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Pakistanis not sure they want to fight Taliban — or can

Many in Pakistan say the fight against the Taliban is the Americans’ fight, not theirs. Some say they are opposed to terrorism, not religious extremism, writes Kamal Siddiqi.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2009 23:13 IST
Kamal Siddiqi
Kamal Siddiqi
Hindustan Times

When the Pakistan army pulled back its troops to peace-time positions in the troubled valley of Swat in February this year, following a peace deal between the government of the North West Frontier Province and the pro-Taliban Tehreek-Nifaz-Shariat-Muhammadi, it had said this was being done to allow for a political solution. The army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, told the media that the army’s war with the militants in the valley did not have the support of the public.

Today, many voices in Pakistan like the outspoken Kashmala Tariq of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) argue that Pakistan has neither the resolve nor the capability to take on the Taliban. When the government wanted to crack down, “it did so in two days as in the case of the Lal Masjid”, Tariq points out.

Tariq, and many like her, feel that a bigger game is being played out in which the government wants to create a Taliban scare in order to receive more funding from abroad. But such allegations are brushed aside by others as the usual conspiracy theories that go around in the country.

Defence analyst Ikram Sehgal, a former army officer, raises doubts about the capability of the Pakistan army to take on the Taliban. It is unfair for the regular army, he says, to be engaged against what is an irregular militia. “Counter-terrorism is a different ballgame but we were fighting the war with regular troops,” he comments. “This is what was behind the heavy losses suffered by the army,” he notes.

There is a lot of confusion in Pakistan on how to take on the Taliban, feels Nazish Brohi, who works in the social sector. “While we are all agreed that we should fight terrorism, this is where the clarity ends. We are not sure who the enemy is and what we should be fighting against,” he says.

Brohi and many members of Pakistan’s civil society argue that even in the government and among the people, there is confusion about whether the war is against religious extremists, or terrorists, or both. “What do you do with the Taliban sympathisers who fight only against government forces and then go back into their fields? Are we against them too?” asks Brohi.

Then there are many like Muhammad Ilyas, a poultry store owner and a supporter of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, who pray that what is happening in Swat today “should happen in all of Pakistan tomorrow”.

Fozia Wahab, spokesman for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), brushes aside all speculation about the government’s will to fight the Taliban. The government is focused on taking on the terrorists, she says, but the issue is not as cut-and-dried as some people make it out to be.

Now, however, the government seems eager to take all political parties along with it in its move to neutralise the Taliban and their sympathisers. The opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a former coalition partner of the PPP, says that it is behind the government on its deal with the Tehreek-Nifaz-Shariat-Muhammadi in Swat. And yet, many Pakistanis feel that the strategy is not working out.

According to a senior military official, the army does have the military might to take on the Taliban but is wary of the high civilian casualties that may arise in an all-out war. That may be so, but if the Taliban are not taken on, the
long-term casualties and losses will be much higher, many Pakistanis fear — and rightly so.

First Published: Apr 04, 2009 22:22 IST