Thursday, June 07, 2007

Pakistan's attempt to repackage the Taliban as a Pushtun nationalist movement

I don't know who "taqmalaloo" is and can't find anything on the web about him. However, he has written a very savvy comment on the recent attempts of Pakistan to transform the Taliban from a religious to a Pushtun movement. It is so important that I think it should be widely read. It is for this reason that I reproduce the whole article as I have it. I appologize to him if I have taken undue advantage by placeing it here, but I want it to be accessible to a wider audience. I would link to it on the web if I could otherwise find the address. He identifies himself only as Taqmalaloo.

In the backdrop of the Taleban resurgence in Afghanistan towards the end of 2005 which has claimed more than 4000 lives so far and threatens to challenge the whole NATO/US mission in that country with obvious consequences for the world peace and security; there has been a renewed interest in the Taleban phenomena and the role of Pakistan therein. The popular myth now a day being promoted by a number of players in the Pakistan-Afghanistan blame game is that the Taleban are in fact a manifestation of the ethnic and nationalist feelings and political aspirations of the Pashtun nation at large. This is substantiated by a number of assertions by the Pakistani leadership in the recent past and media commentary. For example, while addressing theForeign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels in September this year, President Musharraf of Pakistan said that "the real danger...lies in the emergence and further strengthening of the Taliban, because they have the seeds of converting and drawing the population to them and converting this into a national war by the Pashtuns against maybe all foreign forces." This shift in characterisation of the Taleban movement from a religious force to one representing the Pashtun nation may be taken as an attempt to give an entirely different outlook to the current insurgency in Afghanistan as well as the tribal areas of Pakistan. A peek at the events in the not so distant past tell us that Pakistan, with the connivance of the CIA, preferred to use 'religion' and the `Doctrine of Jihad' and not 'Afghan or Pashtun Nationalism' to fight and perpetuate the long drawn war against the `foreign forces' of Soviet Union and the later civil war. The question that arises is; what has changed in the equation now which induces us to term the current insurgency as a `national struggle of the Pashtuns' against foreign forces. The answer is simple: while internationally a lot has changed since 9/11, in Pakistan domestically nothing has changed. While the Afghan side spearheaded by President Karzai, himself a Pashtun, blame the upsurge in Taleban activities on continuous support by the Pakistani establishment and its intelligence agencies, the Pakistani side point to a number of issues inside Afghanistan which fuels the insurgency and sustain it. Chief among these, they argue is the inability of Karzai government to establish its writ beyond Kabul. Some amongst the intelligentsia here have even termed President Karzai as the `Mayor of Kabul' to scorn his lack of control over most of Afghanistan. The failure of the Karzai government and the international community in sustaining the reconstruction process of the country, particularly in the Pashtun majority areas of the South and south eastern Afghanistan is also quoted as the cause for the alienation of the local population and their increasing support for the Taleban. There are also muted pointers to the lack of proportionate representation of Pashtuns, who make up the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, in the government institutions, decision making bodies and particularly the security forces. Together all these factors seem to contribute to the `myth' that Taleban's struggle against the foreign forces is actually fuelled by Pashtun nationalism. Seen in conjunction with the current emphasis of the Pakistani side to include the Taleban in the political process in Afghanistan on the lines of the `peace deals' signed by the Pakistani Military with the militants in its own troubled tribal areas of Waziristan (FATA), this could mean a deliberate effort by Pakistan to empower the Taleban on both side of the Durand Line. Simply put, this strategy aims to drive home the point that the Taleban are not an aberration in the Afghan calculus but represent the political aspirations of the majority Pashtun ethnic group and have thus to be accommodated in any political dispensation in Afghanistan. During the Afghan War, for the USA and the west, the objective was simple: defeat of communism; however for Pakistan the question was much more fundamental and related to its own domestic problems. Beside the defeat of Communism, there were three main objectives of the Afghan war strategy.

• Counterbalance the majority traditionally liberal and secular
minded Pashtun nationalists with in Pakistan demanding greater share
and political rights in the Punjabi dominated country in the backdrop
of the 1971 debacle leading to the creation of Bangladesh and the
bloody insurgency in Balochistan.

• Simultaneously, neutralize the nationalist elements in Afghanistan
represented by the Soviet supported communist regime, which were
likely to gain strength and thus exert more pressure on Pakistan with
regard to the Pushtunistan issue if left untouched leading to trouble
in the Pashtun belt.

• In the long term, use Islamic extremism to control the strings of
power in Afghanistan, which beside other benefits, will ensure that
her western borders will be well protected. This was deemed vital to
the survival and defence of Pakistan against the arch enemy India in
the backdrop of the 1971 War and explosion by India of its first
nuclear device in 1974. This notion was widely propagated and found
expression in terminologies like ensuring `strategic depth' and
having a `friendly political dispensation' in Afghanistan.

To pursue this strategy, Pakistan thus supported, funded and empowered the fringe religious 'clergy' in the Pashtun areas within Pakistan against the majority, largely secular nationalists, while across the Durand Line in Afghanistan, it shaped the struggle against the Soviet supported Afghan government as `Afghan Islamic Jihad'.
This strategy suited the government very well in that it ensured a degree of local support to the Afghan Resistance by the politico-religious groups like the JI `Jummat Islami'and JUI , `Jummat Ulema Islam'on the one hand, while on the other it wrested the political power away from the traditional secular and nationalist elements in the Pashtun dominated areas and empowered the politico- religious parties which have always been far more supportive of the establishment.

Much has changed in the world in the aftermath of 9/11, however, unfortunately, little has altered in Pakistan's domestic situation which would allow the Pakistani Government the space to bring a shift in Pakistan's strategy. For Pakistan the use of religion to control its domestic problems as well as retain/regain a degree of influence in Afghanistan through the Taleban remains a compulsion and not a matter of choice. In fact, by projecting the Taleban as representing the political aspirations of the Pashtuns, while still retaining their religious leanings, Pakistan wants to reassure the international community of their legitimacy as a group having popular support of the Pashtuns. At the same time it aims to dilute the negative effects of the stigma of religious extremism and fanaticism attached to Taleban in view of their links with AlQaeeda and the brutalities they committed while they were in power in Kabul. And as before, it wants simultaneously to strengthen the politico-religious elements in the North West Frontier Province and FATA to neutralise the nationalist elements which are again gaining popular support being encouraged by the prospects of a politically stable and economically vibrant Afghanistan. It was in this context that a grand Pashtun Peace Jirga was held in Peshawar on 20 Nov this year, organised by the nationalist parties and attended by a large majority of the liberal/secular leadership of the Pashtun ethnic group. This Jirga or `meeting of elders' unanimously demanded an end to the bloodshed in the Pashtun lands on both sides of the Durand Line in the name of religion and the war on terrorism. This new characterisation of Talebanisation as pashtun nationalism and terming the Taleban led insurgency as a demand for political empowerment of the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan must therefore be viewed with a pinch of salt. It can at best be described as a tactic to ensure a continuation of the same old strategy with a new look. The Taleban was never a nationalist movement nor did they enlist support from the Pakistani or Afghan Pashtuns in the name of their ethnic identity. They were created by extending support to the politico-religious right over the decades, indoctrinated, nourished and aided according to a strategy. That strategy has been and still remains the same - political manovouring by the powerful elite in Pakistan to use religious extremism and indoctrination to divide the Pashtuns, denying their political rights and at the same time to regain and maintain some degree of influence in Afghanistan. Obviously this can not be achieved by siding with and supporting the largely liberal, secular and democratic minded majority of the Pashtuns; for the fear that the elite will have to relinquish the powers they hold over all ethnic minorities and give them their political rights and control over their resources. The powers that be would therefore continue drumming the spectre of Islamic extremism in Pashtuns and frightening the world on the one hand and continue supporting the fringe clergy on the other, to continue reaping the benefits that such a strategy entails. The tragedy is that the religious extremism symbolised by the Taleban has no roots in Pashtun society or culture which may be culturally conservative but is predominantly secular, liberal and based on certain traditions. The ultimate losers in all this are the poor Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.

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