One may find stark similarities between the story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and the current situation obtaining in NWFP. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein builds the creature through science and alchemy. The creature is so repulsive and ugly that Frankenstein flees from it in horror and disavows his experiment. Abandoned, frightened, and completely unaware of who or what he is, the monster wanders through the wilderness searching for someone who would understand and shelter him. All his attempt to find a friend are met with horror and disgust at his ‘accursed ugliness’. Heartbroken, he renounces all of humankind and swears revenge on his creator, Frankenstein, for bringing him into the world.A stream of news reports appearing in the press reveals that the situation in the NWFP is extremely alarming. Sixteen Christians were kidnapped by the Taliban from Banaras Town in Peshawar (later released on the intervention of a jirga). Ten girls’ school were set on fire and a soldier was killed and three injured in Swat. Eight drivers who were part of a food convoy were found dead in Kurram Agency last week. The Tehrik-i-Taliban are handing out leaflets warning transporters and drivers of grave consequences if they truck supplies to the Christian army in Afghanistan. Militants in Khar, Bajaur Agency killed two Afghan nationals in public on charges of spying – these are just a few of the recent incidents. Precisely, we are reaping the harvest of what we have sown over the years.
Finding it weak and vulnerable, the Taliban seem bent upon overthrowing the state. They have been carrying out their activities with ease and confidence in Swat, Khyber Agency, North and South Waziristan, Parachinar, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, Kurram Agency, Khyber Agency, Orakzai Agency, Darra Adam Khel, Tank district and even Peshawar. The other day a news report suggested that the fall of Peshawar into the hands of militants was a matter of time and once that happens the rest of districts will fall like ninepins.
When the military establishment headed by General Ziaul Haq decided to become part of the ‘great game’ to defeat the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it could never have imagined that one day it would have to face the demons it helped the US create back in 1980s. Having been compelled to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975 after facing defeat, the US had chosen to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. The US as well as some countries in Middle East funded a network of militant jihadi organisations. A worldwide campaign was launched to induct recruits from the Muslim communities for jihad against Soviet infidels. These would-be jihadis were brought to Pakistan and trained to fight the invading army in Afghanistan. Finally, when the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterwards due to internal political and economic weaknesses, a huge victory was celebrated. Smug to emerge as a sole superpower, the US left the mujahideen in the lurch and spared little thought to rehabilitating war-ravaged Afghanistan. Infighting between various factions raged during most of the 1990s.
Numerous accounts confirm that the ISI, with chests swelled that its intelligence had brought a superpower down to its knees, believed that India was a fair game and could be bled to death in the same manner, hence the sudden upsurge of militancy in the Indian-held Kashmir. There were simultaneous insurgencies in countries of origin of the mujahideen, including Xinjiang province of China, Central Asia, Africa, Philippines and elsewhere. With militant networks intact, Islamabad decided to facilitate the installation of a friendly regime in Kabul acting on the doctrine of ‘strategic depth’. Thus the Taliban government was installed which was recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE. The Taliban were the children of the madrassas. Indoctrinated in extremist Islam, they had little exposure to human values of modern society and believed in the archaic interpretation of religious texts, which favoured returning to the social set-up of the 7th century which saw the advent of Islam. They believed in imposing their narrow interpretations of Islam through the force of the gun.
The tailor-made madrassah students were good for fighting jihad in Afghanistan, but nobody seems to have spared a thought that they were innocent people, who had the right to education and a chance to lead a normal life. Even after they went out of business, these elements were used by one party or the other to promote their cause. But promoting retrograde values to serve vested interest has its own costs. Feeding a monster also runs the risk of its turning against one’s own self, and this is what seems to have happened.
The Soviet withdrawal had a deep ideological impact on the jihadis, making them believe that they were responsible for this feat. Internationally, militants networks consolidated, the leading being al Qaeda, and carried out successful terrorist attacks around the world, the most notable being one in the US on September 11, 2001. Finding itself under attack, the US decided to take out al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan, which had the Taliban government’s protection. It was then that Pakistan had to take a difficult decision of severing close links with the Taliban and throw in its lot with the US. Pakistan was also compelled to launch an operation in the tribal area to take out militants using the area as a base to launch attack across the border.
There may have been many tactical as well as strategic mistakes in a U-turn in this policy, which has landed us into the current situation. Lt. Gen. (retd.) Orakzai, who oversaw the first deployment of troops, was in favour of negotiations to carry out the operation in collaboration with local supporters. However, this strategy was abandoned in favour of a full-fledged military operation, but soon the military found itself surrounded by the hostile populace and no sources of intelligence. It suffered heavy casualties and bombed indiscriminately whenever it did. Anti-American sentiments raged in the area and the local breed of Taliban systematically decimated the pro-maliks, who were crucial to the system of governance in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). While on the one hand, the government was busy making enemies of its erstwhile friends, on the other hand, after the initial crackdown on militant outfits in the country, the government allowed them to resurface and operate with new names. It also embarked upon a campaign to defend the institution of madrassa in the West. Analysts and close watchers of the situation argued that the government followed a dual strategy – saving the Taliban (with whom it had close ties) and taking out al Qaeda (the foreign elements). The government failed to calculated that touching al Qaeda would automatically evoke reaction from their hosts, the Taliban. The Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad should have served as an eye-opener that the erstwhile protégé had become independent of the mentor’s tutelage and was out to take on its creator. The much-delayed and the ill-conceived military operation on Lal Masjid and its fallout in the form of suicide bombings throughout the country have revealed that the mosque administration was closely associated with Baitullah Mehsood in NWFP. They were armed with sophisticated weapons and were confident that the government would not dare touch them. It was due to this confidence that they openly kidnapped ordinary people as well as security personnel in the heart of the capital. The situation is made much more complex by the fact that the militants in NWFP have been accused of using the area as a base to launch cross-border attacks on the coalition forces in Afghanistan, which has irked the US and Afghan government to issue threats of hot pursuit.
Unfortunately, at the time of Soviet-Afghan war and subsequently during Kashmir insurgency, so much investment was made to prepare the people to support and volunteer for jihad within Pakistan that they are still unable to make a distinction between lawful and unlawful. There are deep fissures in government, the media as well as the people’s perception on the issue of militancy. The jihadis have support among religious and right-of-centre political parties, the media, the government institutions, including the army itself. This is evident in their outreach and ratio of success in suicide bombings, which saw a steep rise after the Lal Masjid operation. They have struck at the place and time of their choosing, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. They have taken the entire society hostage. But the Pakistani public in general has still not been able to make up its mind that militancy is unlawful and dangerous. It runs the risk of decimating moderate sections of society by the force of gun, just like the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. There is also the perception that Pakistan is fighting a foreign war. This inherent confusion about the role of militants and now a fear of their demonstrated ability of persecution seems to be weakening the resolve of law enforcement agencies to fight them.
In this situation, the elected government finds itself in a fix. This is exhibited in the lack of coordination between the central and the provincial governments and conflicting statements by various government functionaries. The government is still holding out an olive branch to the militants in the province, who know they are negotiating from a position of strength. One may find solace in the government’s announcement of a three-pronged strategy of using political influence of elected representatives for holding peace talks, military effort to deal with recalcitrant elements and socio-economic uplift of the militancy-prone areas to isolate extremist elements. However, it is difficult to say whether the inherent confusion and divisions among our state institutions, political parties, media and the public will allow any efforts to curb militancy to succeed.
To conclude, it is the responsibility of the state to provide security to the citizens against militant activities. But do the powers-that-be recognise the dangers they have posed to the society and even the state itself by letting the monster of militancy grow out of proportion? One might ask whose interests are the militants serving when they go out and burn girls’ schools and CDs and barbers’ shops? Is the government (read the establishment) sincere in its resolve to fight extremism and militancy it once promoted with zeal?