Pakistan’s War on Taliban and America’s Af-Pak Gameplan

Even as the US military offensive intensifies in Afghanistan, a parallel offensive by the Pakistani Army, clearly under US pressure, in the country’s autonomous region of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), is underway. Estimates suggest that over 10 lakh civilians are being forced to flee the Swat Valley, one of the major theatres of the war, in what is being called the biggest displacement of people since the Partition (1947). While US air strikes recently massacred 150 civilians, mostly women and children, in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military strikes are said to have killed hundreds of ‘militants’ – many of whom are also suspected to be civilians.  People fleeting in Swat Rally
The re-intensification of the US ‘war on terror’ on Pakistan’s soil is the outcome of the Obama administration’s so-called ‘AfPak’ strategy – a new incarnation of the Bush era policy of shifting the war theatre from already occupied Afghanistan and Iraq towards Pakistan’s tribal territories. US drone strikes since August 2008 – ostensibly targeting the Taliban in Pakistan - claiming a large number of civilian lives and seriously undermining the credibility of the Pakistan Government. 
Candid Confessions
The role of the US and its overt collaboration with the ISI and Pakistani military in the creation and cosseting of the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan is common knowledge. But what is interesting is the sudden and newfound urge of involved parties to spill the beans in public. 
In an interview with a US TV channel in Washington in early May, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari declared about the Taliban that “I think it was part of your past and our past, and the ISI and CIA created them together.” This was followed later in the month by another candid confession by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We came in the 1980s and helped to build up Mujahedeen to take on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis were our partners in that. Their security service and their military were encouraged and funded by the United States to create the Mujahedeen in order to go after the Soviet invasion and occupation. (After the Soviet collapse of 1989) we basically said — thank you very much.” Ms. Clinton termed the US policy towards Pakistan for the past 30 years “incoherent,” she declared that the US shared responsibility for the “mess” in Pakistan today. Ms. Clinton’s candidness, of course, is motivated by the need to justify more meddling and new mess in Pakistan, this time in the name of cleaning up past mess! The damage done to the world by the US in the name of exporting ‘justice’, ‘peace’ and democracy’ is well known, and Pakistani ambassador to the USA was well justified when in April 2009, he spoke out his mind against the US “attitude that the world is a problem for America to fix,” adding, “Please don’t try to fix us.”
The problem that the US is claiming to “fix” today is squarely a creation of the US itself, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the motivated military strategy that conflates Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to make the situation much worse. As an Al Jazeera reporter put it, “US drone attacks are said to be the best recruiting sergeant for the Taliban.”   
Taliban and Pakistan: A brief history
The FATA territories, during the British Raj enjoyed semi-autonomous powers in return for loyalty to the Raj; after independence, a similar arrangement continued on the part of the Pakistani Government. During the cold-war confrontations in Afghanistan in the late 70s and 80s, the isolated FATA areas served as a launching pad for US-sponsored militias, backed by the CIA, funded by Saudi money, and created in collaboration with the ISI. Not only the Taliban, but subsequently the al Qaeda, is a by-product of this phase of US strategy. Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet occupation in the 80s and the civil war in the 90s settled in large numbers in the NWFP region – becoming a potential base for the Taliban in days to come.
Even after the cold war ended, the Bill Clinton administration, along with Benazir Bhutto’s government in Pakistan, continued to do business with the Afghan Taliban, seeking its cooperation to protect US oil interests in the region.  Eventually, though, in 1996, bin Laden and his al Qaeda declared war on the United States and exerted increasing influence on Taliban chief Mullah Omar. The US then began confronting the Taliban, then ruling Afghanistan, with the demand to hand over bin Laden. Even after 9/11, though, and in spite of the growing US-Taliban conflict, the US chose to turn a blind eye to Afghan Taliban who used Pakistan’s autonomous tribal territories as a hideout, in return for bases for US troops in Pakistan and other concessions. Towards 2003, however, with US troops floundering in Afghanistan, and US politicians under pressure to ‘hunt out and capture’ bin Laden, the US began turning their attention to Pakistan’s autonomous regions. They began insisting that al Qaeda fugitives were hiding in those regions, and if President Musharraf refused to send in his army, the US army itself would “go and get them.” This set the stage for a series of military incursions by the Pakistan Army under direct US pressure between 2001-2008. The Pakistan military suffered severe reversals and huge casualties (4000 troops) repeatedly, and the entire process also carried a great political cost for the Pakistan government, since the tribal chieftains saw the incursions as a betrayal of their traditional pact with Pakistan’s rulers. Musharraf’s promises of ‘development’ failed to quell this growing resentment, which only helped consolidate the Taliban in those regions.       
The US frenzy about the Taliban upsurge in Pakistan’s tribal areas does not reflect any concern about terrorism as such – after all, till not long ago, they collaborated with and bolstered up these very forces: it has everything to do with the expansion of US geostrategic interests as defined in today’s world, towards Central Asia and with allies in South Asia. Pakistan is paying heavily – in blood, shed in terror attacks and civil war –for being a faithful tool of the US for decades.    
 ‘Af-Pak’ Strategy: Conflating Afghanistan and Pakistan 
The Obama administration’s ‘Af-Pak’ war rests on a mischievous conflation of Afghanistan and Pakistan that could have disastrous consequences for the latter. The Indian media, too, is playing up the Taliban bogey, and as a result of the inaccurate and hyped-up stories flooding TV screens, the Indian public actually knows very little about the specific social and historical circumstances in the FATA and NWFP regions and in Swat in particular.
According to a report in the New York Times, the Taliban is making inroads in the Swat region by tying up with local Islamic groups and exploiting deep class rifts between a small section of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants. One observer remarked that in Pakistan’s deeply feudal society, and especially in the Swat region where 1.3 million people live in severe deprivation despite the presence of fertile orchards, vast plots of timber and valuable emerald mines, “The militants are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling...They are also promising timely Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution.” Pakistani feminist scholar Humeira Iqtidar corroborates this in an article, ‘Who are the Taliban in Swat?’ (www.opendemocracy.net, accessed on 21 May 2009). 
Iqtidar points out that the main militant group that has gained notoriety in Swat is not just some amorphous, ‘foreign’ Taliban, but a local group Tehreek Nifaz e Sharia Mohammadi (TNSM), with very strong local roots. The TNSM is one of the local groups facilitating the entry of the Taliban into Pakistan – and part of a larger Taliban umbrella network headed by Baitullah Mehsud. Iqtidar observes, “Based on what little information there is about the militants, it seems that the leadership ... (of the Taliban in Swat) consists in large part of men who have worked or continue to work in shops, as day labourers, as hawkers and peddlers, or in the case of the current leader, Maulana Fazlullah, as a chair-lift operator.” Fazlullah's initial popularity, Iqtidar recounts, was the result of his FM radio channel, in particular, his own program covering spiritual themes with local, accessible metaphor, as well as recipes and discussions of local politics, which established a significant following among the women of Swat.
The TSNM built up a base among landless tenants. These tenants, according to the NYT story, had many unresolved cases against landlords in a slow-moving and corrupt justice system, and therefore the idea of speedy sharia justice had attractions for them. Iqtidar observes, “The much discussed Nizam-e-Adl (Mechanisms for Justice) regulation that was passed as part of the ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the government of Pakistan and ratified by President Asif Ali Zardari on 14 April, makes perfunctory mention of the desire to adhere to Quranic injunctions, but rather is concerned primarily with providing quick and effective justice. The mechanisms may be misguided, open to abuse and problematic, but it is easy to see how the fundamental thrust of the regulation has found resonance locally. It is ultimately an endeavour to bypass Pakistan's judicial system that is heavily biased against the powerless, and to facilitate quick decision-making.”When landlords fled under TSNM threats, local peasants found greater access to the vacated land. “The new arrangements also allowed for a share of revenue for TNSM,” says Iqtidar, and “reports in Pakistani newspapers suggest that emerald mines from the area have been reopened under a profit sharing scheme with the local miners.”
Iqtidar reminds that the Malakand area of Swat was “an important hub of peasant mobilisation during the 1970s, agitations that were suppressed only with a certain amount of brutality and with the connivance of local landlords and the state machinery. Not surprisingly, the landlords are often the region's political leaders and administrative officials. Though it would be quite a stretch to see the TSNM in Swat as the heirs of these older peasant movements, their legacy no doubt lingers in the restive region.”
It is important to understand the social foundations of support for the Taliban forces in the Pashtun tribal belt of the FATA and NWFP regions of Pakistan and the USP of their counterparts in Afghanistan. The fundamentalism and terrorism embodied in the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan is nonetheless a perverse expression of resistance against naked US aggression and occupation, client postures of their rulers, and feudal landlordism. To recognise this is not to justify it, but to underline that US incursions in these countries, US’ continued meddling and dictation to Afghan and Pakistan Governments, only provide more fodder to the fundamentalists.
Mullah Omar, in an interview with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper on January 4, 2007, distinguished the Taliban agenda from that of the al-Qaeda, “They [al-Qaeda] have set jihad as their goal, while we have set the expulsion of American troops from Afghanistan as our target.” The Taliban commander in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, similarly declared after a drone attack on January 16, 2007, claimed the lives of woodcutters in Bajaur, “People have seen the injustices of the Americans. They have seen their sons being killed for US dollars. Were we to preach for 100 years, we could not secure the kind of support that is generated by such raids.” (quoted by Graham Usher, ‘The Pakistan Taliban,’ Middle East Report Online, February 13, 2007)     

Indeed the US is part of the problem – and cannot thus be the solution. It is high time we expose and challenge the high-decibel campaign of ‘war on terror’ sponsored by the US and peddled by an obedient New Delhi and obliging media, which seeks to obliterate USA’s unpardonable crimes and justify its ongoing agenda of expanding in the entire subcontinent. The fight against fundamentalism and terrorism has to be anchored in a powerful rejection and expulsion of the forces of US occupation and meddling in this entire region, and in an assertion of the forces of democracy and sovereignty in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kowtowing or legitimising US meddling under any pretext is the surest recipe for disaster. The Manmohan Government, through its deep love for the US, is increasingly tying the future of our country to this dangerous imperialist gameplan in the subcontinent and jeopardising our country’s peace and security. Ignoring the history of how the US spawned this entire crisis in its neighbouring states, India’s ruling class only seeks to score points in its jingoistic contest with Pakistan while playing tango with the same US! It is shameful that our Government and the Indian elite, even with the fate of Pakistan being played out before our eyes, is intent on taking India down the same road of ‘strategic’ servility to US interests.

Tapas Ranjan Saha

Talibanisation, Women’s Rights and Imperialism
(The following is an excerpt from Pakistani feminist scholar Humeira Iqtidar’s ‘Who are the Taliban in Swat', www.opendemocracy.net)      

Much media attention has focused on the worsening plight of women in Swat, particularly after the video-taped public flogging of a 17 year-old girl. Unfortunately, the kinds of atrocities perpetrated by the TNSM against women also occur in the feudal holdings of many of the "secular" political elite of Pakistan. Yet these incidents do not make headlines in the same way. Few Pakistanis can ignore the fact that restricting women's mobility and reducing their educational opportunities (as the TNSM intend to do) along with gang rape, abduction, and honour killing have a long history in southern Punjab and Sind, areas where both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have vast landholdings. 
The alleged video recording the public flogging of a woman by Taliban in Swat has not been conclusively proven as authentic. A woman named Chand Bibi was initially identified as the one being flogged. However, she was reported to have sworn before a judge that the video was not hers (Jang newspaper, 11 April, 2009, front page). It is entirely feasible that she did so under duress. Quite rightly, the video generated debate and outrage within Pakistani print and television media.
Along with the very legitimate concern for women's rights, sectors of the Urdu language press as well as various local TV channels expressed disquiet that the video and its reception have echoes of the campaigns carried out just before the US attack of Afghanistan. "White men liberating brown women from brown men" (to use Gayatri Spivak's terminology) has a long history in justifying wars and occupations. The brutal treatment of women by the Afghan Taliban became the subject of email petitions, news reports and first person accounts in magazines like Elle, Ms. and Cosmopolitan.
Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood point out the usefulness of this campaign in justifying the attack on Afghanistan and the callousness that was allowed within this framework:
"In the context of this intense concern for Afghan women, it is striking how silent the vast majority of Americans have been about civilian casualties that resulted from the US bombing campaign. In December 2001 - two months after the start of the US military offensive - the Feminist Majority website remained stubbornly focused on the ills of Taliban rule, with no mention of the hundreds of thousands of victims of three years of drought who were put at greater risk of starvation because US bombing severely restricted the delivery of food aid. The Feminist Majority made no attempts to join the calls issued by a number of humanitarian organizations - including the Afghan Women's Mission - to halt the bombing so that food could be transported to these 2.2 million Afghans before winter set in." (Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency, Anthropological Quarterly, 2002)
Hirschkind and Mahmood wrote this in 2002. It is arguable whether women in Afghanistan have benefited at all from the invasion since then. Even with the best of intentions the actual reach of the NATO forces remains severely limited within Afghanistan, and the writ of the Karzai government hardly extends beyond Kabul. 
This is not to say that the developments in Swat should not cause concern, or that TNSM deserve our support, but rather that we need to look deeper to see where their strength stems from. Only then can we come up with an effective counter-strategy. The way the crisis is being constructed in mainstream media - highlighting the group's affinity with the Afghan Taliban - seems likely to generate only one kind of response- a military one. US and UK governments have been openly pressurising Zardari to take the military option. Since Sunday, Pakistani troops have already started another "operation" in Buner.
However, the attention that the Swat TNSM have received from the US administration, including most recently Hilary Clinton, in recent weeks belies more than benign concern for the fate of the Swatis. The threat of these "Taliban" justifies the blatant disregard for civilian lives evidenced by the US army's drone attacks inside Pakistan and creates the ground for an overt extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan. This extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan has resonances with earlier tried and tested strategies of the Pentagon. Using a template from the Vietnam war, Washington's "AfPak" strategy follows a familiar logic: "The US has pretty much won the war in Vietnam/Afghanistan. This is the last little bit that needs sorting now, because Cambodia/Laos/Pakistan are harbouring Communists/Taliban. Once they are cleared up we can declare complete victory."
Pakistan face many real problems, stemming in large part from the stifling inequity that pervades its political structures. The task of tackling these challenges is not abetted by intensifying militancy in the country, which has increased dramatically since the US invasion of Afghanistan, a spill-over effect that Pakistan can ill afford.However, it is still not beyond the capacity of Pakistani society to contain these militants. I am reminded here of what Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Nobel Laureate and Human Rights Activists said in response to a question from an audience at Cambridge University some years ago. She was asked about what feminists in the west could do to help women in Iran. "Nothing," she said, "We are capable of fighting our own battles and will manage, as long as you can stop your governments from invading us."