’Whither Pakistan?’ This is a question now a days repeatedly raised in media globally in the wake of high-profile suicidal attacks in last two weeks. It was not the deadly suicidal attacks in the Frontier province that triggered a global panic. Such attacks have become a business-as-usual headline. According to Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn, 280 Taliban attacks in last two years have claimed 2200 lives. It was rather less bloody but highly symbolic fidayee assault on jealously guarded army headquarters, GHQ, on October 10 that has traumatized all and sundry.
A coordinated attack on October 15 in Lahore, the country’s second largest town, on three police facilities only reinforced the sense of insecurity. The government decision on October 20, following a suicidal attack on International Islamic University in capital Islamabad, to close down schools and colleges across Pakistan have served to spread further panic. Scared citizens, particularly in big cities, are not daring to step out of their homes unless necessary. Traders are complaining of a sharp decline in the number of customers.
Commentators in Pakistan’s media have interpreted the recent spate of attacks as last-ditch, desperate attempts by the Taliban to forestall a military operation in South Waziristan, the Taliban’s last stronghold. If that indeed was the Taliban’s intention, these attacks have proved counter-productive.
On 17 October, the long-awaited military offensive in South Waziristan was launched. Aided by fighter jets and gunship helicopters, 30,000 Pakistani troops have been pitched against 10,000 Taliban. Military spokesperson, Major General Atthar Abbas says army will flush the Taliban out of South Waziristan in six to eight weeks.
Will the military succeed? Before answering this question, we first need to define success. If the aim is to secure South Waziristan, the army will succeed. If the purpose is to eliminate the Taliban, the answer is NO. While the army is busy bombing militants in South Waziristan, and earlier in Swat, it patronises them in Punjab and other parts of the country. The Waziristan offensive is a selective operation against Taliban who have gone out of army’s control. They are in the army’s view: ’’Bad Taliban’’.
Talibs fighting US forces in Afghanistan need not worry. They are ’’Good Taliban’’. Similarly, outfits like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Laskar-e-Tayyaba, built by Pakistan army to bleed India in Kashmir, keep enjoying impunity. The Jihadi infrastructure, comprised of Maskars (militants’ training camps) and Madrassas (Quran schools), is not being dismantled. A section of Pakistani press has repeatedly exposed a military-Taliban connection.
The Pakistani media dominated by religious right, however, have in general been sympathetic to the Taliban and until recently would glorify Taliban as a Pashtoon resistance force fighting US imperialism.
The Taliban are, on the contrary, seen by most of Pashtoons in Pakistan as a threat to Pashtoon culture, economy, progress and peace. Unlike some leftists and Islamists portraying Taliban as resistance force, Pashtoons in Pakistan ask why Taliban are slaughtering locals or bombing their schools if they want to liberate Afghanistan? The Pashtoons don’t want to grow beards, give up dance or music and stop sending their girls to schools for the ’’liberation of Afghanistan’’ that the Taliban want to bring. As a matter of fact, the destruction of the economy, bombing of schools depriving 100,000 girls of an education or other absurd actions in the name of Sharia have rendered Taliban extremely unpopular.
That Taliban have lost sympathy is evident from the fact that country’s Islamist or right-wing parties as well as columnists and popular talk-show hosts, who once used to extol Taliban, now find it impossible to defend the Taliban’s mindless violence. A few have even have turned against them. Others hide behind conspiracy theories (blaming India and the USA, even Israel).
But mass support or a positive public image are not the Taliban’s problem. They are not running an election campaign. They are a band of charged up zealots engaged in what they believe is Jihad. Thus, rising or sinking Taliban popularity does not explain the strength of Taliban phenomenon.
It is poverty, state patronage, aggressive US intervention in the region and petro-dollars that stoke Taliban militancy. Every year tens of thousands graduate from Quran schools. A sizable number of these graduates-in-fanaticism are ready to blow themselves up for the cause. The Quran schools keep breeding Taliban (that literally means students of Quran schools). These schools constitute the real threat.
Are they a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear plants too? In the presence of a half-million-strong standing army, it seems highly unlikely. The only, and least likely, possibility is that General Kayani (military chief) is overthrown in a coup by radical Islamist officers who seize control of the country’s nuclear weapons. These Islamists within the military, however, stand hardly any chance owing to their growing isolation inside junior ranks. Also, the military leadership, busy mending its image badly tarnished under Musharraf dictatorship, will not go for a coup any time soon. The state will manage to stem present tide of suicidal attacks. The ruling class won’t hand the state over to a band of fanatics on a plate. But Pakistan will remain in a civil war-like situation.