Understanding the Taliban
IMAGES of the rubble of the World Trade Centre in New York reminds one of the rubble of thousands of buildings and houses in Kabul. The Afghan Mujahideen — recruited, organized, trained, financed and armed by the US — created this rubble with US-supplied weaponry after the departure of the Soviet army. Now massive bombing by the US is reshaping that rubble.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan men, women and children had died when the rubble was first created. Thousands were maimed on account of US-supplied land mines planted liberally across Afghanistan by the Mujahideen. Most of these maimed men, women and children had taken shelter in the rubble of Kabul. As US missiles and bombs turn this rubble upside down, hundreds of them have died. For them there is perverse mercy. They will no longer crawl on the streets of Kabul on empty stomachs.
The treatment being meted out to Afghanistan shows how little the world understands the unfortunate war-ravaged country or the Taliban. The Taliban may be the bad boys in the eyes of the West and the drawing room liberals in Pakistan, but they have to be credited with imposing absolute peace in the 90 per cent of the country under their control. They have also to be credited with abolishing the cultivation of poppy and eliminating the sources within Afghanistan of heroin production and smuggling to the West. One may not agree with Taliban laws, but they have to be acknowledged for instituting the rule of law. Despite widespread hunger, robberies and holdups are rare.
Truckers can drive from one end of the country to another without anyone accosting them for money or any favours. The Taliban regime is also egalitarian in many respects. Ministers’ offices are modest and they sit on the floor and share their meals with their chauffeurs, the head of Kabul airport commutes to work on a bicycle, and so on. Most of all, women are safe. They can walk alone on the streets, albeit in a burqa, without any fear of being harassed. None of these claims can be made for the territory controlled by non-Taliban forces.
There are significant minuses, however, in the Taliban account. Internally, no serious attempt has been made in the last half a decade of their rule to rebuild the infrastructure. The only buildings that have been repaired are mosques and government offices. The continuing civil war is a reason for diversion of resources.
But no effort, whatsoever, has been made towards national reconciliation. Their abject rigidity in the face of mass starvation and deprivation of their people is unforgivable. Their apparent egalitarianism is contradicted by policies in key areas. They have reversed the land reforms of the ‘communist’ era and the lands distributed to poor peasants have been reverted to the feudal lords and tribal chiefs.
Their treatment of women has been harsh and inhuman. For a war-ravaged country, where one in seven households does not have any adult male or an able-bodied male, the ban on women’s work amounts to condemning these families to starvation. Externally, the Taliban violated every law of civilization by providing safe haven to mafroors (absconders from law) from sundry Muslim countries, including Pakistan. All one had to do to qualify for Taliban hospitality was to sport a beard, don a turban and profess to fight for Islam.
Even by nineteenth century standards, the Taliban are an anachronism. It is, however, necessary to see where they have come from and how the Taliban phenomenon has come about. The US decision to engage the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by mobilizing the Islamic clergy in Afghanistan and Pakistan ordained death and destruction for millions of Afghans. Millions more streamed as refugees into neighbouring countries. Amongst them were hundreds of thousands of orphans.
These orphans were collected in scores of madrassahs in Afghan refugee camps and in Pakistani cities run by the same clergy. These orphans grew up through childhood, adolescence and youth in an environment completely devoid of women. They have never known the love and care of mothers and elder sisters. They have never seen the benign smiles of grandmothers or aunts. They have never played with younger sisters or female cousins.
These products of the madrassahs — the Taliban — are thus a unique breed of men. Their harshness towards women, towards their opponents and, indeed, towards themselves should be seen in this context. They are the byproducts of the human destruction wreaked by the US-USSR clash in Afghanistan. They are certainly not men who will be cowed down by the American display of its awesome firepower.
The Taliban phenomenon was also facilitated by socio-cultural conditions in Afghanistan. Prior to the outbreak of conflict in 1979, Afghanistan was a dual society. Whatever semblance of modernization there existed was limited to the city centres of Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. The modernized elite, who wore western dresses and sent their daughters to universities, was narrowly centred around the royal family and the military officer class. Outside this island of relative modernity, Afghanistan existed in the medieval age. Mountain tribes had no experience of electricity or telephones or of education or health facilities.
In the world that they knew of, girls never went to schools and women never went to hospitals because there never ever had been to any school or clinic in their village or in any of the villages that they knew of. A lot has been made of the women being forced to observe purdah. However, 99.9 per cent of the women were already purdah-observing and Taliban edicts did not affect their lives in this respect at least.
When these mountain tribesmen gained the reins of power in Kabul, they could not but impose a social and political order that they were aware of and familiar with. What really occurred was that the Afghan hinterland arrived in and took over Kabul. Since these tribesmen were madrassah “educated”, it was natural that they would operate under the banner of Islam. In reality, what has actually happened in Afghanistan is not Islamization but tribalization. Many or most of the policy actions of the Taliban have little to do with Islam. The fact that several of Taliban edicts are not rooted in Islamic tenets is borne out by the fact that some of them have been changed to conform to the exigencies of the modern world.
An account circulating among the UN community in Kabul a year ago was about hospital reforms. At the time the Taliban took over Kabul, they drove out all the women from hospitals, including those who had undergone surgery only days earlier. Several must have failed to survive. That consideration did not then register with the Taliban authorities. Several months later, a hospital epidemic killed scores of children in a matter of days. Shocked, the Taliban sought WHO assistance. In the process, they not only allowed women back into the hospitals, but also unofficially allowed male doctors to treat women patients.
The same year, the UN conducted a house-to-house sample survey in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif to assess food needs. The survey was conducted by ten Afghan women in each city under the supervision of male expatriates. When explained about the necessity of training, the Taliban actually allowed the supervisory team to enter the women’s quarter in the UN office to train the women surveyors in administrating the questionnaire. During the survey, six armed Taliban guards accompanied the survey team. One of their tasks was to ensure that the male supervisors and the women surveyors only communicated in the presence of an English-speaking Afghan and that there was no social conversation.
Needless to say, there were several occasions where tensions arose, particularly because some of the English-speaking Afghan women were curious about the world outside. At the end of the survey, the guards warmly embraced the supervisors. One of the Urdu-speaking guards sheepishly apologized to the team leader for their strictness, adding that they were merely following orders. It dawned on the team that the Taliban are human too!
The Taliban leadership may consist largely of 11th century-minded tribals, but there are significant elements within who are painfully conscious of the poverty and suffering of their people. They are cognizant of the need to reform and reconstruct their ravaged country. They do not approve of the extremism and militancy of their colleagues, do not relish the pariah status in world, and are aware of the need to be accepted by the world community.
The destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan province had much more to do with the internal battles between hardliners and moderates than with a display of Islamic zeal. However, sanctions and missile attacks have only served to compromise the moderates and strengthen the hardliners. The latest US attack has sunk the moderates altogether.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s only real ally. Pakistani authorities were correctly opposed to UN sanctions and were trying to explain to the world the need to engage the Taliban instead. Such a course would have strengthened the moderates and brought about the kind of positive change that has occurred in Iran. These arguments are known to have been bandied about in the US State Department and the Pentagon as well. For unexplained geopolitical reasons, however, a conscious decision appears to have been taken several months ago to strengthen the hardliners. Such a course allowed the US to demonize the Taliban and demolish them whenever an opportunity arose. September 11 provided that opportunity.
US expediency in world affairs is a known reality. So is the subservience of the Pakistani ruling establishment to US interests. Yet, however, the complete somersault by Islamabad in a matter of less than 100 hours from being the most loyal supporter of the Taliban to the most loyal agent of the US against the Taliban is shockingly dishonourable. This is the second time in less than a quarter of a century that Pakistan has lent its hands to the US to shed Afghan blood. Pakistanis will not be able to look an Afghan in the eye for a long time to come.
America’s allies in Afghanistan
‘THE Alliance have not murdered 7,000 innocent civilians in the US. They have done their massacres on their home turf.’
“America’s New War,” is what they call it on CNN. And of course, as usual, they’ve got it wrong. Because in our desire to “bring to justice” — let’s remember those words in the coming days — the vicious men who planned the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington last month, we’re hiring some well-known rapists and murderers to work for us.
Yes, it’s an old war, a dreary routine that we’ve seen employed around the world for the past three decades. In Vietnam, the Americans wanted to avoid further casualties; so they re-armed and re-trained the South Vietnamese army to be their foot-soldiers. In southern Lebanon, the Israelis used their Lebanese militia thugs to combat the Palestinians and the Hizbollah.
The Phalange and the so-called “South Lebanon Army” were supposed to be Israel’s foot-soldiers. They failed, but that is in the nature of wars-by-proxy. In Kosovo, we kept our well-armed NATO troops safely out of harm’s way while the KLA acted as our foot-soldiers.
And now, without a blush or a swallow of embarrassment, we’re about to sign up the so-called “Northern Alliance” in Afghanistan. America’s newspapers are saying — without a hint of irony — that they, too, will be our “foot-soldiers” in our war to hunt down/bring to justice/smoke out/eradicate/liquidate Osama bin Lden and the Taliban. US officials — who know full well the whole bloody, rapacious track record of the killers in the “Alliance” — are suggesting in good faith that these are the men who will help us bring democracy to Afghanistan and drive the taliban and the terrorists out of the country. In fact, we’re ready to hire one gang of terrorists — our terrorists — to rid ourselves of another gang of terrorists. What, I wonder, would the dead of New York and Washington think of this?
But first, let’s keep the record straight. The atrocities of September 11 were a crime against humanity. The evil men who planned this mass murder should (repeat: should) be brought to justice. And if that means the end of the Taliban — with their limb-chopping and execution fo women and their repressive, obscurantist Saudi-style “justice” — fair enough.
The Northern Alliance, the confederacy of warlords, patriots, rapists and torturers who control a northern sliver of Afghnaistan, have very definitely not (repeat: not) massacred more than 7,000 innocent civilians in the United States. No, the murderers among them have done their massacres on home turf, in Afgansitna. just like the Taliban.
Even as the World Trade Centre collapsed in blood and dust, the world mourned the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the courageous and patriotic Lion of Panjshir whose leadership of the Northern Alliance remained the one obstacle to overall Taliban power. Perhaps he was murdered in advance of the slaughter in America, to emasculate America’s potential allies in advance of US retaliation. Either way, his proconsulship allowed us to forget the gangs he led.
It permitted us, for example, to ignore Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most powerful Alliance gangsters, whose men looted and raped their way through the suburbs of Kabul in the Nineties. They chose girls for forced marriages, murdered their families, all under the eyes of Masood. Dustm had a habit of changing sides, joining the Taliban for bribes and indlgng in massacres alongside the Wahabi gangsters who formed the government of Afghanistan, then returning to the Alliance weeks later.
Then there’s Rasoul Sayyaf, a Pashtun who originally ran the “Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan”, but whose gunmen tortured Shia families and used their women as sex slaves in a series of human rights abuses between 1992 and 1996. Sure, he’s just one of 15 leaders in the Alliance, but the terrified people of Kabul are chilled to the bone at the thought that these criminals are to be among America’s new foot-soldiers.
Urged on by the Americans, the Alliance boys have been meeting with the elderly and sick ex-King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose claim to have no interest in the monarchy is almost certainly honourbale — but whose ambitious grandson may have other plans for Afghanistan.
A “Loya Jirga”, we are told, will bring together all tribal groups to elect a transitional government after the formation of a “Supreme Council for the National nity of Afghanistan”. And the old king will be freighted in as a symbol of national unity, a reminder of the good old days before democracy collapsed and communism destroyed the country. And we’ll have to forget that King Zahir Shah — though personally likeable, and a saint compared to the Taliban — was no great democrat.
What Aghanistan needs is an international force — not a bunch of ethnic gangs steeped in blood — to re-establish some kind of order. It doesn’t have to be a UN force, but it could have western troops and should be supported by surrounding Muslim nations — though not the Saudis — and ableto restore roads, food supplies and telecommunications.
There are still well-educated academics and civil servants in Afghansitan who could help re-establish the infrastructure of government. In this context, the old king might just be a temporar symbol of unity before a genuinely inter-ethnic government could be created.
But that’s not what we’re planning. More than 7,000 innocents have been murdered in the US, and the two million Afghans who have been killed since 1980 don’t amount to a hill of beans beside that. Whether or not we send in humanitarian aid, we’re pouring more weapons into this starving land, to arm a bunch of gangsters in the hope they’ll destory the Taliban and let us grab bin Laden cost-free.
I have a dark premonition about all this. The Northern Alliance will work for us. They’ll die for us. And, while they’re doing that, we’ll try to split the Taliban and cut a deal with their less murderous cronies, offering them a seat in a future government alongside their Alliance enemies. The other Taliban — the guys who won’t take the Queen’s shilling or Mr Bush’s dollar — will snipe at our men from the mountainside and shoot at our jets and threaten more attacks on the West, with or without bin Laden.
And at some point — always supposing we’ve installed a puppet government to our liking in Kabul — the Alliance will fall apart and turn aganst its ethnic enemies or, if we should still be arond, aganst us. Because the Alliance knows that we’re not giving them money and guns because we love Afghanistan, or because we want to bring peace to the land, or because we are particularly interested in establishing democracy in South-West Asia. The West is demonstrating its largesse because it wants to destroy America’s enemies.
Just remember what happened in 1980 when we backed the brave, ruthless, cruel Mujahideen aganst the Soviet Union. We gave them money and weapons and promised them political support once the Russians left. There was much talk, I recall, of “Loya Jirga”, and even a proposal that the then less elderly king might be trucked back to Afghanistan. And now this is exactly what we are offering once again.
And, dare I ask, how many bin Ladens are serving now among or new and willing foot-soldiers?
America’s “new war”, indeed.—Courtesy: The Independent, London.
Playing with fire: PRIVATE VIEW
ON any given day, you may go through the pages of any Urdu newspaper published in Pakistan and it is unlikely you will come across many voices of moderation. The hysteria that you see in the streets today has been nurtured by what you read in print here. The language is belligerent and the appeal is directed at our most primeval instincts.
A good deal of the intellectual and ideological confusion that grips the nation today is largely the work of these holy warriors who see themselves as crusaders in print. They thunder forth as the defenders of a faith which they claim is under challenge from the infidels, not realizing that the course they advocate leads to the abyss. Their understanding of Islam is superficial and sentimental.
If there are any balanced and liberal voices in the Urdu press, they are few and far between. One such is that of the former left-wing student leader Raja Anwar who writes for an Islamabad daily, a lone advocate of what increasingly looks like a lost cause. Just before the US military action got underway in Afghanistan, he wrote a piece that deserves a wider readership.
The reaction he received was “extreme”, physical threats included. The truth is that if we are to be saved from the zealots who are urging that Pakistan go down the tubes with the Taliban, we need to turn away from these siren voices and take stock of our situation. What follows is a somewhat shortened version in translation of what Anwar wrote.
“In 1991, after invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein challenged America. Our Punjabi intellectuals, lost in the wilderness of the past, immediately conferred the title of Salahuddin Ayyubi on him. Our intellectually paralytic media lost no time in coming with the ‘research’ finding that Saddam was born in the same village as the great Islamic warrior. In the days that followed, our newspaper columns turned into battlefields where new Crusades were fought. The result of that war was the utter destruction of Iraq and the permanent military presence of American troops in Arab lands.
“Whosoever attacked the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11 not only turned thousands of living human beings into ashes but threw a noose around every Islamic country, including Pakistan, that will only get tighter with every attempt to move in the other direction. Only after the dust has settled, will we know what we lost on that fateful morning. One thing however is clear. The worst victims of this event are the nations of Islam. That notwithstanding, some Punjabi intellectuals, with no interest whatsoever in facts, are raring to go like frenzied bulls.
“They are not even aware that our country is already in the greatest jeopardy. They are busy dressing up Islam in an attire that has no relationship to history or Islamic teachings. A friend in London has sent me an ‘Edict’ from someone named Bilal which says that all countries that were once ruled by Muslims continue to belong to them. It is, therefore, our birthright not only to occupy those lands but also to enslave their inhabitants.
“In other words, this gentleman, safely ensconced in London, has transferred the overlordship of all lands once ruled by Arabs, Berbers, Ottomans and Tartars to the gallants of Punjab. I suppose it is also now incumbent upon us to reconquer parts of the Balkans and Russia. It will also be our duty to reclaim all areas in old Cathay right up to the “dust of Kashgar”. As for Spain, victory is at hand.
“As I write, twenty to twenty-five thousand Punjabi eagles of the ‘shaheen’ variety are waiting to gain political asylum in Spain, having already taken care to burn their boats. The day this advance guard gets hold of the right papers, Spain will be ours. However, the reconquest of India may pose certain difficulties as the last time it was taken by a Muslim was when Babar defeated Ibrahim Lodhi, also a Muslim. So who will take it this time? Babar’s descendents or Lodhi’s?
“Who will explain to Bilal that Islam brought a message of peace, justice and equality for mankind that springs forth from the Quran? How does our being Muslim also oblige us to swear allegiance to the history of Berbers, Khiljis, Mongols, Turks, Uzbeks, Ghaznavis and Tajiks? They fought their wars mostly against each other. How have they become Islam’s wars? And how do the areas that kept changing hands among them become our patrimony?
“The history of Muslim countries proves that Islam was damaged less by Jews, Christians and Hindus than by inter-Muslim wars for power and pelf. Is there a count available of the Iranians who lost their lives during Reza Shah’s White Revolution of 1952 and Ayatollah Khomenei’s Islamic Revolution of 1979? From Abdel Karim Kassem to Saddam Hussein, every Iraqi ruler murdered hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. They were all Muslims. More than one million innocent Muslims lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq war while we continued to parade around with Saddam and Khomeni’s pictures, raising slogans.
“In 1966, Suharto took the presidential palace over the fallen bodies of 250,000 Indonesian Muslims, a number far higher than those who died fighting for the country’s freedom. The number of Palestinians killed by King Hussain in September 1970 was higher than the number of those who have been killed by Israelis.
“Muslims killed in Pakistan at the hands of our Muslim police, or in terrorist attacks in Karachi or during sectarian bloodbaths elsewhere is much higher than the number of those killed in 1971 in East Pakistan. Afghanistan has been a virtual battlefield over the last twenty years. Afghan leaders who keep declaring each another outside Islam’s pale are guilty of the destruction of millions of Muslim lives.
“In 1982, Hafiz Al-Asad killed 10,000 Sunni men, women and children. Not satisfied with that, he levelled their city of Hama to the ground. And yet all his life, he kept calling for war against Israel.
“More Muslims have died in Algeria in the last decade than fell in the revolutionary war against France. Muslims massacred on the altar of power in Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir outnumber those who died there fighting for their freedom.
“We are Pakistanis. The day this earth which we find under our feet today is no longer there, no Muslim country will offer us refuge. If you do not believe this, all you have to do is to visit any Arab country and you will find that despite our being Muslims, no Arab country grants us citizenship or equal rights. In no Arab country can we construct a home or even open a barbershop, though we may have resided there for thirty years.
“There are more than fifty Muslim countries in the world. They all have their own armies, their own cultures, their own problems and their own resources. Some are rich; others are poor like us. Our great burden is our debt. Is there a Muslim country that is willing to help us with this load? If the answer is no, then please for God’s sake, do not make this country the last refuge of every fugitive from law. Do not make it an experimental laboratory for Mullahism. Do not turn it into a battling ground of sectarianism.
“Someone should ask these Hamid Guls, Nasim Begs and Qazi Hussain Ahmeds just one question. Where is to be found the ‘Ummah’ that you are so keen to lead?
“Or is it only to be found in Punjab where so deep is religious hatred today that Shia and Sunni cannot live under the same roof and Wahabis and Baralevis cannot pray in the same mosque.
“The Gujjars, Jats, Arains and Rajputs no longer want to live in the same village. Or will we find that Ummah in the desert of Sindh where every fourth or fifth Mohajir, Sindhi, Pathan and Punjabi is out to cut the next man’s throat? Or is that Ummah to be found in the Frontier and Balochistan where loyalties stop at tribal territorial limits?
Who is going to unite the Ummah that despite its belief in one God, one Prophet (peace by upon him) and one Book is divided into 72 sects? “For God’s sake, have mercy on this land and its people. Instead of placing guns in its children’s hands, arm them with science and technology.
Instead of slashing one another’s throat, unburden the nation of its crippling debt. Instead of dreaming dreams of the conquest of Russia, Spain and Kashgar, show us a way which will make this Pakistan of ours strong and prosperous. There are fires burning all around us today. How long will we keep our head buried in the sands of the past so as not to face reality? Those who are playing with fire to attain power, may end up being consumed by it. And they may take the country with them.”
Need for reining in the extremists
IN a pre-recorded video message broadcast on the international media shortly after the US-led alliance began its air attacks on Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, apart from denying his involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, mentioned several countries, including Israel and India, as possible perpetrators.
He concluded by declaring the attack on Afghanistan as an attack on Islam, vowed to rid Saudi Arabia of foreign troops and gave a call for “jihad” in retaliation. During a later press conference, the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad reiterated most of these themes, calling the military attacks on his country a “disgrace and dishonour” of all Muslims, exhorting them to come to the defence of his country.
Both statements were meant to arouse the passions of their supporters, in Pakistan and elsewhere, who hold an unshakeable belief that support for the Taliban and safety and protection of bin Laden and his activists are a religious duty of every Muslim. Bin Laden’s references to Israel and Saudi Arabia are intended to create disorder in the Middle East which is a critical area of political and diplomatic vulnerability for America and the West in the current phase of their offensive against terrorism.
The reference to India although unusual, should not be a surprise; it is designed to increase anti-government sentiments among fundamentalist activists within Pakistan. It is a tactical supplement to the opposition that the Taliban, through their sympathizers, have been mobilizing against the decision taken three weeks ago by the Musharraf government to go along with the US-led action against terrorism. For the Taliban, that decision means that their only prospect of survival lies in the creation of an even bigger regional crisis by stirring up violence and strife in Pakistan.
While the dangers inherent in the situation are clear to most people, it is unfortunate that some of the political parties, for partisan reasons, continue to confuse the public by invoking dubious religious linkages. In particular, those politico-religious parties that share the fundamentalist belief of Al-Qaeda and the taliban have thrown down the gauntlet, hoping to overturn the government’s decision to cooperate with the world coalition against terrorism perhaps even the government itself, through pressure of street demonstrations. Either alternative would pose grave problems for the country.
The truth is that, in the radically changed geo-political situation after September 11, no other options were available other than the one taken by the government, that can save the country a lot of trouble. All the strategies that were cornerstones of official diplomatic and defence policy since the 1980s have become unworkable. The theory “strategic depth” is redundant now that the area marked for defensive depth may become a new front-line. The strategic alliance based on the ethnicity of the Taliban has resulted in a serious threat of destabilization of the country as a result of an angry backlash in Pashtun areas within Pakistan’s own borders. Excessive reliance on a nuclear-armed, India-centric defence strategy has exposed the lack of options when the security threats emanate from other directions. Having been the Taliban’s only regional backer, Pakistan is unable to muster support from neighbours at a time when it is most needed.
Three areas of governance are also contributing to a situation of limited options. The existence of pro-Taliban armed militias and militants’ training camps presents potential anti-terrorism targets within Pakistan, a vulnerability already being exploited by India. In the absence of parliamentary institutions, debate has been taken to the streets where minority-backed but well-organized religious parties are being identified as representative of mass opinion. The poor management of national finances has made the economic weaknesses and dependence on western loans and assistance decisive factors in the inability to steer a more independent course.
The other self-evident truth is that Pakistan would have been severely compromised had it chosen to stand in the way of international action against terrorism. The religious parties and others have taken umbrage, perhaps rightly, at the morality of the US action, but the objective consideration is that this was inevitable and Pakistan was (and is) in no position to prevent or oppose it. Not only that, it has to participate on one side or the other because it’s physical location and close ties with the Taliban precluded possibility of its remaining neutral.
The critics of the government are wrong when they charge it with haste in arriving at its decision to support the US-led alliance. They should realize that it had to be an instant ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the given circumstances. Once the intent to mount an offensive in this region was made known by the US and its western allies, the area’s geopolitical equation was altered decisively. Any ambivalence by Pakistan would have created a void, inviting imminent danger on its frontiers, even attempts to neutralize its strategic assets. Had Pakistan not immediately aligned itself with the world coalition, the consequences of the country in both political and military terms would have been frighteningly unpredictable, even catastrophic.
Having said this, there is also the self-evident fact that extending support to the action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban is by no means a solution to any of Pakistan’s perennial problems. It has merely averted immediate threats; resolute action is needed to tackle several problems that will arise so long as international police action remains focused on this region. Four such areas that are within the corrective control of the government are identified here.
First is the economy. Pakistan must prevail upon the supra-regional interveners to ensure that their military action is concluded as rapidly as possible. The longer this lasts the worse the effects for Pakistan through the cumulative effects of budgetary dislocation, burden of Afghan refugees, cancellation of export orders, higher-priced imports, postponement of privatization plans and the negative economic cycle induced by depressed investment and lower productivity. There are indications that assistance is being extended to overcome budgetary and external trade account shortfalls, but then more loans will only aggravate the already high debt burden, repayment of which has created innumerable problems in the recent past. Without substantial debt relief, Pakistan is certain to be worse off once the US and its allies conclude their task of ‘eradication’ and political restructuring in Afghanistan and leave.
Second, having chosen to go along with one side, now there is no point in trying to be sitting on the fence, still advocating the Taliban’s case. These people have already become a footnote in contemporary history; they have nothing but their own intolerance and extremism to blame for their predicament. In four years they have done what three hundred years of colonialism could not do to damage the international image of Islam. For this reason alone they do not deserve the support of the Islamic fraternity and the sooner Pakistan completely distances itself from them, the better for itself.
Third, future external policy should take into account the fact that there never can be an Afghan government that will be at the beck and call of Pakistan whatever the circumstances. It remains necessary of course to be involved so as to minimize the dominance of the Northern Alliance in any future set-up but any repeat of the “strategic depth” policy will be a mistake. The wiser option will be for Pakistan to work towards equal co-guarantorship along with other interested powers to ensure the neutrality of Afghanistan.
Fourth, and most urgent, is to curb the activities of the extremist religious parties and groups in the Pakistan. Patronized for external policy considerations that are now totally redundant, these parties and groups have used the cloak of religion to develop their politically disruptive abilities and to exert pressure for incorporation of their obscurantist viewpoints into mainstream civic life. They have successfully used their leverage to block progress in Kashmir negotiations. Now they are inciting Pakistani citizens to defy their government, raising the spectre of civil war if the government does not agree to their demands in regard to supporting bin Laden and the Taliban. They do not explain exactly what Pakistan will achieve by following such a course.
One could assume that the leaders of these parties have reached a point of desperation because they stand to lose most of their power and financing when, as seems likely, their operations are curtailed or terminated in the near future. But their aggression is based also on a connection that can create serious future problems for the government. This is their linkage, with and through the Taliban, to several pan-Islamic extremist groups, many banned in their own countries, sharing sectarian prejudices and animosities with a movement that has its roots in the Arabian peninsula.
As part of its global strategy, the movement exercises influence, through injection of finances, over indigenous extremist groups in practically every Muslim country. If there is a common identifiable denominator among such groups, it is their desire to introduce at state level the extreme severity of beliefs and notions practised by bin Laden and the Taliban. This global infiltration has proved invaluable to the Taliban and their extremist backers for whom, now that their base in Afghanistan is under attack, the only potent defence available is the mobilization of public support across the Islamic world.