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“The Pashtuns want peace and plurality”

The security situation in Pakistan, especially on its northern borders, is deteriorating. Does the recent election – when power was peacefully transferred from one civilian government to another for the first time in the history of the nation – offer any hope? Will the Pakistani military establishment’s position change in the coming months? Considering the present volatility, what might happen when the U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014? What do the Afghan people think about the insurgents? Gateway House’s Gautam Kagalwala interviews Farhat Taj, author of the 2011 book ‘Taliban and Anti-Taliban.’

Q. How do you view the Pakistani military’s support to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, particularly when the Taliban in Pakistan is targeting Pakistani interests and security forces?

Taliban is an umbrella name for multiple groups. Some of them are fighting in Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani Network (Afghan), the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group (Pakistani), and the Mullah Nazir Group (Pakistani), among others. Some are fighting inside Pakistan, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is a network of several terror outfits, including Punjabi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In addition, Al Qaeda-linked foreign terrorists are fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All Taliban groups are inextricably tied to global Islamist ideologies. They see Islam in eternal conflict with non-Islam. They all have external and internal enemies. The external enemies are non-Muslim people and countries – Jews, Hindus, Christians, India, the West, especially the U.S. The internal enemy includes people of all Muslim sects who do not fit into their view of Islam. All Taliban groups are anti-Shia.

All Taliban groups have close linkages with the international Al Qaeda. Punjab is the nerve centre of the Taliban ideologies in Pakistan, though the terrorism is manifested in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Karachi in Sindh. Different Taliban groups have different areas of operations, though this may not always be clear, and militants from one area of operation may be relocated to another area.

Taliban groups fighting in Afghanistan are ensuring Pakistan’s stakes in the future power set-up. This is in line with Pakistan’s strategic objective – to ensure a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan.

The groups fighting in Pakistan, such as the TTP, were formed in the post 9/11 context in collusion with the intelligence establishment of Pakistan to ensure Pakistan’s double role in the “war on terror.” These groups fight in Pakistan to project Pakistan as a victim of terrorism; create a managed chaos in Pakistan to plausibly deny the state’s backing of terrorism; protect and promote the jihadi infrastructure and human resources in Pakistan; and keep the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan insecure and therefore free from independent journalistic or research observation. The operational mechanism of this double dealing has sometimes made the control of the managed chaos difficult for Pakistani handlers – thus the attacks on prominent military set-ups in Pakistan. But overall, the situation is controlled by the intelligence agencies.

In Pakistan, the lives of soldiers, policemen and civilians do not really matter; only the military establishment-defined national security interests of Pakistan matter. Thousands have been killed in terror attacks in Pakistan since the country joined the “war on terror.” This is the cost that Pakistan is ready to pay. Terrorism in Pakistan will continue as long as Pakistan has not achieved its desired objective in Afghanistan. Then the terrorist groups will be relocated to some other place, such as Kashmir in India, if necessary.

Q. How do you assess Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent offer of peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, when the army opposes such an arrangement?

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif represents the conservative Islamic vote bank in Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan. Punjab is not affected by terrorism, which is concentrated in other areas. Last year, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab and brother of Nawaz Sharif, asked the Taliban to spare Punjab from terror attacks. Last month, in his first speech to the nation as prime minister, Sharif did not announce any policy on terrorism.  He mainly focused on issues such as the economy. Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to displease his right-wing constituency in Punjab by launching operations against the Taliban. He will negotiate and try to reduce terrorism through peaceful means.

The real matter, however,  is that the Pakistani military, which controls foreign policy, has many political, strategic, and financial stakes linked with the country’s security policy. It will protect these before any negotiations with Taliban. Successful negotiations may lead to state-backed militant groups giving up violent jihad.  But it may also require starting a de-radicalisation process of the militants. It may mean closing down the terror-preaching centres in Punjab. Is the Pakistan army ready for all that?

Q. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Pakistan in August, he indicated that the drone strikes could end soon as “most of the threat has been eliminated.” How effective was the U.S. drone campaign? Did it embitter the people in FATA?

Drone strikes are a favourite weapon of the U.S.’s counter-terrorism policy. The drones have done a wonderful job for the U.S. – without any loss of lives of U.S. soldiers, the drones have eliminated many powerful terror leaders in FATA. Compare this with the multiple military operations by the Pakistan army in FATA: Not a single prominent Taliban or Al Qaeda commander has been killed or captured in those operations. The drones are the only thing that Taliban and Al Qaeda are afraid of.  So the drone strikes on the militants’ positions in FATA are likely to continue till the U.S. and Pakistan reach an agreement, and Pakistan dismantles the terror groups based in FATA.

All claims made by anyone about civilian deaths during the drone strikes in FATA are unverified. No one, not even people in the drone-hit communities, knows the exact identity and number of the people killed in the strikes. This is because it is the standard operating procedure of the militants to cordon off a targeted area after an attack, not allowing anyone access, not even locals. The militants bury the dead and then issue statements that innocent civilians were killed. This is part of their propaganda. It gives excuses to the pro-Pakistani military establishment, and the pro-Taliban media persons and political forces in Pakistan, to generate public sympathy for the terrorists. They also use the anti-drone discourse to sustain anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

If human rights were the real concern, the anti-drones people would also have high- profile campaigns about the widespread atrocities against civilians in FATA by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Pakistan army.  But they are silent on this issue.

Many groups in the West are concerned that the drones are operated by the Americans outside a formal legal framework. This is a legitimate concern. Unfortunately, the anti-drone lobbies in the West are drawing on fabricated or distorted information about the strikes in FATA, rather than arguing for the legal framework on its own merit.

The drone strikes precisely target militants. They are not aerial bombardments that indiscriminately kill people. Almost all those who speak or write about the drone attacks, ignore the January 2010 Peshawar Declaration that supports the attacks on FATA. Over 1000 local Pashtun tribal leaders and political activities passed the declaration, which reflects the local tribal people’s view.

Q. What will be the security situation in 2014?  Do you see the Taliban threat increasing?

It depends on whether the U.S. and Pakistan can agree on a future power set-up in Afghanistan. If they do agree, there will be stability in Afghanistan, by and large. At least some terror groups in Pakistan may be dismantled, or consigned to dormancy to be reactivated in future, if necessary, to deal with Afghanistan or India. If the U.S. and Pakistan do not agree on the future government in Kabul, Afghanistan will suffer instability and turmoil through terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

Q. How significant was last year’s attack on activist Malala Yousafzai in terms of the anti-Taliban sentiments that it generated?

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, the people’s narrative has been anti-Taliban since much before the attack on Malala. The attack was one of the countless attacks in the area, which reinforce the people’s anti-Taliban opinion. In the wider Pakistani and international circles, amongst the dominant media, academia and the public, the attack on Malala significantly damaged the credibility of the pro-Taliban narrative.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Taliban in the world outside Pakistan. The Taliban are seen as an indigenous force representing the legitimate grievances of the local Pashtun tribes. This view is mainly shaped by the dominant pro-Taliban discourse emanating from Pakistan. The inability of the educated Pashtun to articulate and present to the world their own narrative on terrorism is compounded by the inability of the international media and academia to look beyond the façade of the controlled terror chaos in Pakistan.

The Pashtun tribes have no control or influence over the Taliban groups. The tribal leaders have been killed or exiled, or they are in self-imposed isolation due to fear of the Taliban. The tribes were the first victims of the Taliban as well as of the Pakistan army’s atrocities.

The attack on Malala helped the indigenous Pashtun narrative to be heard by the world. This narrative wants peace, plurality, religious harmony, human dignity, human rights, and human development. This narrative rejects religious extremism, terrorism, oppression and violations of human rights; it rejects the anti-civilization that is epitomised by Taliban and Al Qaeda. The attack put a question mark on the misleading perception about Taliban as a legitimate force representing people in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. Now people outside the region can better understand the suffering and aspirations of the local Pashtun through the story of Malala. In this context, the attack on her is very significant.

Dr. Farhat Taj is a Pashtun from the north-western region of Pakistan. She has a PhD in the Sociology of Law from the University of Oslo, Norway.  She has worked as Planning Officer in the Education Ministry, Government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, and is the author of the book ‘Taliban and Anti-Taliban’ (July 2011, Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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