposed to their agenda and diktat. The state led by the army created this Frankenstein and it now shoulders the responsibility of confronting and neutralizing it. It is also incorrect that the state never uses violence against citizens. The state monopolizes the means of violence and uses it on an everyday basis against those who do not abide by the compact between the citizen and the state. We call it the penal justice system. Militant groups slaughtering fellow citizens, annexing their property and robbing them of their fundamental rights and liberties might be culpable of a higher crime against the state itself, but they are also guilty of murder, homicide, robbery, extortion etc. as defined by our justice system.
WE CANNOT AMUSE AND APPEASE MILITANT GROUPS
As a matter of principle, we cannot appease and humour them in the name of peace and reconciliation just because enforcing the law is harder against this group of citizens in comparison to other criminals across Pakistan that are less organized and trained. Pakistan has been ambivalent about extending constitutional rights and obligations to the people of the tribal areas merely because we got comfortable with the colonial legacy and bought into the logic of not trying to fix what is not broken. Notwithstanding the past, now that the tribal belt is up in flames we have no option but to bring it within the realm of the Constitution. Would allowing Sufi Mohammad and the Taliban to run a system of governance that falls foul of our Constitutional structure and principles not amount to the state facilitating its own balkanization? If such separatism is acceptable in Swat, then why not in Balochistan and Sindh where people have been similarly disgruntled with the state?
There is urgent need to inject honesty and candour in our discourse on the Taliban. Let’s admit that the Taliban are not barbaric because the US is bad. The Taliban are barbaric because they believe in a brutish approach to life and religion. If the US was to stop drone attacks in Pakistan or even quit Afghanistan, Muslim Khan is unlikely to go back to painting houses. The Taliban must be dealt with urgently and resolutely as an existential problem that is questioning and threatening the foundational principles on which our country is founded.
POLITICIANS MUST GIVE UP DOUBLE SPEAK
Further, our politicos must give up double-speak. Let the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League] say that it fears speaking against the Taliban because who knows they might prevail tomorrow and so this centre-right party wishes to keep its options open. Let the ANP [Awami National Party] plainly state that they had ‘no option’ but to surrender their writ to the Taliban because of the dithering resolve of the army to fight armed militias in their province. And let the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] acknowledge that in trying to second-guess what every other power broker wants from Pakistan, this mainstream liberal party has lost all ability to support a thought-process of its own.
THE PAKISTAN ARMY
The Pakistan Army’s will and capability to confront the Taliban is under question because the masters of our security doctrine are confused about the future role and utility of the Taliban. The lack of capability of the army to fight a guerrilla war in the tribal areas is predominantly a consequence of lack of will to develop such a capability. Unless there is frank admission that the Afghan policy of the 1980 and 90s and the jihadi project conceived as a result was flawed and has had terrible consequences for Pakistan, the approach toward confronting Taliban will continue to be of the ineffectual fire-fighting variety that we have witnessed in Bajaur, Kohat, Swat, Dir and Buner over the last year or so. Once the army reformulates its defence doctrine wherein (i) Afghanistan is no longer a strategic hinterland but a friendly neighbour that should have a sustainable government representing the plural Afghan society, and (ii) jihadis have no further role in promoting Pakistani state’s geo-strategic interests, the need to keep options open with the Taliban will automatically subside. Only then will we begin to meaningfully address the root-causes of religious intolerance and violence in our society.