April issue 2015

By | Books | Published 5 years ago

In light of the December 16 incident last year, in which 134 children along with their teachers were butchered ruthlessly by militants, in broad daylight at the Army Public School in Peshawar, this is a very timely book. It seeks to take a critical look at the growing strength and power of the Taliban, whose list of transgressions against the state and its citizens is long and horrific. They have attacked the army, navy and the air force; they have played football with the heads of soldiers; they have bombed mosques, churches, temples and not even spared funerals. They have prevented key political parties from campaigning during the elections of 2013 and they may have assassinated a prime minister — Benazir Bhutto. They have caused more deaths and injuries than all the wars of Pakistan put together.

In the introductory chapter, the editor, Moeed Yusuf, who has also contributed to the first chapter, gives a thorough account of Pakistan’s militancy challenge. He profiles the various groups operating in the name of Islam, with a fairly substantive, though synoptic, description of the threat they pose to the country. While this chapter outlines the problem from Pakistan’s perspective, the very next chapter, by the American scholar Marvin G. Weinbaum, tackles it from the American one. It makes the point that western policymakers should be more sensitive to Pakistan’s national interests. However, it clearly states that Pakistan has been shielding certain militant groups in Afghanistan despite the fact that they pose a threat to American lives. The Pakistani logic behind this is that these groups may serve a useful purpose for them when the Americans finally withdraw from the region. The West is also worried about the Pakistani state’s protection of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group that is believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks, because it fears they could be the next target. This dual policy, Weinbaum argues, contributes to the trust deficit that exists in western countries regarding Pakistan.

Incidentally, such arguments are not forwarded by western intellectuals alone; many Pakistani analysts have also expressed doubts about the wisdom of such hypocritical, and ultimately disastrous, policies. In Chapter 4 by S.M. Hussain and Mehreen Zahra-Malik, this point has been made clearly. The authors write that the military “continues to pick and choose groups to target, leaving anti-India militant outfits largely untouched.” Another point made in this chapter is that the  “carefully cultivated ethos of the Pakistan Army, which emphasises the defence of the state in religious terms,” the centrality of the concept of jihad in the Pakistan Army and the battle-cry of ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’ cloud the identification of the enemy, especially when their former militant allies use the same religious symbols and battle cries.

This is the reason, as the well-known anchorperson and analyst, Ejaz Haider, argues in Chapter 3, that the Pakistan army did not fare too well in the fight against the Taliban from 2002 until 2009. Indeed, a very successful operation in October 2003 could not sustain itself because the Lal Masjid in Islamabad issued a fatwasigned by 500 Muslim clergymen declaring the soldiers who fought the militants as apostates. According to the author, who quotes another journalist, “Parents of soldiers refused to accept the bodies of their sons, and clerics would not lead the prayers of killed soldiers and officers.” However, with time the army learned to change its tactics, and the religious narrative which sustained the militants also got diluted and conflicted as some clerics started opposing attacks on Pakistani civilians and soldiers.

There were other reasons too for Pakistan’s failure to counter militancy. These are explained by Suhail Habib Tajik in Chapter 5. They range from the weakness of the police, which is not trained nor equipped to deal with terrorism, to the existence of areas on the fringes of the country where normal civilian law does not apply. The data concerning terrorists, including warnings of impending attacks, are not shared in time across provinces and even notorious terrorists are acquitted by the courts. The last point is extremely important and a great legal brain of the country, Ahmer Bilal Soofi, has elaborated upon it in Chapter 6.

These “legal challenges,” as Soofi calls them, necessitate a revision of our legal structures and laws. Significantly, he mentions that the people of Pakistan should be told clearly and emphatically that this is our war and not America’s war. Even more importantly, while he suggests many legal remedies, including trying many of the accused together to reduce the burden on the courts, he does not propose the establishment of military courts. This has already happened in January, but it is well worth noting that some of the best legal minds in the country did not even think of such a measure earlier.

Another point, and one that apologists of the Taliban are fond of reiterating, is about the finances of these militant groups. They argue that the amount of money which is required to carry out a sustained battle against the Pakistan army for so long is out of the reach of the Taliban, so they must be funded by some state (read India or the US). Muhammad Amir Rana in Chapter 7 makes it amply clear, however, that the militants do have the financial resources to wage a long war. This money comes from private donations, religious taxes and dues, the selling of animal hides after Eid-ul-Azha, through trading companies and money laundering, schools, hospitals, charities, housing projects, agricultural land, levies on trucks passing through Taliban-dominated areas, poppy cultivation, kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery and several other sources. Rana gives figures for some of these sources from the militant groups themselves and makes a very credible case for his assertion that the militants have the finances to continue their war against the state.

The militants spread their message through all available means of communication, and not just pamphlets and booklets. They not only use the pulpit of the mosque but also cyberspace. Chapter 8 by Zafarullah Khan’s on this  issue, titled ‘Cyberia,’ is highly instructive. It makes the point that if the state can ban YouTube and sex sites, it can also crack down on the websites run by militants. However, the reason that this does not happen is because there is some lurking sympathy for people who use religion to spread hatred. In my opinion, in addition to harbouring sympathy, some people may also be deterred by the violent acts of the militants.

Given the grave threat at hand, how can Pakistan survive?

This question has been answered by Anatol Lieven, the scholar who has written one of the most astute analyses of Pakistan’s political system I have read. His argument is that Pakistan is afloat because of its own internal contradictions. Pakistan remains a colonial state with a very organised and efficient army. This army does not fight the Punjabi Taliban, which are anti-India. Hence the terrorism is confined for the most part to enemies on the periphery while the Punjab, from which the soldiers are drawn, is still not in active militant opposition to the state. However, Lieven ends on two cautionary notes: one, that this arrangement will change once the American forces withdraw from Afghanistan; and two, if there is an attack from Pakistan-based militants on the US, the Americans will attack Pakistan, which could, in turn, lead to the soldiers mutinying and joining the militants. I would add another terrible scenario to this — that of a Mumbai-style attack on India once again. This could provoke a war, as Modi’s India is far more belligerent than India was under Congress rule.

Moeed Yusuf’s summing up is as competent as his introduction. His suggestion that we need to review our priorities and change the manner in which we conduct business is extremely relevant in today’s Pakistan.

The book uses the methodology of social science research and does not indulge in polemics or conspiracy theories that constitute our staple diet in any discussion on Islamic militancy. There are, however, two omissions in the book. Firstly, there is no chapter on drone attacks. The drone attacks that actually helped to eliminate the top militant leadership were secretly permitted by the Pakistani authorities and the public has a right to know the truth. Secondly, the historical background and the theological or ideological rationale of militant and political Islam are subjects that have been completely ignored. There should have been a chapter on the history and the thinking of the Kharijites who fought both the Omayyad and the Abbasid empires for three centuries as described in the Tareekh-e-Tabari. The ideological transformation of the basis of jihad in the work of Ibn-e-Tayyimia and later the use of his theories in the work of Hassan al-Bannah and Syed Qutab (see his Milestones) as well as in the writings of Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri is highly relevant to one’s understanding of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These are not even touched upon. However, apart from these two omissions, the book is very competently researched and written and should be compulsory reading in our universities. Additionally, it would be of great interest and relevance to scholars, journalists and all those who wish to understand why the present militancy in the name of religion is so difficult to end in Pakistan.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.