By: Faizullah Jan
As the state machinery took its time before launching the operation in Waziristan, the Taliban outflanked it by launching an offensive of their own, bringing the war to the heartland of the country.
The brazen attack on GHQ, which was quickly followed by three synchronised raids on security establishments in Lahore, is a change in the tactics of the Taliban. After taking on GHQ, the proverbial nerve centre, they have shown a change in the tactics of terror: the militants’ attacks have now metamorphosed into a full-blown urban war.Until recently they would attack military convoys with improvised devices or their frenzied cadres would blow themselves up near a target or in a crowd. Now they have descended from the hills of Waziristan (as the common understanding goes) to extend the theatre of war. It will divide the focus of the armed forces and put many people’s lives at risk.
The day GHQ was attacked two words seemed to stick out in the local and international media: brazen and audacious. But there is more to it than merely an attack by the Taliban who have challenged the writ of the state everywhere and at will. No less than six terrorist attacks in Punjab — one targeting the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, another the Manawan police academy, the GHQ assault in Rawalpindi and three synchronised attacks against security establishments, including Manawan once more, in Lahore — bear the hallmark of militants other than the Taliban of Waziristan.
According to the New York Times, these attacks showed the deepening reach of the militant network, as well as its rising sophistication and inside knowledge of the security forces. These attacks are enough to jolt the country’s establishment out of its belief that nothing is brewing in the backyard of Punjab. The sophisticated attacks across the Indus highlight a stark reality: the phenomenon of the Taliban is not ethnic, but a national one. The most alarming aspect of this saga is that militants belonging to sectarian terror outfits have been in the forefront of these attacks.
The mastermind of the GHQ attack, Aqeel, has been associated with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi — a sectarian terror group active in Punjab since long. He was also allegedly involved in the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. It shows how dangerously these sectarian groups have, over the years, transformed into a force capable of taking on the state.
The southern part of Punjab shares many things with the tribal areas of the NWFP. If the century-old Frontier Crimes Regulation had imposed maliks on the common tribesmen for their control and exploitation, feudalism has sucked the life out of the common Punjabi. Exploitation and alienation is on the same level in Fata and southern Punjab, which gives common cause to the Taliban and the sectarian groups to team up against an identical enemy — the FCR in the tribal areas and feudalism in Punjab.
Things went awry when the state started patronising such organisations, which played on the inherent contradictions in society. The state wanted to privatise Kashmir and the Afghan war, but little did it know that one day the militants could turn their guns on it. The whole of the NWFP in general and Peshawar in particular had been the staging post for the so-called Afghan jihad for no less than 10 years, which is enough time to contaminate the local cultural and religious ethos. Besides, given poor economic indicators, state patronage of militancy and its long porous border with Afghanistan, the NWFP was bound to be the breeding ground for obscurantist forces like the Taliban.
When inculcating ‘jihad’ became the state policy during Gen Ziaul Haq’s dark rule and ‘jihad fi sabeelillah’ became the motto of the armed forces, the first seed of Talibanisation was sown. Genuine political leadership was banished from the country while political activity was stifled. The vacuum was then filled by sectarian and linguistic groups which left the social fabric in tatters. People started seeking identity in narrow ‘ideologies’ in the absence of national parties that could give representation to everyone.
Public display of ostentatious religiosity became the norm with small militant outfits becoming an extension of the state’s foreign policy, while mainstream leaders — including nationalists — were branded as traitors, corrupt and inept. Religious vigilantes started stalking every segment of society, especially campuses. Conformity replaced diversity of opinion; anyone falling on the wrong side of the establishment was either chased out or condemned to silence.
After years of mayhem in Afghanistan the Taliban emerged victorious, in the process attracting jihadis of every hue to the country. For the first time sectarian militants found a safe haven in Afghanistan after spilling a lot of blood in Pakistan. When the Taliban took over Kabul, it bolstered the many obscurantist factions in Pakistan. However, when the Taliban were toppled by the US after 9/11 and found sanctuary in the tribal badlands of Pakistan, a local version of the extremist militia emerged to challenge the writ of the government in the name of the Sharia.
The sectarian groups of Punjab found an ally in Fata.
The rot does not lie only in the tribal areas. While they provide sanctuary to every group that challenges the writ of the state, they have their own grievances. They may fly in the same flock but they are not birds of a feather. Once done with Waziristan the state’s focus should turn to Punjab, where sleeper cells are not sleeping anymore. This should be done before southern Punjab becomes another Swat.
Sectarian crimes accentuated by economic deprivation and socio-cultural contradictions have clothed themselves in petty identities. In the short term they need to be removed physically; in the long term the inherent contradictions have to be addressed, for which drastic steps have to be taken.