WASHINGTON DIARY: Changing course
by Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA
Courtesy: Wichaar.com, May 26th, 2009
Foreign pressure may have played some role in getting the government and the military to confront the Taliban, but it was the Taliban’s own actions that triggered the operations. Every day, I run into people who were all committed to Islamisation and indirectly support the Taliban by putting the entire blame on the United States. In a dramatic turn, they now blame the military for taking so long to fight back against the Taliban! For the first time, a group hastily organised a rally demanding strict action against the Taliban in front of the hotel where President Asif Zardari was staying in Washington during his US visit. Two main Urdu weekly newspapers, the Pakistan Post and the Urdu Times, have announced a major convention to be held in New York against Taliban terrorism.
I am trying to figure out what made them Taliban sympathisers in the first place, and then, in a short span of time, what changed them into Taliban-haters. Is it just the fickleness of public opinion or are there other important underlying factors implying serious ideological shifts?
Being a long-term expatriate, I know that most of the time the immigrant community follows and reflects the public trends in Pakistan. Sometimes local conditions demand a different attitude, like the post 9/11 years. Therefore, the sudden change in Pakistani expats’ attitudes points to a change in sentiment in the Pakistani public.
Apparently, public perception turned after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Liberty Market in Lahore, when people started bringing flowers to the spot where the policemen protecting the team were killed. It was highly unusual for a police-hating public to show such affection for the ones who, in their perception, have been the root cause of most societal ills.
A similar wave of sympathy for policemen and outrage against the terrorists was expressed when the Manawan Police Training School came under attack. By then it was clear that the masses had had enough of the jihadis and were in favour for stern action against them.
Until that time, Karachi/Lahore-based media and most politicians were blaming the United States more than the Taliban. As a matter of fact, most opinion makers, some inadvertently and others by design, by pointing to the drone attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, were furthering the best possible apologies for the Taliban, who were killing scores of innocent people in suicide attacks. The pretence was that if the drone attacks were stopped or the US stopped meddling in Pakistani affairs, the Taliban would stop killing innocent people.
However, suicide attacks across Pakistan, the Liberty and Manawan tragedies, and the destruction of tombs and monasteries of Sufis and great historical icons like Rahman Baba changed the stance of politicians, who are sensitive to the mood of the public. A visible change in the Sharif Brothers’ tone can be detected after these events. It is more likely, though, that Sharifs shifted their position on terrorism due to public pressure and not because of the increasing number of visits by US officials to Raiwind.
The Taliban’s breach of the peace agreement, by venturing into Buner, Shangla and Lower Dir, highlighted the Taliban’s real intentions to the rulers and people of Pakistan. The video of a girl being flogged by the Taliban showed the real face of the Taliban and their worldview to millions of Pakistanis. Such videos have been released in the past and ignored, but this time around, despite the apologists’ distractions, it strengthened the negative public perception of the Taliban.
It is true that the international community, led by the United States, unhappy with the Swat peace agreement, was prodding the Pakistani government and military to take action against the Taliban. The Pakistani military has always been under pressure to take such action but it has learnt and perfected techniques to deflect such demands and follow its own strategy.
Therefore, the present military action is most likely being taken because now the interests of ruling elite were recognisably threatened. Foreign pressure may have played some role in getting the government and the military to confront the Taliban, but it was the Taliban’s own actions that triggered the operations.
The military action is far from over and the total defeat of the Taliban is not in sight yet. However, it is more probable that the Pakistani state can defeat the extremists if it continues its drive against them with commitment. However, even if the state overcomes the Taliban and other such terrorist groups, the question is: will it address the long-term issues that have led to the creation of these groups? Will it continue conceding to the religious right and mixing religion with the business of the state? Will it continue with the textbooks that have been filled with myths to instil hatred against people of other religions? Will it continue with the unjust economic system under which poor children are fed and educated (read indoctrinated) by the religious establishment?
The answers to such questions will show if the state is ready to bring about real change in Pakistan, change that Pakistanis home and abroad desire.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org