Resisting the Taliban Menace – I

It originally appeared in Daily Times on Monday September 26, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

It was on August 25, 2001 — 15 days before 9/11 — that a conference in Islamabad resolved to oppose the appointment of 15 experts by the United Nations (UN) to check the observance of sanctions against the Taliban, which aimed at forcing the surrender of bin Laden to face charges of blowing up two US embassies in Africa. Attended by the right wing opposition parties of Pakistan under the aegis of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, it also involved extreme right wing religio-terrorist outfits like Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad. Azhar vowed during the conference to lay down his life to oust or kill the UN monitors.

Pakistan was one of the three countries to recognise the Taliban regime and the only one to have its embassy in Kabul. However, many countries were expanding ties with the Taliban at that time, e.g. China who signed a trade pact just 24 hours before the Twin Towers attack and the UK, one of whose important ministers was scheduled to reach Kabul right on September 11 alongside the European Union (EU) that had been in negotiations with the Taliban for the release of eight aid workers held for alleged preaching of Christianity, prohibited under the Taliban regime.

Although Pakistan officially announced to implement the UN sanctions against the Taliban including a strong arms embargo, there were few takers for this. According to Steve Coll’s book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, more weapons had been shipped into Afghanistan in the 90s than any other country of the world. In 2011, Pakistan denies any ties with the Haqqani network; the takers are not even as many as there are fingers in one hand. What a long way we have come!

A month after 9/11, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) was addressing a massive rally of thousands in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar. Maulana Fazl called for an immediate closure of any cooperation with the US against Afghanistan and called for an all out war to be announced against the ‘infidel America’ if it attacked Afghanistan. This was when all the liberal political parties from the Opposition were banned from taking out rallies.

The special place that the Taliban and their supporters had in the Pakistani establishment’s heart was not a free lunch for the Taliban. There was an implicit agreement to oblige Pakistan by catering to its insecurities in the region. Domestic sectarian groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), etc, had been given sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the foot soldiers for insurgency in Indian Kashmir were produced and trained and a zero Indian influence was ensured in Afghanistan abutting Pakistan’s west.

In the hangover of this ‘fruit’ of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistan did not realise what it had put at stake. While estranging Iran by patronising the Sunni Taliban against the Shias, especially the Hazaras, and alienating other neighbouring states by unconditional support to the Taliban’s hostility towards the non-Pakhtun population, Pakistan rapidly started becoming what the Taliban were — internationally isolated, unreliable, rogue and rigidly anti-west.

It was September 18 in 2001 that General Mahmud Ahmed, the then head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), went to meet Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. In a small room at Omar’s residence in Kandahar, Ahmed got a lukewarm welcome from his host, but was able to communicate his anxiety to the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful). “Osama, dead or alive. Otherwise we are all dead,” whispered Ahmed to Omar. While packing Ahmed back to Islamabad with a not-so-strong refusal, Omar convened the council of his ministers in probably a bid to ascertain the general mood and to share the responsibility of handing over Osama to the US with a larger body rather than taking it upon himself alone.

Pakistan’s abysmal drift to chaos started after the intransigence of the Mullah Omar-led Taliban on the issue of Osama’s handing over and what Gianluca Serra calls, ‘Mars’ strabismus’. With one eye on the US, Pakistan’s other eye continually stuck on its assets it had invested in for decades. A U-turn in its policy of breeding proxies meant new challenges. Yesterday’s protégés turned today’s enemies and waged war against Pakistan itself. What Pakistan’s establishment calls the ‘sacrifices’ of 35,000 people is a mere manifestation of its own foolish short-sightedness to say the least. Not willing to come out of this odd strabismus and taking refuge behind 35,000 dead bodies while being ready to shed more blood of its own people as ‘collateral damage’, Pakistan’s security elite is being shockingly imprudent and reckless while still trying to save its ‘assets’. Unbelievable!

The establishment is now pondering over, informs a fly on the wall of a building in Aabpara, the deadly implications of shooting at the beehive of militants in North Waziristan and at the Haqqani network, while its mouthpieces in the media and civil society continue to trumpet the need to involve the Taliban in the peace process and a future power set-up. Two important inferences could be drawn from this; the state of Pakistan has lost its writ in not only the unruly FATA but in so-called ‘settled’ mainland as well, when it sounds fear of militants’ blowback as the aftermath of a crackdown; and the insistence on a power sharing for the Taliban in a future set-up amply tells that the good old ‘strategic depth’ is not going anywhere in the near future.

The proponents of a peace deal with the Taliban have almost nothing beyond a poorly contemplated argument that all conflicts have a political solution rather than a military one, and that peace can only be achieved through dialogue between warring parties. Little is recalled about the legitimacy of the Taliban and micro details of a possible deal with them. In case the world has forgotten about the Taliban atrocities, a refresher is readily available in the news archives of the late 1990s.

Bringing them to power means some very dangerous messages. One, anyone with guns and an unscrupulous ability to kill people would be permitted to have its way and blackmail the world. Two, if the ‘mujahideen’ could dismember a superpower, the USSR, with a decade-long war, and later could defeat the world’s sole superpower in another decade, they could defeat anyone. Even their Pakistani mentors.

Some people in Islamabad also need to be reminded that this is not the 1990s; today, most of the domestic sectarian outfits have turned against the state of Pakistan, reoriented their domestic agenda in favour of a more powerful global agenda and are likely to have permanent sanctuaries in Afghanistan if the Taliban return to power. India would not be the only target. Pakistan would be sharing a lot of burden of bloodshed with, as well as a bonus gift of more radicalisation. More radicalisation in Pakistan coupled with sanctuaries in Afghanistan with backing from the Middle East means a sure shot recipe for worldwide disaster.

If the Taliban are able to occupy a seat in the Bonn Conference at the end of the tenth year of the war on terror, they will come from a position of power and would ask for the lion’s share. Before starting to negotiate with them, the world has to think about possible ‘give-aways’ to them. Why would the Taliban, intoxicated by their perceived victory over the allied western powers, settle for anything less than the control over a substantial part of Afghanistan?

(To be continued)