Talibanisation of Pakhtoonistan

Talibanisation of the NWFP
Dr Naeem Chishti
Located on both banks of the river Indus, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is undoubtedly the most beautiful province of Pakistan. With an approximate population of 21 million, it covers an area of 28,772 square miles stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the deserts of Punjab and Baluchistan in the south. The province is divided into 24 administrative districts, with 83 percent of its population living in rural areas. About 70 percent of its residents are Pashtuns with Pashto as their mother-tongue and twenty percent are Hindkowans (sometimes referred to as Punjabi Pathans) with Hindko as their primary language. By comparison, almost 99 percent of the FATA population is Pashto speaking. While above eighty percent of NWFP’s population belongs to Ahl-i-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, about 15 percent of its inhabitants are Shiite Muslims. In the domain of social sector indicators, 46 percent of the province's population lives below poverty line while the literacy rate is as low as 38 percent which is particularly precarious in case of female literacy. Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, there have been many transformations in the political orientation of the people of the province ranging from the rise of secular nationalist forces such as National Awami Party (NAP) in 1957 to the growth of the politico-religious parties such as Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) in 1970. The 1980s Afghan war introduced a militant flavour to the politics of the province as Peshawar and its adjacent tribal areas became home to mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. The dynamics of the area were soon changed by the spread of madrassahs, the presence of CIA personnel, the influx of Saudi petro-dollars and the establishment of training camps by some agencies. Between 1988 and 1999, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League alternated in ruling the province. The Awami National Party (ANP), a successor of the secular NAP, also became an influential player in the 1990s and remained a coalition partner in governing the volatile province. The NWFP has always been a victim of Pakistan’s regional policy as well as international politics. The wounds of the 1980s Afghan war in the shape of religious militancy, drug trade and kilashankove culture still haunt the province. Consequently, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s had a deep impact on Pashtun identity and politics. While the madrassahs that played a large part in producing the Taliban are still operational, the military strategy adopted by the United States and partly implemented by Pakistan has further complicated the crisis. In the midst of all this, a new wave of religious bigotry has taken over the rural areas of the NWFP, where local extremists, inspired by the Taliban in Afghanistan and in the FATA, are trying to convince people that their own dogmatic version of Islam is the only ray of hope. However, in urban centres and non-Pashtun or Hindko speaking areas of the NWFP centrist and leftist political forces still hold ground. In various districts adjacent to the FATA, Taliban and local militant forces are gaining ground—especially in Karak, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Kohat, and Dera Ismail Khan. All of these districts border Waziristan. The activities of religious militant groups in these districts area include closing girls’ schools, the bombing of video and music shops, ban on shaving beards, strict imposition of the burqa or hijab for women and attacks on NGOs, especially those employing women. Importantly, the Taliban added a dangerous new dimension to their militancy campaign in March this year when they allegedly forced schoolchildren in a small town in Tank district to sign up for suicide bombing missions. According to press reports at least 30 schoolchildren in Tank district were abducted for this cause which sent shock waves through the area and forced many families to migrate to other parts of the province. When the school principal called the police, he was kidnapped from his home and his dead body was later found in South Waziristan. In Swat district, Maulana Fazlullah of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) was able to enforce his writ and he publicly foisted Taliban flags on at least five major police stations in the area after removing the flag of Pakistan. TNSM successfully terrorized the people of Swat and raised significant money from the area at gunpoint. Their gangs regularly disarmed security personnel, took over government buildings and introduced a parallel justice system based on their extreme version of Sharia law. Maulana Fazlullah also ran more than two dozen FM radio stations propagating his extremist views. Very recently, Pakistan Army started its military operation in the area and the troops were able to claim some success after stiff battles to bring the area under the government’s control. It is curious, however, why Musharraf regime never targeted the TNSM communication and media network before. This is in stark contrast to President Musharraf’s clampdown on liberal media outlets immediately after the November 3 emergency rule, when he even went to the extent of pressuring the UAE government to stop the transmission of Geo and ARY channels. In June this year, the National Security Council under the leadership of General Musharraf discussed in detail a report prepared jointly by the leading intelligence agencies about the growing influence of Taliban in the area. The report mentioned that the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, lingering political disputes in the Muslim world and a growing feeling among Muslims that they are under attack from the West are major contributory factors behind the growing insurgency in the region. The report also projected a downturn in U.S. interest in Afghanistan beginning in 2007 suggesting that in the long run Pakistan would have to tackle the problem of Talibanisation by itself. Past and current practices of our intelligence agencies indicate that they must have concluded earlier that Pakistan would yet again need a “working relationship” with the Taliban to pursue its interests in Afghanistan and to compete with Indian and Iranian goals in the region. That explains why JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is becoming increasingly friendly towards Musharraf regime. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, which is a major component of the MMA, has been in power in the province for full five years from November 2002 to October 2007. It is during this period that Taliban were able to consolidate themselves in the province to such an extent that they even challenged the military authorities openly. Therefore, after getting an assurance that his party would return to power, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has accelerated his activities in the area by vowing not to boycott the polls. Clearly, his new attitude is the result of guarantees given to him that the NWFP will remain under his control. That is why he is not challenging General Musharraf openly even when all other major political parties are targeting the president. It is because of the same assurance that the JUI-chief unexpectedly gave a pro-American statement after meeting US ambassador Anne W Anderson last month in which he declared that tribesmen in the FATA are not against Washington-sponsored development projects and that the United States is sincere in developing the area. It is questionable, however, whether Maulana Fazlur Rehman will be able to manage the new extremist forces in the area if his party returns to power after the next general elections. Events in the province’s Swat district such as the rise of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) are signs of the increasing threat to the security of Pakistan. However, the NWFP is not likely to physically slip out of Pakistan’s hands like East Pakistan did on 16 December 1971. But, like East Pakistan, the NWFP is certainly in the eye of the storm at present. Despite Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s claims to the contrary, religious political forces have lost some of their support base due to poor governance and the MMA is not expected to do well in the coming elections because of internal divisions between JI and JUI-F. The main problem of the province is Talibanisation for which religious elements are mainly responsible. However, instead of targeting them through his arbitrary imposition of emergency rule, General Musharraf targeted those very forces on 3 November 2007 which could challenge extremists. As a result, many human rights activists and lawyers in the NWFP were arrested and top judges of the NWFP high court known for their progressive views and integrity were sent home. Among the militants, nonetheless, this action of General Musharraf is being interpreted as his weakness, further emboldening their activities. Pakistan is faced with a long struggle to return a measure of stability and normalcy to the province. The absence of credible democratic institutions coupled with poverty of the masses has severely damaged the body politic of the province. Lack of investment for education is another potent factor. Districts where insurgents and militants are thriving have the worst literacy rates in the province. All independent reports suggest that General Musharraf’s model of government has played into the hands of religious extremist forces instead of discouraging Talibanisation. Now with a major military operation in Swat, Musharraf regime may be able to tackle the TNSM strongly and may also hail it as a major victory in the international market but this is not permanent solution of the NWFP problem, since TNSM remnants will certainly raise their heads again given the prevailing circumstances in the region. If the government or the international agencies are really interested in preventing the province from falling under the influence, if not in the hands, of Taliban they should focus their energies on maximising job opportunities, increasing literacy and establishing true democracy in the NWFP.

1 comment:

KreativeMix said...

very insightful and informative.

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