Why Pakistan's Taliban win as they lose

While the Pakistani army’s offensive might have wrongfooted the Taliban, the larger war of ideas remains to be won. *Pervez Hoodbhoy* explains.

After army offensives in the Swat valley that began in May, the Pakistani Taliban have been badly battered. Independent confirmation is unavailable, but the army claims a string of victories with a tally of nearly 1,600 fighters killed. More good news for the army came recently: US drones helped by Pakistani intelligence successfully targeted and killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, known for his brutal campaign of suicide bombings and decapitations.

It had looked very different earlier in the year. Elated by the ease with which they won the battle for sharia law in Swat and the virtual absence of resistance, the Pakistani Taliban (ideological brothers of the Afghan Taliban) had set sights on neighbouring Buner just 80 miles from Islamabad. With a blitzkrieg of merciless beheadings of soldiers and suicide bombings, they had driven out the army from much of the Frontier Province. By early 2009 they held about 10 per cent of Pakistan’s territory.

Once an idyllic tourist-friendly valley, Swat saw a reign of terror lasting about two years. The Taliban lashed women in public, hundreds of girls’ schools were blown up, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax (jizya), and every form of art and music was forbidden. Policemen deserted en masse, and institutions of the state crumbled. Nevertheless, the army and Government still dithered. Opinion-forming local TV anchors whitewashed Taliban atrocities and insisted that they should be negotiated with, not fought. Some openly supported them as fighters against America’s imperial might. The Government’s massive propaganda apparatus lay rusting.

And then a miracle of sorts happened. The Taliban shot themselves in the foot, putting even their apologists at a loss for words. Sufi Mohammed, the illiterate, ageing leader of the Swat sharia movement, while addressing a victory rally in early May, declared democracy and Islam incompatible, rejected Pakistan’s Islamic constitution and courts, and even accused Pakistan’s fanatically right-wing Islamic parties of mild heresy. Even for a Pakistani public enamoured by the call to sharia, that was just a bit too much. The army, with public support for the first time, finally mustered the will to fight. 

Killing culture

That fight is still on but the Taliban are retreating. Some of the three million refugees displaced by the fighting are moving back to Swat; the army claims this as proof of success. 

But the Taliban win even as they lose. Spectacular attacks far away in Lahore prove that religious fanaticism has migrated from the mountains into the plains. Through threats, abductions, beheadings and suicide bombings, extremists are changing the way Pakistanis live.

Islamabad is a city of fear. Machine-gun bunkers are ubiquitous while traffic barely trickles past concrete blocks placed across its roads. Upscale restaurants, fearing suicide bombers, have removed their signs but still hope clients will remember. Who will be the next target? Internet cafes, bookshops, or perhaps shops selling toilet paper, tampons, underwear, and other ‘un-Islamic’ goods? No one knows. Fearful of acid attacks, female faces have become invisible in the Frontier Province. The burqa was once unknown on my university’s campus. Now, row upon row of burqaed women sit in my physics classes as the undraped head disappears.

It is not just women who have changed dress. Male employees are being told by their bosses to wear shalwar-kameez rather than trousers. Video shops are being bombed out of business and barbers have put ‘no-shave’ notices outside their shops. Kite flying has been declared haram (forbidden). Destroying culture is the goal: musicians and dancers have fled or changed their profession. Cinemas have been bombed so frequently that one wonders if any are still left. A sterile, killjoy Saudi-style Wahhabism is sucking away the vibrancy and colour from Pakistan’s culture and society.

Public support?

The uncomfortable truth is that mad extremism does not lie merely at the fringes. Anchors of private television channels, largely free of Government control, became known as the media mujahideen. Today large crowds regularly gather to pray behind the battle-hardened pro-Taliban militant leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi of Red Mosque fame, who was recently released by the Government.

In the political arena, the extremists have cheerleaders like cricketer Imran Khan, Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Hamid Gul who rush to justify every attack. To them it makes no difference that Baitullah Mehsud proudly admitted to murder after murder. Nor are they moved by suicide attacks on mosques, funerals and hospitals. Like broken gramophone records, they chant ‘Amrika, Amrika’ after every new Taliban atrocity.

The cancerous growth of religious fanaticism is commonly blamed on General Zia-ul-Haq (President from 1977 to 1988). But it was really the cowardly deference of Pakistani leaders to mullah blackmail that is responsible. Their instinctive response was always to seek appeasement. In 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had suddenly turned Islamic in his final days as he made a desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to save his Government and life. A fearful Benazir Bhutto made no attempt to challenge the horrific blasphemy and Hudood laws during her two premierships. Nawaz Sharif went a step further by attempting to bring the sharia to Pakistan. And General Pervez Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ was eyewash manufactured for a Western audience. 

What will it take to win?

The army’s gain against the Taliban is strictly temporary. Nations win wars only when there is a clear rallying cause. While the army high command has committed troops to battle – and lost many – it has not yet told the soldiers what they need to fight for. Some soldiers have bought into the mind-boggling notion that Taliban leaders are Indian agents, while others believe that the Taliban are part of a nefarious US plot to destabilize Pakistan. Such fabrications will sooner or later come apart. To say what really lies at the heart of Pakistan’s problems will require more courage than the leadership – or even most intellectuals – can currently summon.

The unmentionable truth – one etched in stone – is that when a state proclaims a religious mission, it inevitably privileges those who organize religious life, interpret religious text, or claim to fight for the faith.

So imagine yourself as a Pakistani army officer charged with enthusing the troops to go to war against the Taliban. Your subordinates are bound to ask: sir, what’s wrong with the Taliban mission to bring sharia to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Aren’t many Islamic scholars supportive of the Taliban? Is the Taliban version of the sharia really wrong? Why is their jihad not a certified jihad? If we soldiers die, shall we be martyred or merely killed? 

If there were one solid unchallengeable version of the Islamic faith, answers would not be a problem. But, lacking a central religious authority, the divine truth differs from group to group and person to person.

Ultimately the power of ideas shall decide victory or defeat. Pakistan’s vulnerability lies here. A gaping ideological void has left the door open to demagogues who exploit resource scarcity and bad governance. They use every failing of the state to create an insurrectionary mood and churn out suicide bombers. So far just a handful of Islamic scholars have dared to challenge them. 

A superpower without power

What can the US, which narrowly hangs on to its superpower status, do to turn the situation around? The answer is: amazingly little. In spite of being on the American dole, Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world. It has a long litany of grievances. Some are pan-Islamic, others derive from its bitter experiences of being a US ally in the 1980s. Once at the cutting edge of the US-organized jihad against the Soviets, Pakistan was dumped once that war was over and left to deal with numerous toxic consequences. Hillary Clinton’s recent acceptance of blame is welcome, if overdue. But long-held resentments are not easily dispensed with. Today a paranoid mindset blames the US for all of Pakistan’s ills, not just some. A meeting of young people I addressed in Islamabad recently had a majority who thought that the Taliban are US agents paid to create instability so that Pakistan’s nukes could be seized by the US.

A sterile, killjoy Saudi-style Wahhabism is sucking away the vibrancy and colour from Pakistan’s culture and society

Pakistan’s problems can only be sorted out from within; insensitive external interventions add fuel to the fire. Somehow Pakistan will have to clamp down on venomous Friday sermons in mosques and stop suicide bomber production in madrassas. Long-term defence demands a determined ideological offensive and a decisive break with the past. Pakistan must reinvent itself as a state that is seen to care for its people, focusing upon economic and legal justice. Instead of seeking to fix the world’s problems – Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Palestine included – it must work to first fix its own.

Nevertheless, the US is not powerless. By engaging with the civilian leadership rather than military dictators, it can regain some lost ground. Obama’s personal efforts to reach the Pakistani public through the media have had a mildly positive reception. Real progress towards a Palestinian state, and dealing with Muslims globally, would have strong resonance in Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is chair of the physics department and professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.