My latest column for The Guardian, on the Taliban and the psychology of fear, was published today:
Taliban preys on Pakistani fears
The Taliban’s extreme version of Islam is the logical conclusion of the region’s violent past and feeds on insecurity
Pakistanis have been offered a frightening glimpse into the true character of the Taliban over the past weeks. Last Monday, 30 March, a group of heavily armed men in police uniforms stormed a police academy killing 11 and injuring close to another 100. Those traumatised police cadets that survived painted a grisly picture of bloodstained walls and body parts. The leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella network of pro-Taliban groups in the country, Baitullah Masud claimed responsibility for the attack.
That admission corroborates with similar claims from Pakistan authorities, in contrast to Masud’s boast that he was behind a recent shooting spree in New York that American authorities quickly proved incorrect.
But such is the mentality of the Taliban in Pakistan – the fear they seek to capitalise on feeds off the everyday insecurities most Pakistanis, mired in poverty, face.
Later last week, video footage emerged of a young woman being whipped by members of the Taliban because she was alleged to have been with a man who was not a relative.
The Taliban’s response to the footage was revealing. At first, a spokesperson for the Taliban in the Swat valley, where the flogging took place, condemned the media for airing the video. He later claimed that the video was a fake, even though Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in the region, routinely makes similar threats against women during his now infamous broadcasts over a clandestine radio station.
It should be pointed out that this is not a new tactic. Although Fazlullah has railed against women seeking an education in Swat with threats of violence, a Taliban commander I spoke to in the valley last year said that “someone else” had destroyed over 200 girls’ schools, now left burnt or bombed out, to malign the jihadi insurgents.
On Friday, members of the Taliban raided the offices of a federal agency telling bureaucrats to stop working because men and women were not segregated.
Around the same time, a suicide attack in a plush neighbourhood of Islamabad killed another eight policemen. It was one of a string of suicide attacks on the nation’s capital since the devastating attack on the Marriott Hotel last September.
As shocking as these latest events are, in truth, they represent the logical conclusion of Taliban rule. A supposedly “Islamic” movement born out of the violence and dislocation that followed the Afghan civil war. That conflict was exacerbated by the United States, the former Soviet Union and their regional allies.
The Taliban are a product of that chaos. Theirs is a different world to that which most ordinary Pakistanis, or people of the world, are familiar with. But with a country gripped in poverty and inept governance, the Taliban’s tenacity has proved the one key ingredient in their continued survival.
There is nevertheless much to learn from the Taliban. Apparently the Lahore attack was “retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the US in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” Seven people were killed and another 24 injured as Taliban fighters and Pakistan soldiers engaged in a fire fight in the North Waziristan town of Miramshah. The Taliban were believed to have attacked the soldiers in response to an earlier United States missile strike on one of the camps in the same region.
If the Taliban were born out of violence, it is likely that violence alone is unlikely to dissuade them. Indeed, if they suffer greater casualties – “they” being the young men recruited from the country’s Pashtun and, increasingly, Punjabi villages – attacks in the most populated and urbanised parts of Pakistan will likely drastically increase.
In contrast to such violence, there is the approach taken by the Supreme Court under the newly reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. One of the reasons given, ironically, for supporting Taliban-like rule in the Swat valley was that there was no rule of law or justice. By offering to investigate the whipping of the girl in Swat, the Supreme Court is taking the first concrete step in offering to “develop” those regions which the Taliban thrives in because they are close to becoming completely ungovernable.
These events, and particularly the flogging of the young woman, have led to an unprecedented groundswell of popular condemnation of extremism in Pakistan. Just as a full spectrum of the population took to the streets to demand the reinstatement of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as the nation’s senior most judge two weeks ago, so too have a wide array of people and groups condemned the extremism.
All, from the secular NGOs to the religious leaders, have chanted the same, positive slogan – such extremism is against the principles of Islam. Yet even here, unfortunately, there is an important potential disclaimer.
To some, especially the secular-minded, like Pakistan’s liberal elite, the Taliban are synonymous with extremism. To others, like the nation’s mainstream religious groups, extremism is not always associated with the Taliban. Rather, the term is used as a euphemism for violence committed by groups supported by foreign actors – the most popular of which are India and Israel – who are stoking mischief in an attempt to destabilise the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country.
The idea that some of Pakistan’s religious seminaries have been tainted with the Taliban’s violent creed is still beyond the pale because large mainstream political groups helped taint them – with keen support from the army and Saudi Arabian money.
That is one of the psychological tools used to avoid scrutiny of the intolerant, chauvinist Islam that has developed in thousands of madrassas across Pakistan.
The Pakistan government has also condemned extremism, but that did not prevent three more members of the Taliban being freed from prison on Saturday under the recent Swat valley peace deal.
Condemning an abstract notion like extremism without an institutional response – like revitalising Pakistan’s crumbling public education system or prosecuting those believed to have committed atrocities – leaves the window open for continued Taliban intransigence.