Has Pakistan woken up to the threat of Taliban?

Abhishek Singh Samant

“Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was a country called Pakistan.” Well, the Pak government seems to have apparently understood that this might very well be the text of future History books if the monster of Taliban continues to swell and feed off the ideology of violence and hatred.

From an entity confined to the areas of Pakistan’s tribal frontiers, the Taliban have forced themselves into the country’s heartland riding the chariot of hate. Such has been the audacity and intensity of the group’s march that the Islamic nation appeared, and still appears, on the brink of failure, and there are fears in the global capitals that if the bull is not caught by the horns now, then Pakistan’s fate as a nation will be no more than a chapter in school books.

The country seems to have realised the fact and has launched an ‘all out war’ against the militia. However, the intent and objective still remains to be ascertained.

Pakistan’s tryst with Taliban

A brainchild of the US’ Central Intelligence Agency with Pakistan acting as midwife, the Taliban was created to oust the USSR from Afghanistan. The ouster of the Soviets was vital for Uncle Sam to protect its strategic interests in Central Asia. The US, which had once bloodied its nose in Vietnam, wanted someone to fight as its proxy. Pakistan, on the other hand, was eager to make inroads into its western neighbour with an aim to get the ‘strategic depth’ against its arch-rival India. This created an environment of mutual benefit for both the nations to take advantage of each others’ predicament. The Americans provided the dollars and Pakistan’s notorious Inter Services Intelligence agency assisted the process of gathering radical Muslims from around the world to fight against the Soviets.

Once the US purpose of driving out the Soviets was achieved, it left the field to save itself from doing the cumbersome job of reconstructing and restructuring the ravaged nation. Eager to have its share of the pound of flesh for its ‘help’ in the war, Pakistan willingly stepped in to fill the vacuum and slowly nurtured the Taliban to gain a permanent influence in its neighbour’s affairs. Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan bore fruit during the rule of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as it was during her tenure that the Taliban gained prominence in Afghanistan and finally captured power in Kabul in September 1996. Thus, a Pak friendly government was in power in the Islamic nation’s west.

9/11 Attacks

The 9/11 World Trade Centre terrorist attacks in the US was a watershed moment in the way the West in general, and the US in particular, viewed terrorism. The attacks were attributed to the big daddy of terrorism, Osama bin Laden, who was in Afghanistan. The Taliban refused to hand over Osama without proof. The US coerced Pakistan into snapping ties with Taliban and supporting the former in its ‘war against terror’ or else risk being ‘bombed to stone-age’. The Northern Alliance, backed by the US forces, toppled the Taliban regime and the Hamid Karzai-led government assumed power, much to Pakistan’s discomfort.

Reasons for Pak’s inaction

It is hard to fathom how an Army of half a million well-trained personnel could not halt the advent of the Taliban for so long? The reason lies in Pakistan’s age-old India phobia. Since 2002, when the Taliban regime was toppled in Afghanistan, our Western neighbour has been providing sanctuary to their militants in the country’s north-west. Now the question arises: what purpose would it have served by providing refuge to the battered ‘soldiers’ of a demoralised ‘army’? Pakistan expected, and probably still expects, that al Qaeda leader Mullah Omar will manage a comeback in Afghanistan, topple the Karzai government (or for that matter, any West-backed government), force NATO’s ouster and reverse India’s influence in Afghanistan. Further, the Pakistani Army and the ISI continued to look over the advancing Taliban in the hope of achieving their aims in Afghanistan through the militia while keeping control of militancy and terrorism on their side of the borders.

Why has Pakistan acted now?

Well, as is pretty evident, the above mentioned calculations of Pakistan’s ISI and Army went horribly wrong. The Frankenstein’s monster, which they created, seems to have gone out of control and it was only when the Taliban started knocking at the doors of Islamabad sending shivers down the spine of country’s elite that the Pak Army swung into action. The Army action was followed by the country’s leaders claiming that: “This is the war for our survival”, “We won’t stop till the Taliban is vanquished”, “We will end terrorism in Pak”, and so on and so forth. But considering the Islamic nation’s ‘one step forward, two step backward’ approach toward the radicals, its continuous hide and seek with the Islamists, and the common umbilical chord shared by the Army-ISI and Taliban, it is natural to have doubts over Pak’s current action. So what are the reasons behind the ultimate Pak action and is it real or just eyewash?

The timing of the counter-attack makes one feel that the attack is just another attempt to fool the world (I wish it is not). The Army response started just a couple of days before Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was scheduled to visit the US at a time when the Congress was getting ready to approve an aid package for the country, which President Barack Obama had clearly stated would be subject to Pakistan’s verifiable action against the terrorists. In such a backdrop, it wouldn’t be naive to think that the aim of the Army action was more to give a face saver to Zardari in the US and help in the smooth passage of the aid bounty.

Secondly, rather than a genuine desire to root out terrorism and extremism, the ongoing Pakistani action is seen more as an effort of the Army to maintain the country’s integrity and to keep Pakhtun ambitions under check. The country’s north-western areas are inhabited by Pakhtuns, who are a rule unto themselves ever since the days of the British rule. A majority of the Taliban fighters are also Pakhtuns. A victory of the former would have infused a life into the now dormant, but very much present, Pashtunistan movement and the threat of the region’s secession would have become very real.

Another development which seriously questions Pakistan’s commitment in fighting terror is the fact that the current military operation is mainly concentrated in the upper areas of the NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are left untouched. It may be worth noting here that the latter is inhibited by Tehrik-e-Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud – considered to be a close associate of Mullah Omar and accused of killing former PM Benazir Bhutto and carrying out several other terrorist attacks across the country. A month back, US magazine Newsweek reported that Mehsud has links with the country's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).

Following the Mumbai terror attacks, a top Pakistani security official said, “We have no big issues with the militants in FATA. We have only some misunderstandings with Baitullah Mehsud and Fazlullah. These could be removed through dialogue.” The statement is a reflection of how the nation’s security establishment views the militants, especially those which are indigenous and can be used against India. It is pretty evident that Pak still considers these militants as a strategic hedge against India. Their actions, which are concentrated in the northern areas of the NWFP, are more to curb the nationalist aspirations of Pakhtuns rather than any serious efforts to root out terrorism.

What lies ahead?

After 60 years of independence, Pakistan still finds itself where it started – in search of its identity. The notion of religion as a unifying factor, which was the basis of its origin, was exposed in 1971 when Bangladesh was liberated. The terrorists, whom it nurtured over the years, are biting the very hand that fed them. If the country’s establishment still fails to recognise the real threat to its existence then the fragmentation of Pakistan may no more be a topic of intellectual discussions, but a sad reality. It is up to the country to decide its destiny. It can very well sit back and watch the country slipping into the medieval-style rule or sustain its efforts in making the country what it was supposed to be – a successful Islamic Republic.

A popular saying is that the country is ruled buy three As –Army, America and Allah. While the former two are expected to bring back normalcy to the nation, it is probably the time for Allah to come down and rout the elements, who are using his name as a shield to justify their brutal methods and radical ideology.