Pakistan must cure itself of the Taliban

Many believe the Talibanisation of Pakistan is well under way and impossible to reverse

The Taliban have given an ultimatum to Pakistan: leave Peshawar within five days or face the consequences. That a band of terrorists can tell a democratically elected government to quit its own territory says a great deal about the power of the Taliban. Far from being beaten and on the run, as we are constantly being told, the Taliban are stronger than ever.

The ultimatum was issued this past week by Baitullah Mehsud, a prominent leader of the Taliban. Mehsud's men are already in Peshawar, the largest city of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and birthplace of al-Qaeda. Peshawar is also the administrative centre for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) of Pakistan. The Taliban have been in total control of Fata for almost a decade. Peshawar will be the jewel in their crown. And if Peshawar goes, the rest of Pakistan would not be far away.

The NWFP government rejected the "five-day ultimatum" and is now bracing itself for the consequences. The city, my friends tell me, looks like a garrison town. Armoured vehicles belonging to the Pakistan Frontier Corps occupy key positions. Paramilitary forces and anti-terror units patrol the streets. Nevertheless, Taliban warlords freely roam the city in pick-up trucks. Abductions and hit-and-run raids have become routine facts of life.

I fear for Pakistan. Commentators in Islamabad are talking openly about losing Peshawar. Many believe the Talibanisation of Pakistan is well under way and impossible to reverse.

The problem is that Islamabad has no coherent policy towards the Taliban. It has tried to appease them, to buy their loyalty, has bombed their villages and schools and, when required, used them as its proxy. Even peace treaties, such as the one made in September 2006, have been half-hearted. During the election campaign, both the People's Party and the Muslim League emphasised the Taliban problem required a political rather than a military solution. After the elections, politics was abandoned in favour of military operations. The newly elected government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani seems too preoccupied with internal political feuding to realise that it has a full-blown rebellion on its hands.

Pakistan's predicament is that of the war on terror. The only secure solution must deal with the totality of the social conditions underpinning the problem. There is no military solution that does not exacerbate social problems, thus fuelling the instability in which the Taliban can thrive. The war on terror has merely extended the agony it was meant to obliterate.

The Taliban may look invincible, but they are nothing more than a marauding band of zealous puritans. A typical "Taliban commander" is a warlord with fewer than a hundred armed men. He pays them with money earned from drugs or extortion. He takes over an area, ruthlessly imposes taxes, administers summary and brutal justice, and declares himself the ruler. He murders his opponents and kidnaps others for ransom. Any Pakistani soldiers captured are slaughtered in the most barbaric way.

There are roughly 500 Taliban commanders, every one of whom is known to the Pakistani authorities. The reason that they have not been captured is simple: Islamabad believes it can use them for its own purposes. This illusion has now become dangerously obsolete.

It is not sufficient, however, merely to defeat the Taliban. Candidates to replace them will not be hard to find in territory that has never been equitably incorporated into the nation state. And as a nation, Pakistan, having diverted so much aid and development to the military Establishment, has little to offer the Fata territories. This is the underlying conundrum that makes not only crushing the Taliban, but also sustaining Pakistan so difficult.

The Taliban are a Pakistani problem, created and nourished by Pakistan itself. To defeat the Taliban and defeat them truly, Pakistan must find a way to cure itself.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class