Can Pak take on Taliban?

The December 16 killings in Peshawar of over 130 school children was generally described as the 9/11 moment of Pakistan, a moment in which the Nation is shaken to its core and resolves to strike at the enemy with all its might.

Even by the annals of terrorist killings in Pakistan, this was by far the most gruesome and barbaric incident. And it called for the most resolute response.

What then was the response of Pakistan government? The Prime Minister of Pakistan called for an all-party meeting. The Army Chief flew to Kabul apparently to seek extradition of Mullah Fazlullah, the head of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which claimed responsibility for the school massacre. How would Gen Raheel Sharif respond if President Ashraf Ghani demanded the reciprocal handing over of Mullah Omar or Haqqani from the sanctuaries of North Waziristan?

It is surprising that the Prime Minister felt compelled to call for an all-party meeting and build consensus on retaliating against such chilling brutality. This speaks of the power of Taliban, both as an ideology and as a movement in Pakistan.

Multiple Talibans: Firstly, the Taliban is not one homogenous monolith nor is it a ‘non-state’ actor. There are two distinct groups that are most powerful and active, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. Then there is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Baluchistan which was created by the ISI to counter the Baluch nationalists fighting for their independence.

And there is the Punjabi Taliban which consists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahiba and others that have sprouted to take on different targets. The first two are aimed at India, while the last two are aimed at the Shia community.

Taliban’s origins are very much in the state agencies and hence it cannot be called a non-state actor, particularly the Afghan Taliban which owes its survival and success to the Pakistan state.

The TTP was launched in December 2007 in reaction to the crack down on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad ordered by Gen Musharraf in July 2007 that killed two clerics and 108 young men and women who were demanding the imposition of Sharia. Its sworn enemy was the Pak state and the army and has launched spectacular attacks on Pakistan Air Force, army and naval bases, ISI provincial headquarters, the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi and now an army school in Peshawar.

In fact, a week after the attack on the Jinnah International Airport, on June 15, 2014, the famous Zarb-e-Azb campaign was launched by the army with about 30,000 soldiers. The operation was aimed at flushing out all the militants hiding in North Waziristan including the TTP, Al-Qaeda, Easter Turkistan Movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Haqqani network.

Yet, the Taliban is too large and too fragmented to be taken up as one enemy. For Nawaz Sharif to declare that there is ‘no good or bad Taliban’ is just an empty rhetoric and is part of the same old double-speak. They will take on the one that hurts most.

Structurally incapable

Pakistan is structurally incapable of taking on the Taliban, as a whole. Firstly, every group of terrorists has a political godfather. While the Sharif brothers find it convenient to support the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Punjab due to its large support base among the poor and landless, Imran Khan’s anti-American stance finds ready takers in a large section of the army and the TTP, both essential constituencies for him, firstly, in taking on Nawaz Sharif at the national level and secondly, for his electoral success in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The political compromise between PML (Nawaz) and PTI of Imran Khan is unlikely to last.  
Secondly, Pakistan has ceded far too much political, religious and social space to the ideology and movements of various Talibans.

Talibanisation is not confined to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. It pervades Punjab, Sindh and Baluch provinces too. Talibans are now seen as the defenders of Islam. To fight them on the religious front is almost impossible, particularly for a political class that is widely seen as corrupt and mercenary. The corruption of the clerics however, both moral and material, can neither be exposed nor challenged by the media or the state.

Thirdly, the failed education system has created thousands of madrasas with millions of Talibs being produced every year. A Pak Ministry of Interior Affairs report stated that ‘there are 20,000 seminaries in the country with 3 million students... 64 per cent of them were Deobandis, 25 Barelvis and 6 Wahabis.’ This was the position in November 2001.

After 13 years, the number of seminaries and the Talibs has gone up multiple times. No government can afford to shut the seminaries down. Fourthly, how does the Pakistan state cleanse its own army and the ISI of all the handlers, trainers, supporters and sympathisers of the Taliban?

Finally the record of Pakistan army’s intermittent battles with the Taliban (TTP) since 2002, punctuated by several peace accords does not evoke confidence in the most recent proclamations. This is not to assert that there have been no casualties in this war. According to Pakistani claims, over 40,000 people including 3000 soldiers and 63 ISI personnel have died. 20,000 militants have either been killed or captured. Yet the war continues with no clear victory in sight.

Whether the TTP and other militants in Waziristan will be eliminated or not, the 2 lakh people who have been displaced from that area will, forever, remain a festering problem. More refugees mean more recruits for the Islamic jihad.

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