Today, the Taliban announced they are pulling out of Buner, the district just 70 miles from Islamabad, [see left image]. According to the NY Times, “Some 400 to 500 insurgents consolidated control of” the strategic district, “setting up checkpoints and negotiating a truce similar to the one that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law in the neighboring Swat Valley.” However, on Friday, media outlets cited militant spokesman Muslim Khan, who announced, “Taliban have already withdrawn from some areas and a complete withdrawal will start after some time.” Dawn, in its coverage, reported, “The withdrawal began after the government threatened the militants with action and after outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM) and Malakand Commissioner signed an agreement,” although Muslim Khan denied the Taliban was leaving due to any pressure. BBC News added, “The Taliban have agreed a peace deal bringing Sharia law to some districts in return for ending their insurgency. The peace agreement covers six districts of Malakand division, including the troubled Swat region, in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).”
Although the Taliban are now withdrawing from Buner, the consolidation of power in the district raised many red flags, particularly among U.S. officials. In today’s NY Times, “U.S. Questions Pakistan’s Will to Stop the Taliban,” Carlotta Gall and Eric Schmitt reported that despite the Taliban shift closer to the capital, “Pakistani authorities deployed just several hundred poorly paid and equipped constabulary forces to Buner, who were repelled in a clash with the insurgents, leaving one police officer dead.” The news agency added,
The limited response set off fresh scrutiny of Pakistan’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. The army receives $1 billion in American military aid each year but has repeatedly declined to confront the Taliban-led insurgency…The military remains fixated on training and deploying its soldiers to fight the country’s archenemy, India. It remains ill equipped for counterinsurgency, analysts say, and top officers are deeply reluctant to be pressed into action against insurgents who enjoy family, ethnic and religious ties with many Pakistanis.
The government’s recent negotiations with the Swati Taliban have also garnered criticism from the U.S. and Pakistani officials. Former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S., Maleeha Lodhi called the pact a “disaster,” noting, “First and foremost, it represents a retreat from Jinnah’s Pakistan…It is the very antithesis of [his] visions and ideals, the core of which were a modern, unified Muslim state, not one fragmented along obscurantist and sectarian lines.” She further asserted, “Rattled by more aggressive actions by militants, the political and security establishments caved in to the challenge … The deal signalled weakness and bankruptcy on the part of the ruling elite that [has] chosen appeasement.” Despite the criticism, though, the government continues to defend the militant peace deal, arguing it was their “only viable option.” In his column this week, the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall wrote,
Some analysts suggest the government is biding its time, waiting for the Islamists to over-reach – and that when it is plain to the public that they cannot be trusted or reasoned with, Islamabad will send the army to crush them. But others detect a lack of political will, a deep-set ambiguity about confronting groups that have served Pakistan’s purposes in the past in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and also, perhaps, a failure of nerve.
So, which is it? While I am inclined to believe the government lacks the political will necessary to combat the rising Taliban threat, recent developments have polarized the public against the militancy – whether or not that was the state’s intention or just the product of recent escalating developments. According to MP and The News’ columnist Ayaz Amir, the turning point came after Sufi Muhammad‘s rally this past Sunday, [see related CHUP post]. He noted, “But the Maulana’s rhetoric and Buner, both happening in quick succession, have hit public opinion like a bombshell. All at once Pakistan has woken up to the Taliban danger, the state of denial transformed almost overnight into a state of alarm.” Dawn’s Cyril Almeida echoed, “Suddenly, people have woken up to the fact that the great soldier of Islam is a dangerous kook. ‘He thinks we’re what?’ ‘He wants to do what?’ Yep, he thinks the rest of us are sick and what we really need is a dose of Sufi’s medicine. Y’know, to straighten us out about our romance with infidel democracy and yearning for quaint things like basic rights, a functional economy, education, etc.”
Almeida echoed my sentiments exactly when he added that this “wake up call” needs to amount to more than initial outrage, which has been the norm thus far. He noted,
But the outrage will prove momentary, the consensus fleeting if the people’s representatives don’t rise to the occasion. There are a few promising signs, with the PML-N and the religious parties joining the MQM in expressing their reservations about what was agreed to in Swat…But desperately as we do need a public consensus against militancy that is not what is ultimately going to defeat the militants. To defeat the militants, the state, particularly the security establishment, must be on board.
The military made an effort to indicate its resolve in the face of criticism, when COAS [Chief of Army Staff] Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told an operational meeting today that the Army was committed to preserving the safety and well-being of Pakistan’s people, adding, “The operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants.” According to Dawn, “It was the most direct statement by General Kayani, or any other security or civilian official, about the prevailing situation and the manner in which it needs to be tackled.” While we must wait and see whether these statements translate into formative action, the next 48 hours will be crucial, particularly because sources say the military operation in Swat will soon be underway.
A friend asked me this morning as I was formulating my thoughts whether or not we should be truly scared. And I would say yes. Here’s the thing – the Taliban may have withdrawn from Buner, but the fact remains that they were able to consolidate power there in the first place. These militants aren’t just waving their scary guns from the frontier, they were 70 miles from Islamabad, my hometown. Their influence has pervaded Karachi, one of Pakistan’s main cities. They have perpetrated attacks on the relatively untouched Lahore. They have the ability to not just come at us from the north, but enclose upon us from all directions. The threat is very real and it’s very near. It is dangerous because they present a united front.
The reason why hope is not lost, therefore, is because Pakistan – the state, the military, and the civil society – are finally beginning to be on the same page. A successful strategy against the Taliban cannot work without all three actors – the military needs the public consensus behind it, not only to marginalize support for the militants but to bolster its own moral resolve. The public needs both the government and the military to enact a unified strategy and restore security. And finally, the government needs to restore the people’s faith in the state. While I am not a politician or an army general, I am a citizen. And as a Pakistani, the only way to save ourselves is if we do more than just sit on the sidelines. Take notes from the citizens of Budaber, who have established neighborhood patrols to fend off the Taliban. If you don’t want to be out on the street, voice your protest by attending rallies or circulating petitions telling the government to wake up. But for God’s sake and our country’s sake, do something.