Mar 2, 2009

What the people of Pakistan think about the Taliban

By Seema Mustafa
The tide is turning for the people of Pakistan. And the fear and apprehension is palpable as soon as one crosses the Wagah border into Lahore. The enthusiasm, hope and even joy visible just last February during the general elections have been replaced in less than a year with despair, and a realization that all is not well. What makes it worse is a sense of disillusionment with the political leadership that has embedded itself in narrow conflict and strife, and not stood up to the challenge of providing a stable and responsive government.The Taliban is creeping into the heartland of Pakistan. And what makes the people of Pakistan, particularly the more aware civil society, despondent is the awareness that there is no one in a position to stop the onward march. The recent deal between the Zardari government and the Taliban in Swat, brokered by the Awami National Party, has created widespread resentment amongst the progressive sections of society, who see in it a total surrender and, as many of them said, a clear indication that the government had abdicated its responsibility.It is common knowledge on the streets of Pakistan now that the Taliban are just moments away from Peshawar and already spreading their wings in southern Punjab. Posters have appeared in the villages around Lahore supporting the Taliban and their social and moral code that includes beards for men, and no education or rights for women. The army is either complicit, or unable to take action with strategic experts divided through the middle on this issue. All agree that the terrain and inexperience in counterinsurgency operations is deterring effective army operations, but one view is that this is matched by the absence of determination and commitment to fight the Taliban. The other view is that the army is still playing with the extremist forces, and using this to put pressure on the political leadership so that it can eventually get back into the seat of power in Islamabad. The truth probably lies in the middle as there are indications — from the 1500 or more soldiers who have died in battle — that there is some level of seriousness within the army to fight this war. But at the same time there are stories of how the army is using the operations to acquire more funds and more weaponry from the United States.The one almost frantic plea heard across the board — from political parties and civil society — was that India should realise the problem Pakistan was facing and resume the peace process. There was all-round condemnation of the Mumbai terror attack from every possible quarter, accompanied with the demand that India should agree to have joint investigation with Pakistan. The argument was that this would ease some of the pressure on Pakistan, give the political government manoeuvring space within the country and force the army to admit its responsibility instead of using the “we have to place our forces on the eastern border and so do not have enough man power to tackle the Taliban” argument. Civil society that is extremely critical of terrorism and admits very openly of the involvement of Pakistan’s terror groups, is clear that this cooperation would help stem the tide as it would strengthen the political and democratic forces to effectively counter the Taliban and the jihadis.New Delhi has adopted the ‘wait and watch’ approach with government policy clearly reflected in its refusal to heed this plea. The government here continues to favour the army and even former President General Musharraf, who is still hated on the streets of Pakistan, even though it knows that it cannot conduct direct talks with the men in uniform. The assessment justifying inaction, that “if we help the process of peace there will be another terror attack in India”, is strange and inexplicable but sums up official government policy. Who should we talk to, is the other argument for inaction and that, to some extent, gets justified when the PPP uses the courts to get rid of the PML-N government in Punjab. Interestingly, there was widespread dismay all around – even amongst those who had supported the PPP – when the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, and President Asif Ali Zardari stepped in to impose governor’s rule in the Punjab. Not a single person, outside the core group around Zardari, supported the move with the consensus that this would further strengthen the army and the Taliban gaining ground.President Zardari is vying for the ‘most disliked politician’ post in Pakistan. His honeymoon with the people, and even sections of his own party, is over and he is emerging as an autocrat who is not working for the larger good of the country. He is surrounded by a clique of favourite politicians and his own family, who are the only persons he appears to trust. He does not seem to be in command of the situation or even willing to acknowledge the growing threat to Pakistan’s secular polity, as the recent action against the Sharif brothers demonstrates. Instead of consolidating the political forces to pressure the army and fight the Taliban, Zardari has added to the conflict and divisiveness within Pakistani society.The fear of a Taliban take over is real. The truce has delayed the process, but perhaps only temporarily. It is not expected to work on the ground for long, and can only strengthen the Taliban that has ensured that its writ has now the mandate of the government. The courts have been closed in Peshawar, the schools are closed with girls being discouraged from attending, brutal assassinations are being carried out with the government watching helplessly from Islamabad. Any sane person in India will realise that the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan will not secure India. Increased terrorism and the resultant growth of communalism in this country will be immediate results, leading to divisiveness and instability all around. It is therefore, imperative for the government of India to wake up to the dangers before these reach our doors, and formulate a policy that strengthens peace and the democratic forces in the region. Military action is never a solution, as probably even the United States can vouch for after the invasion of Iraq.The writer is a former political editor of The Asian Age and was a member of an Indian peace delegation that visited Pakistan this past week

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