Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:39 pm (KSA) 09:39 am (GMT)

Whose side is Pakistan on in fighting the Taliban?

Irfan Husain

Immediately after 9/11, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was forced into a famous U-turn over his support for the Taliban, many in Pakistan heaved a sigh of relief. To liberal, secular Pakistanis who had watched the creeping Talibanization of the tribal areas with dismay, the military ruler's about-face raised the hope that his government would now halt the growth of fundamentalism. Alas, this proved to be a false dawn.

Musharraf, despite the lip service he paid to Washington's "war on terror," drew a fine line between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The former group, with its foreign leadership and global agenda, was hunted with reasonable effectiveness. Many of its operatives were killed or captured and bundled off to Guantanamo. But official policy toward the Taliban has remained deliberately ambiguous for the last eight years. Just as the Taliban were nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at the inception of the group in 1996, they have been secretly armed, shielded and guided by elements in Pakistan's elite intelligence agency ever since.

When Western allies first entered Afghanistan in December 2001, the Taliban were broken and scattered. Routed by unrelenting aerial bombardment and the fighters of the Northern Alliance, they sought shelter in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Here, they were beyond the reach of Western forces and the Pakistani Army. Traditionally, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) enjoy a great degree of autonomy and are outside the jurisdiction of the law. Instead, they are governed by tribal law administered by elders and village councils known as jirgas.

Taking advantage of this power vacuum, the Taliban found sanctuary and established training camps. Financing came largely from the rapidly growing opium and heroin production in the bordering Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kunar. With a weak government in Kabul, drug production has soared, and with it the coffers of the Taliban have swelled. Young fighters with no prospects of employment in these dirt-poor areas are recruited for as little as $5 a day, with a bonus if they kill a coalition soldier.

Where there were a number of extremist groups on the Pakistani side of the border, today they have consolidated their efforts under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and are led by Baituallah Mehsud, the man widely believed to have masterminded the murder of Benazir Bhutto last December. In 2007, the TTP and its allies within Pakistan launched some 50 suicide attacks in which nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were killed. The recent attack on the prime minister's car along a heavily guarded route near Islamabad indicates how freely they have begun operating.

Musharraf himself, despite his tight security, has been targeted at least three times. What is even more worrying is the number of Taliban sympathizers within the armed forces and intelligence services. According to reliable reports, many retired army and ISI officers are helping extremist groups.

Ethnicity is a factor often overlooked by Westerners when assessing the conflict. Virtually all the Taliban are Pashtuns who make up the population of much of the border areas. In fact, they constitute Afghanistan's largest single ethnic group, and in Pakistan they populate virtually all of FATA as well as the North-Western Frontier Province. Since they are strongly represented in Pakistan's armed forces, police and the bureaucracy, it is difficult to portray them as the enemy. Traditionally, tribesmen come and go over the ill-defined border without let or hindrance, and attempts to limit this free access are fiercely resisted.

Military action in the tribal areas triggers protests orchestrated by conservative groups across Pakistan. The recent raid by U.S. Special Forces into Pakistan resulted in the deaths of a number of women and children and has been widely criticized, with the government coming under pressure to cut off military links with Washington. This is bound to escalate give the news last week that President George W. Bush had authorized U.S. Special Forces units to conduct raids inside Pakistani territory.

Another factor that has thwarted a more effective response to the Taliban threat is Pakistan's preoccupation with India. Generations of army officers have been taught that Pakistan's giant neighbor is the real enemy, and this doctrine is reflected in the disposition and concentration of the country's half-million-strong army. Troops have been trained to fight a conventional war on the plains of Punjab and Sindh. After 9/11, around 80,000 troops were deployed along the Afghan border, but even this number was insufficient to seal it. Currently, a military alliance between Afghanistan and India is Pakistani military planners' worst nightmare. To thwart such a possibility, the Pakistani Army wants to retain the Taliban as proxies and is therefore reluctant to crush them.

Finally, Pakistan has not yet worked out a political consensus about who the real enemy is. Until the day he left office in early August, Musharraf was regularly castigated in the media as Bush's poodle doing America's dirty work by killing his own people. Pakistani TV networks are forever churning out talk shows in which so-called experts criticize the government for fighting fellow Muslims. They conveniently overlook the fact that these same Muslims are responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Pakistanis and Afghans.

In post-Musharraf Pakistan, the newly-elected government is struggling to find its feet. The coalition of the two largest parties has already split up. Nawaz Sharif, leader of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, has made clear his intention to talk to the Taliban rather than fight them. But Asif Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto and now president of Pakistan, has declared his intention to take the fight to the terrorists who threaten to seize control. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Zardari called this the "battle for Pakistan's soul." Clearly, this is a battle Pakistan cannot afford to lose.

* Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on Sept. 16, 2008. Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for DAWN, Pakistan's widest-circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons- international.org, an online newsletter.

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