by Ali Dayan Hasan
At my daughter’s annual school parent’s day event in Lahore last month, the tension was palpable. Bewildered at the speed with which this innocuous annual event had transformed into a maximum security operation, anxious parents filed in their hundreds past security guards, metal detectors and bag searches into Theatre Number Two of the Alhamra Cultural Complex – a modernist structure that the citizens of Lahore would tell you proudly is amongst the largest public-funded exhibition and theatre complexes in Asia. They were there to see their children, none older than seven, perform the usual amalgam of tableaux on “Peoples and Festivals of the World”, a smattering of Kathak – a North Indian classical dance, a “Chinese dance” performance and, of course, my daughter’s favorite – a Disney-esque version of the Bangles hit – “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The event began, as always, with recitation from the Quran. Tense primary school teachers grappled with security issues and as I walked in; a very public stand-off between a security posse comprising teachers, local police and plain clothes personnel and a random man who was on the premises for “no known reason” was underway. The man was eventually deemed harmless and let go but there was no parent who entered that hall without making note of the exits. Two hours later, as we filed out, I and virtually every relieved parent thought and said the same thing: “One more year like the last one and next year there will be no Parents Day. Another month or two like the previous ones and there might be no school left open.”
Since December 27, 2007 – the dreadful winter’s day when streets across Pakistan fell silent in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis have understood and expressed in varying degrees, or disagreed in desperate denial, that the Islamization project unleashed by the United States and implemented by the Pakistani military since 1979 had turned on its creators, snarling at the United States, devouring Pakistan and exposing its army for the megalomaniac but intensely incompetent institution that it is. And the narrative of impending disaster, brutal dispossession and disembodied lives in exile for stateless citizens harking back pathetically to a lost life, hitherto the preserve of Palestinians and Cubans, Afghans, Somalis and the ethnic mosaic of the Balkans, beckons to Pakistanis as well. One could argue that Pakistanis are scared of a future comprising daily doses of floggings, beheadings, daisy cutters and drones. They might be too. But no one has had time to think that far ahead. The truth is more prosaic: After all, if your children cannot go to school, the future has ceased to be. And when societies cannot have a future, they die.
Pakistan is facing an existential crisis at multiple levels. But is it on the brink of a Taliban takeover, the fear and anxiety notwithstanding?
The short answer is that the Taliban have already taken over large parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan. They have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions – including beheadings – of state officials and political opponents, public whippings, and large-scale intimidation of the population. Girls’ schools have been shut down, women are not allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunization programs have been halted, and nongovernmental organizations have been expelled. Music and film have been banned and stores trading in them have been destroyed. All men have been required to grow beards. All of this 100 miles or less from Islamabad.
And of course, class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines run throughout Pakistan and the Punjab itself which militants are exploiting.
In Southern and Central Punjab, a militant fault line has been historically nurtured and exploited by the Pakistani army to create cannon fodder for its jihadist enterprise in Kashmir and later, to help buttress the Taliban in creating “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. The process began in earnest in the 1980s when the ISI played midwife to the birth of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a Sunni militant group that represented primarily a class challenge to the Shia feudal elite in the Central Punjab town of Jhang. A similar pattern of radicalization and recruitment provided cadres to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba for operations in Kashmir. The presence of the state is less intrusive and less effective in Southern Punjab and Northern Sindh than it is in urban Pakistan proper.
Similarly, Karachi, the country’s largest metropolis comprising about ten per cent of the population may be overwhelmingly anti-Taliban but it is also the largest Pashtun city in the world and hence from within that community and through other Islamist sympathizers, there is considerable room for mayhem. This room for mayhem becomes enhanced when you consider that the Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the city’s principal political force is a product of ethno-fascist political mobilization and may feel inspired to de-Talibanize Karachi through a policy that may well closely resemble an attempt at the ethnic cleansing of the Pashtun from the port city.
Certainly, the Taliban and the Pakistan army’s assorted other militant proxies, now acting in a loose coalition, sense an unprecedented historical opportunity to enhance their influence across the country. A country-wide network of militants provides their ambitions with some teeth as well. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s overwhelmingly right-wing media, presided over by an array of right-wing talk show hosts, many of them known to be ISI plants from the 1980s, continue to deify the Taliban and to present terrorism as a function of the state’s failure to reach a compact with fellow Pakistanis rather than as the existential threat it represents to the state. US drone attacks on Pakistan have exacerbated deep-rooted anti-Americanism and personalized it as the perceived victims of” American imperialism” are no longer just Palestinians but Pakistanis themselves.
So where does Pakistan go from here?
The dangers outlined above, though serious, present only half the picture. For the Pakistani state, intrusive or not, effective or not, is alive and well in much of Punjab and Sindh.
And seen in that context, the Taliban’s physical proximity to Islamabad is misleading. The Taliban presence is more of an immediate crisis for the NWFP and for the prospect of the state exercising anything resembling sovereign authority in the province than it is to the rest of Pakistan, particularly the Punjab – the heartland of the country. The Taliban have social, cultural, political and historical ingress in the NWFP but central and northern Punjab, some thirty percent of the population, is obsessed with the “rule of law” and constitutionalism as witnessed in the Lawyer’s movement to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The Swat Taliban affiliate, Sufi Mohammad, caused outrage in much of Punjab when he proclaimed that he did not recognize the country’s constitution, its Supreme Court or democracy. It is one thing for women to be shut indoors in the NWFP and quite another for the same thing to happen in the urban, industrialized swathe running from Islamabad to Lahore. At the other end of Pakistan, in Karachi, the MQM is spouting venom about the Taliban’s “tribal Sharia.” Rural Sindh and the adjoining parts of Southern Punjab remain under the near total political sway of the cult of Bhutto, the current unpopularity of President Asif Zardari notwithstanding.
Given that the Pashtun edition of Talibanization has reached its optimal geographical limits, any Taliban ingress in Punjab and Sindh can only be effected through local interlocutors whose social, political and military capacity to achieve that end remains severely limited to date. Hence, while the Taliban will find no dearth of sympathizers who will perpetrate terrorist attacks and suicide bombings for them, their ability to assume political and military control of the Punjab or of Sindh is virtually non-existent. Much can and is going wrong at the same time as the Taliban expansion. But each element has to be seen for what it is and not be lumped together under the rubric of “Talibanization.” And we have to differentiate between Talibanization and its knock-on effects.
Which is not to say that the Punjab or Sindh for that matter, will rise up in arms against the Taliban. The Taliban will continue to wage a terror campaign in mainland Pakistan and people – particularly in the Punjab – will react by trying to appease and placate them. But there are very clear cultural, political and social limits to that appeasement. Mainland Pakistan may move towards the right (indeed it has) and engage in further overt displays of conservatism and piety. Is growing a beard and covering your head too high a price to pay for ensuring the safety of your children? Is it preferable to send your seven-year-old daughter to school covered in a chador than to not send her to school at all? Is a Parents Day with girls reciting only the Quran a better option than living with the fear that your child may return from school in a body bag? The process of Islamization will not be pretty- indeed it was not in the 1980s either when the US funded it and encouraged it through a brutal dictatorship. But the process is likely to halt, in all likelihood, well short of Talibanization as seen in Afghanistan or the NWFP for that matter.
Meanwhile, relations between the US and Pakistan have reached an impasse. Neither can dispense with the other, but equally, neither can deliver what the other actually wants. Pakistan’s army has neither the power nor the will to destroy the Taliban nor is it convinced that to do so is in its institutional and strategic interest. Has the Pakistan army swapped a policy of “gaining strategic depth” in Afghanistan for one which seeks strategic depth in the NWFP?
While the world grapples with this question, Pakistan’s civilian governments – provincial and federal – are effectively left with no choice but to transact bad peace deals because the military simply refuses to fight. What does any government do if its security policy implementing agency (the army) refuses to implement?
If the world is serious about confronting Talibanization, it must engage with what it cannot undo – – the Pakistani army’s national security paradigm – which continues to remain India-centric and by default, Taliban-tolerant. Until the international community, including India, come to terms and deal with this in a meaningful manner, Pakistan and the world will remain hostage to Talibanization and its knock-on effects.
Ali Dayan Hasan is the Senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch