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Don’t talk, fight

March 10, 2013

NAWAZ Sharif was recently heard saying that if the Americans can talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan then why can’t Pakistan talk to the TTP?

Political leaders that adopt this line of reasoning betray a limited understanding of how the world works. The American constitution, their civil rights and the American way of life is not being negotiated in Nato’s backchannel talks with the Afghan Taliban. Not long ago the Taliban was the de facto regime in Afghanistan. Nato may see some merits in co-opting them back into the power structure in Kabul.

Let’s get one fact straight. The Americans are not in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban. They are not there to occupy or stabilise or rebuild that country. Regardless of the motives that misinformed conspiracy theorists in this country may attribute to them, the Americans are in Afghanistan (together with the military contingents of 40 other countries) to ensure that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are rendered incapable of launching spectacular attacks against the US (and other countries).

Since September 2001, there has not been an attack like the one on USS Cole, or like the ones on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, much less like 9/11 itself. It would seem that the US military is delivering on at least one key objective. This is what Congress has authorised it to do and has agreed to pay for it, over the years, with $700 billion of American taxpayers’ money.

As it withdraws from Afghanistan, the US will leave behind an elaborate intelligence apparatus as well as precision strike capability in the region. This is a long way from 1998 when the US Navy fired (and misfired) Tomahawk cruise missiles — from warships at sea — aimed at Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan (and Sudan).

Today it has a bevy of choices — among which armed drones, fixed wing aircraft, Navy SEALs and attack helicopters — with which to ensure that extremist religious forces based in this region do not raise their head again and strike at targets worldwide.

Now the calculus of achieving a complex objective like that may involve negotiating with the Afghan Taliban. What the Taliban may hear from Nato at the negotiating table would be this: ‘Back in October 2001, you were asked to hand over Bin Laden. You ruled Kabul then. We not only got Bin Laden but most of the top Al Qaeda leadership as well. You however, no longer rule Kabul.’

From this posture they may go on to offer the Taliban a back door into Kabul. Set a thief to catch a thief goes the old dictum; and so the Afghan Taliban in return would have to hold out an assurance that foreign, jihadi and extremist forces will not use sanctuaries in the Pakhtun areas of Afghanistan to stage spectacular attacks against the United States.

There may be other quid pro quo offered to the Taliban. Last week Al Jazeera reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had sent a message through Norwegian interlocutors to the Taliban in which he offered them the ministry of justice and the position of chief justice. It is conceivable that the Taliban will ask, and Karzai will agree to let the Taliban’s moral police operate in the Pakhtun areas of Afghanistan with powers to scrutinise people’s lifestyles and appearances and to punish offenders.

To understand what the Taliban want one only has to look at the Kunar province in Afghanistan where they rule. “Democracy and western ideas of women’s rights are against Islam,” the regional Afghan Taliban commander tells Al Jazeera and “there can be no alternative to Sharia, which is God’s law”. Meanwhile the footage shows squads of the vice and virtue police at a checkpoint, one turbaned official holding a cane and half a dozen others, armed with assault rifles, hooded and wearing balaclavas, checking cars to make sure they don’t have music players and that cellphones do not have cameras and video footage.

Kunar is also the hiding hole of Mullah Fazlullah and his Swat Taliban who escaped Operation Rah-i-Raast in Swat in 2009. From Kunar, every now and then they will sneak across into Bajaur Agency and from there into the mouth of the Swat valley where they force the closure of schools. Last October Mullah Fazlullah’s gunmen barged into a school bus. They asked for a student who they identified by name to stand up otherwise all of them would be shot. A 14-year-old girl stood up and took the bullet to her head. Her name is Malala Yousufzai.

The refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Punjabi Taliban has created a security bubble in Punjab, and whilst the province may have been “spared” it continues to sit on a sectarian volcano. You cannot endlessly sweep things under the carpet.

Pakistan is home to the world’s largest jihadi infrastructure (and there are many more Mumtaz Qadris within the Punjab police). This factory of jihad needs to be systematically dismantled. Such things do not happen without force. The longer we delay, the more protracted and bloodier it will be. It is like delaying an operation for fear of surgical pain. Things get more complicated.

In 2007 an extremist assassinated Punjab’s minister for social welfare, Zil-e-Huma in Gujranwala. A little while later there was an assassination attempt on interior minister Aftab Sherpao. The operation against Lal Masjid followed and there were widespread retaliatory attacks across the country. Yet Benazir Bhutto chose to return that year. Elections were held in 2008.

Politicians that are fearful of, or complicit with, the extremist religious forces are Pakistan’s Achilles heel. This is the time to stand up and fight. Running away from this war is no longer an option.

A strategy tip to the PPP and allies: sway the women’s vote in urban Punjab in your direction and away from right-wing parties.

The writer is a strategist and entrepreneur.