Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was published in Daily Times in three parts. The first part was published on September 30, 2013, the second part on October 1, 2013 and the last part was carried by Pakistan Daily Times on October 2, 2013. For convenience of the readers I’ve cross-posted all the three parts together, on my blog, from Daily Times without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
Pakistan is fast plunging into the hands of extremist and radical elements. The Taliban hold sway in the lawless territory of Waziristan and the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The situation has deteriorated so much that we now have a state-within-the-state of Pakistan: the ‘Islamic Emirate of Waziristan’, a terrorist safe haven. In a report titled, “As if Hell Fell on Me: The Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan” released in 2010, the human rights group Amnesty International claimed that nearly four million people were effectively living under the Taliban rule in the north-western tribal belt and were abandoned by the Pakistani government.
On another note, the Taliban are now infiltrating major cities of Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular. During the Supreme Court hearings last year, judges had ordered the authorities to investigate reports that as many as 8,000 Taliban members were in Pakistan’s largest city and economic epicentre. In short, the writing on the wall is very clear for all those who have not turned a blind eye to it. The Pakistani Taliban are turning out to be more and more daring, making unprecedented inroads into the sovereignty of our homeland. On the other hand, the response of our nation to the Taliban’s aggression has been disoriented, indecisive and dishonest at large, thanks to two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, and right-wing religio-political parties. While the aforementioned parties have acted as kind of a moderate mouthpiece for the Taliban, advocating their case in a bid to appease them, the right-wing religio-political parties portrayed the Taliban as righteous Muslims striving to establish ‘Shariah’ rule in the land of the pure. Consequently, the state of Pakistan, reeling from the relentless terrorist attacks, looks all set to bow down to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) onslaught that has killed more than 49,000 Pakistanis in the last 12 years or so. From 2001 to 2008, more than 24,000 people — both civilians and military — were killed in terrorist attacks carried out by the TTP and company. The last five years turned out to be even more ruinous in terms of the loss of human lives. Since 2008, the TTP’s campaign of terror has killed well over 25,000 people and counting.
Burnt rooms inside a prison are seen following a Taliban attack in Dera Ismail Khan July 30, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mass killings aside, the TTP has been incredibly successful in breaking jails at will and getting its operatives free without even a shred of resistance from the security forces. The Dera Ismail Khan (D I Khan) jailbreak is one of the most violent attacks in recent times. Well over 100 Taliban fighters, armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, freed 248 prisoners, including more than 49 hardcore militants belonging to the TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Not only did the militants manage to free their accomplices, but they also killed six policemen and two civilians. The terrorists had so much of inside information that they killed six Shia inmates after segregating them from other prisoners during the three hour-long attack. One of the Shia inmates was beheaded. Many of the high-profile inmates who fled from the jail belong to the LeJ, which signifies a strong bond between the Taliban and Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s disciples.
In a blatant show of apathy, not a single quantum of armed reinforcements was sent to the scene though the attackers remained in the jail for a good three to four hours. Military helicopters remained firmly grounded. A large caravan of the Taliban sailed through dozens of army check posts, set up on the road leading to North Waziristan from D I Khan. Those responsible for the internal and external security of Pakistan did not even move or probably they did not bother to.
In a usual turn of affairs, the TTP claimed the responsibility for the devastating attack on DI Khan Central Jail. Six days later, a senior TTP commander revealed the details of the brazen siege, adding that all the freed TTP men were in safe locations and would resume their “routine responsibilities”. According to him, a total of 125 militants took part in the operation that was launched by three groups (the Punjabi Taliban, Halqa-e-Mehsud and a group from the Mohmand Agency). While the latter two groups are unheard of, the first one sounds quite familiar.
Who are the Punjabi Taliban? The term was first coined in 2011 by the then interior minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, which received heavy criticism from the then Punjab chief minister, Mian Shahbaz Sharif. He ‘warned’ Malik to avoid using the term because he was of the view that the term would tarnish the PML-N’s image. “It minimises our chances of coming into power because the Punjab province is being run by the PML-N,” said Sharif who was clearly more worried about the term than the growing militant threat in his province, especially southern Punjab.
That was not the only show of ‘parochial’ politics from the chief minister. This statement was equally bad as the well-known plea he made to the Taliban in March 2010. Speaking at a seminar held at the Jamia Naeemia mosque in Lahore, the Punjab chief minister had requested the Taliban to spare his province Punjab from terror attacks because his party shared a common cause with the Taliban.
The Punjabi Taliban is an umbrella organisation of different banned militant groups largely based in the southernmost region of Punjab. Major factions of the Punjabi Taliban compris members of outlawed terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), long protected and patronised by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment.
Formed in 1996 by Riaz Basra of the SSP, the LeJ today has deep links with al Qaeda and the Taliban. The group is believed to be the most violent anti-Shia group operating in Pakistan. Contrary to popular belief, in my opinion, LeJ and SSP are not two separate outfits. The two groups are two sides of the same coin although both the SSP and LeJ maintain that they are not affiliated to each other. As they say, actions speak louder than words; the SSP leadership has never criticised the LeJ because the two groups share the same agenda of turning Pakistan into a Deobandi republic. Both the groups draw their inspiration from the same man: Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. Their cadres come from the same religious seminaries. I strongly believe that the gimmick of portraying SSP and LeJ as two separate entities — ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Jhangvis — is embellished by the very same mindset that coined the theory of the Good and Bad Taliban.
SSP, now known as the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, draws support, inspiration and reinforcement from various religio-political parties, largely the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). A large number of religious seminaries, being run by the JUI, provide recruiting grounds for the LeJ, Jundullah, Punjabi Taliban, TTP and even al Qaeda. It may be surprising news to some of my readers that the current head of the TTP, Hakeemullah Mehsud, found his way into militancy through the SSP. Later, he was ‘elevated’ to the Taliban, yet another evidence of the increasing collaboration between Deobandi militant groups in Pakistan. JeM supported the insurgency against India in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking at a jihad conference in October 2000, the JeM chief, Masood Azhar said, “…Now we go hand-in-hand, and Sipah-e-Sahaba stands shoulder to shoulder with Jaish-e-Muhammad in Jihad.”
Over time the Punjabi Taliban developed strong connections with the TTP, the Afghan Taliban, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi and various other militant groups based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. The group increasingly provided the footsloggers to the TTP and al Qaeda for terrorist acts and has played an instrumental role in attacking Shia, Sufi, Ahmadi and other civilian targets across Pakistan.
The TTP dealt an extraordinarily pernicious blow soon after the PML-N government took charge after the May 11 elections. The terrorists stormed into a base camp at the foot of Pakistan’s second-highest peak, Nanga Parbat, highlighting the growing reach of terrorists in even the remotest areas as 10 foreign mountaineers — part of an expedition — were dragged out of their camps, tied, lined up and shot dead. Among the dead, however, there was only one Pakistani, Ali Hussain, a high altitude porter but a Shia Muslim by faith, who was targeted because of his denomination. The then spokesperson for the TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, claimed that the group’s faction named Junood-e-Hafsa carried out the attack to avenge the killing of a Taliban commander, Waliur Rehman, who was killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan. Junood-e-Hafsa is a new group formed by the TTP headed by Punjabi Taliban chief, Asmatullah Muawiya.
Letter to the PML-N Govt by the Punjabi Taliban
After coming into power, the PML-N government decided to abolish a five-year moratorium on capital punishment and execute hardcore terrorists on death row. The decision met with a hostile reception from the Punjabi Taliban as their chief, Muawiya, warned against hanging their men or else the executions would compel them to wage a war against the PML-N government. The statement, signed by Muawiya, urged the PML-N to bear in mind the fate of the Awami National Party (ANP). The ANP was relentlessly targeted during the May 11 election campaign. At the time the Punjabi Taliban issued this statement, the authorities were making final arrangements to execute the mastermind of the GHQ attack, Aqeel alias Dr Usman, and two other LeJ operatives in Faisalabad and Sukkur jails respectively.
The aforementioned statement was followed by another intimidating statement. The TTP threatened that it would immediately target two prominent leaders of the ruling party if Aqeel was executed on August 23, 2013, as scheduled. “Aqeel alias Dr Usman is our ‘Mujahid’ and we would never let the government hang our Mujahid,” said the statement released by a TTP spokesperson. It is pertinent to note here that at the time the five-year moratorium lapsed, the government ignored the concerns of national and international human rights groups saying that it will go ahead with executions to take on festering militancy in the country.
The threats worked and the TTP coerced the PML-N government into extending the moratorium on the death penalty. Muawiya was quick to appreciate the government’s decision to halt all state executions. The Punjabi Taliban reciprocated the PML-N’s favour by welcoming the offer made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his maiden televised address to the nation, to hold peace talks with all the terrorist groups operating in the country. In a statement, Muawiya praised the prime minister for demonstrating “political maturity” by reiterating his offer to hold a dialogue. However, this lovey-dovey liaison of the PML-N government and the Punjabi Taliban didn’t go down well with the TTP. The terrorist organisation dismissed Muawiya for giving the aforementioned statements without prior approval from the TTP’s central leadership. Muawiya, however, refused to accept the TTP’s dismissal, claiming that the TTP had no authority to sack him. He said that the Punjabi Taliban has its own identity as well as its ‘Shura’ (executive council) to take such decisions.
The All Parties Conference (APC) held on September 9 came up with an ‘ostrich-like’ response to tackle the existential threat faced by our country today. The APC resolution — signed by all parties participating — is a pusillanimous document of national shame and unconditional surrender to the terrorists termed as ‘our own people’ in the declaration. The blood of thousands of Pakistanis was sold and it was sold for free. Terms like Taliban, TTP, terrorists were not even mentioned in the resolution, drafted with utmost care, just like in some families, a newlywed bride would not address her husband by his name. The Taliban — who do not recognise the constitution of Pakistan, our way of life, our institutions, our education system, and religious belief systems — were not only forgiven, they were accredited with the status of rightful stakeholders of Pakistan.
Four days later, a triumphant Imran Khan declared the APC successful while boasting about his 12-year-old stance on the issue finally being supported by all participants of the APC. The PTI chief declared the APC resolution a vindication of the PTI’s stance to tackle growing terrorism through unconditional dialogue. Quite interestingly, the TTP chief, Hakeemullah Mehsud, had declared the same a triumph of his group. “We have succeeded politically after we were asked to negotiate by the government,” said Mehsud in a letter he wrote to the media in April this year. Congratulations, Mr Khan. Now when we have washed our hands of our slain countrymen, who were killed in the last 12 years or so, will you please care to tell us how you will convince ‘your own people’ to refrain from killing non-Muslims and ‘lesser’ Muslims, especially Shias, in the name of Allah?
Two days later, the TTP tried to put the brakes on Mr Khan’s bragging as they killed GOC Swat Major General Sanaullah Khan, along with a lieutenant colonel and another soldier, in a roadside bomb attack. The attack on the military convoy was followed by the deadliest attack on the Christian community in Pakistan. More than 80 Christians were butchered as a pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the All Saints Church in Peshawar. A faction of the TTP, Junood-ul-Hifsa, claimed responsibility within hours of the attack. A spokesman for the group, Ahmadullah, justified the attack by arguing that their children and women too were being killed in US drone strikes and in military operations in the tribal areas.
Coffins of the victims of Hazara Town Blast
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, speaking at a press conference in Peshawar, Imran Khan condemned those who “were painting the attack in a political light” but, not so surprisingly, could not condemn the Taliban who carried out the attack. He termed the attack as a conspiracy to sabotage peace talks with the Taliban. Pointing towards the conspiracy, he questioned why such attacks occurred whenever any talk of dialogue progressed. One might ask him if the attack on All Saints Church was a conspiracy to derail the dialogue process, what on earth did the attacks on Alamdaar Road, Hazara Town, Abbas Town, Parachinar market, Nanga Parbat Base Camp derail? But, of course, asking such a question will barely be a popular course of action.
Lo and behold! ‘Our own people’ have refused a ceasefire and, in addition, they have set preconditions for a dialogue with the government of Pakistan. “No one has contacted us for peace talks, not even a tribal jirga has approached us. If they (government) want to end this war, they will have to announce a ceasefire,” says a spokesperson for our own people — the TTP. The tone of the Taliban clearly suggests that they are talking from a position of strength and the government of Pakistan from a position of weakness.
Those who vehemently advocate talks with the Taliban argue that since we could not defeat them in the last eight years, therefore, we must talk to them. The argument sounds like since we failed to defeat the Taliban, therefore, we must kneel down, fold our hands, and maybe seek a congregational apology from the TTP and if we aren’t forgiven, we are dying to forgive them the blood of more than 49,000 Pakistanis without bothering about the heirs of those killed. Interestingly, the same mindset that is hell bent on forgiving the Taliban for their crimes against humanity, in the name of Allah, is not even ready to accept the existence of the TTP.
Peace deals with the TTP have repeatedly failed over the years and even when they succeeded, agreements were violated quite quickly. The state handed over Swat Valley and its surrounding areas to the Taliban in 2009. Under the peace agreement, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the Malakand division in hopes that the Taliban would lay down their arms. But the peace deal only ended up in emboldening them. The Taliban did not keep their end of the agreement and soon entered the adjacent Buner district to impose their brand of Islam. The peace deal that did not last for more than a month collapsed after the Taliban attacked an army convoy in Swat Valley. A day before the attack, which killed one soldier, the Taliban beheaded two government officials, in ‘gross violation’ of the deal.
As the wise old adage says, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Ironically, we are being fooled for the nth time. The only way to restore peace in Pakistan is to nip the evil in the bud. Stop the funding coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for different religious seminaries. A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks revealed that financial support estimated at $ 100 million a year was making its way from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to an extremists’ network in Punjab province, which recruits children as young as eight to wage the ‘holy war’. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the activities in which these brainwashed young militants are used.
When you are in a war, time is of the essence. Whilst the state is wasting its precious time in appeasing and convincing the TTP for a dialogue, the TTP is using it to regroup, reorganise and to hit back harder. We need to tackle the Taliban and their affiliates with an iron fist. It’s better to go down fighting than to be killed like sitting ducks. As Elizabeth Kenny said, “It’s better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.” It’s time to choose one of the two options: Pakistan or the Taliban.
VIEW : Punjabi Taliban, TTP and the APC — I — Ali Salman Alvi
VIEW : Punjabi Taliban, TTP and the APC — II — Ali Salman Alvi
VIEW: Punjabi Taliban, TTP and the APC — III —Ali Salman Alvi