Those who justify the Taliban uprising in Pakistan as an anti-imperialist movement forget that since the Taliban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996 (with the blessings of the Pakistani establishment), they have been a threat to women, pluralism and democracy in the region. Their oppressive order in Afghanistan pre-dates the American invasion of Iraq, bombing of Afghanistan, and drone attacks in Pakistan –– from an article I wrote in Dawn, 2009. Came across it again while searching for something else. Read it, and tell me, what has changed?
By Beena Sarwar, Feb 7, 2009
OF the many challenges Pakistan’s elected government faces perhaps the most menacing and deep-rooted is Talibanisation — a phenomenon identified earlier on (as Talibanism) by the then exiled Afghan government’s acting foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept 21, 2000.
Pleading for urgent measures to combat this threat, Abdullah wondered “how far the evil threat of Talibanism shall expand … before the conscience of the international community would be awakened, not to just consider, but to adopt immediate and drastic preventive measures.”
His warnings fell on deaf ears. Today, Pakistan bears the brunt of the Taliban fallout, thanks to short-sighted Pakistanis fixated on creating an illusionary ‘strategic depth’ and Americans who thought routing the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan, thanks to superior technology, would ‘root out the evil’. All it did was push their support base underground for a while, even as the political vacuum created by mainstream Pakistani party leaders being in exile allowed the Taliban-sympathetic Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (also referred to by Benazir Bhutto as the Mullah Military Alliance) to win elections and strengthen these forces.
They have been gaining ground since Pakistan’s creation, with formulations like the Objectives Resolution. The process accelerated with successive governments pandering to right-wing ideologues who practically took over the country during the Afghan war. Then it suited Washington and its allies, including the Zia regime, to arm and train the Mujahideen and initiate what Dr Eqbal Ahmad called ‘jihad international’.
Writers and artists also courageously took on these elements. The dozens of works exhibited recently by the Peshawar-based cartoonist Zahoor at The Second Floor in Karachi included one dated Dec 23, 2007 in which he personifies a cloud as an armed, bearded man (‘Taliban’ inscribed on his turban) hovering ominously overhead, moving from Darra towards Peshawar. Another cartoon titled ‘Scenic Swat Valley’ shows a mean-faced, hirsute volcano overseeing a pile of burning television sets.
Perhaps most prescient was the short-story writer Ghulam Abbas who during another time of ‘enlightened moderation’ (Ayub Khan’s) predicted the logical conclusion of organised bigotry and fanaticism in Hotel Mohenjodaro, a futuristic story in which guests at the fictional Hotel Mohenjodaro celebrate Pakistan becoming the first country to send a man to the moon (Abbas wrote it in 1967 or so, before Neil Armstrong’s feat).
Mullahs around the country condemn the astronaut’s act as heretical. They whip up a frenzy that topples the government, grab power, destroy universities, schools and libraries and impose strict gender segregation. They ban music, art, English and modern inventions — but don’t mind using these inventions (loudspeakers then, Internet, television and FM radio stations now) for their own purpose. Their infighting leads to anarchy. Pakistan is invaded and destroyed. Years later, a tour guide points to the spot in a desert “where, before the enemy struck, stood the Hotel Mohenjodaro.”
The Taliban have already reduced many hotels and educational institutions to rubble in Swat and other previously idyllic areas. Recovery from the nightmare they have unleashed will take much time, once it is over. And over it must be, later if not sooner. In the long term, as Pervez Hoodbhoy predicts, “the forces of irrationality will cancel themselves out because they act at random whereas reason pulls only in one direction.”
Those who justify the Taliban uprising in Pakistan as an anti-imperialist movement forget that since the Taliban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996 (with the blessings of the Pakistani establishment), they have been a threat to women, pluralism and democracy in the region. Their oppressive order in Afghanistan pre-dates the American invasion of Iraq, bombing of Afghanistan, and drone attacks in Pakistan.
Although many Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban for their ‘speedy justice’, oppressive measures like closing girls’ schools and pushing women out of the public sphere added to the people’s miseries. Forced to give up their jobs, thousands of women, the sole bread-earners for their families, had three choices: beggary, starvation or prostitution.
Pushed out of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban and their ideological extensions began attempting to enforce this order in Pakistan. Over the past months they have closed or demolished scores of girls’ schools in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), forcing thousands of girls to discontinue their education.
The diary of a seventh-grade Swat schoolgirl writing under the pen name ‘Gul Makai’ (BBC Urdu Online, later published in the English website) bears poignant testimony to these horrors. On Jan 3, she wrote, “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat…. I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had banned all girls from attending schools.” That day, only 11 out of 27 students attended class because of the Taliban’s edict. Three of her friends had already moved to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families. In the latest installment, her own family has moved to Islamabad.
Here in Karachi, even my seventh-grade old daughter argues that all this has nothing to do with Islam.
What it has to do with is territorial control and power. As the historian Rajesh Kadian notes, most of Asia’s major countries are “frayed at the edges with central authority barely maintaining the functions, power and dignity of the state”. Pakistan’s “frayed fringe” Fata was strategically important to the West during the Afghan war and after 9/11. The exception was “the extraordinary valley of Swat”, the cradle of Tibetan Buddhism, the home of Shah Mir whose piety converted the Kashmiris to Islam, boasting the highest literacy rates in the area especially among women. By targeting this peaceful, settled area with its diverse cultural and religious traditions, the Taliban have made life hell for its residents. They have also challenged the writ of the state by establishing their own parallel system.
This would have been impossible if the heavily armed and trained Pakistan Army meant business. Instead, they say they are unable to even neutralise the FM radio station from which daily announcements are made of the Taliban’s next targets. The army’s recently stated resolve to work in tandem with the civilian government counters public perceptions about its reluctance to do just that. Somewhere, the will seems to be lacking. It will continue to remain lacking unless those who control Pakistan realise that the target of these ‘jihadi’ forces is not just to control some areas, but to overrun the entire country, just as Ghulam Abbas predicted.
The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi.