With a mix of horror and disbelief I watched the footage from Matanai where a school van was ambushed by militants. Even for senses numbed by scores of bombings every year, this came as a shock because the victims were children, and were deliberately targeted. One would think that even the most shameless of villains would not be low enough to own these killings, but it wasn’t long before the warriors of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed full responsibility for the death of their enemies, who by the way were aged between eight to 14 years. Bravo!
The footage of the aftermath showed faces smitten with fear; a little girl, hardly six or seven lay in a state of shock; her blank expression and her blood soaked shirt spoke volumes about the horrors she had gone through. Some of the survivors did speak to the media and the noticeable thing about their interviews was that they were either in Pashtu or in heavily accented Urdu. It is important to highlight the ethnicity of these children because the same is often ignored by many who perceive Taliban violence as a Pakhtun backlash. Take the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) for instance; in one of his sermons on YouTube titled “Imran Khan Explains War of Terror and Pakistani Taliban”, he declares the Taliban a “Pashtun resistance”. But, how exactly does a Pakhtun resistance claim mostly Pakhtun victims, is something that Khan didn’t elaborate on.
To prove this argument, references are often made to episodes of Pashtun resistance from the past. But the difference between Taliban leadership and historical figures such as Faqir of Ipi becomes very obvious if one considers their respective target selection. Mullah Powindah, Pir Roshan and Faqir of Ipi were not known for targeting Pakhtuns, as all of them had a strong nationalistic bias; ie a Pakhtun bias. The Taliban however, do not have any of that as proven by the fact that their victims are predominantly Pakhtun. It should be obvious that when an insurgency fights in the name of an ethnicity then it does not target that ethnicity; the IRA was not known for killing the Irish and neither were the Tamil Tigers known for killing Tamils. For this reason, it is downright disrespectful to term Taliban violence a “Pakhtun backlash”, because the Pakhtuns themselves are its biggest victims.
While one feels disappointed with the former cricketer, one is absolutely horrified when the same logic is echoed by a group of our ‘Foreign Policy Elites’ (FPE). A recent report by the Jinnah Institute (JI) and the US Institute for Peace (USIP), titled “Pakistan, the United States and the end game in Afghanistan” builds its case on the very same assumption. While the FPE rightly point out that a settlement in Afghanistan should not result in “negative spillovers” or cause “resentment” among Pakistani Pakhtuns, their recommendation for ensuring that is quite perplexing, as they want inclusion of the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura in any post-US setups in Afghanistan.
If such an arrangement is considered necessary for appeasing Pakistani Pakhtuns, then the FPE need to move beyond history books and consider recent news reports, electoral results, and opinion surveys. The Pakhtuns of Pakistan have been categoric in rejecting the Taliban. TTP’s targeting of elected leaders in KP as well as that of the tribal elders of Fata, clearly indicates that Pakhtun leadership is predominantly anti-Taliban. This sentiment should be expected, given the chaos and destruction that the TTP has brought about in KP and Fata.
It should be obvious that if the Taliban get strengthened in Afghanistan, then the strengthening of the Pakistani ones is inevitable, as their alliance cannot simply be “wished away”. Whether it’s supporting the Uighars in China, or the refusal to hand over Osama, the Afghan Taliban have proven that in matters involving the global jihadi fraternity, strategic concerns are not that important to them.
Lest one forgets, this September had quite a few reminders of what the strengthening of TTP and its allies could entail. Besides the attack in Matanai that killed four school children and an adult, on the 16th a suicide bombing in Dir claimed 27 lives, on the 19th another eight were killed in Karachi, and on the same day six died in an attack on CD shops in Peshawar, and if that was not enough, then on the 20th they lined up 26 Shias in Mastung and gunned them down; a sum total of 55 Pakistanis killed in seven days for the “crimes” of working for the government, listening to music and being Shia.
The underlying motivation for this violence is ideological; what unites the perpetrators of these brazen attacks is a belief that declares a majority of Pakistanis – ie the Barelvis and the Shias – to be Wajib Ul Qatal (dead men walking), and legitimises the destruction of schools, shrines, Imam Bargahs and mosques. Furthermore, this ideology is not likely to change whether the US leaves Afghanistan tomorrow or doesn’t in the next 10 years. With the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network espousing the same Barelvi and Shia hating ideology, their strengthening in Afghanistan should raise alarm bells for anyone concerned about Pakistan’s national interests. If the intention of the USIP/JI report was to highlight these interests, then it has missed doing that by a long margin for sure.
If the potential “resentment” of Pakistani Pakhtuns weighed heavily on the minds of our FPE, then the safety of the same Pakistanis should have had an even bigger impact, an impact that is certainly not evident in the recommendations of this report. For this reason, the FPE need to reconsider their definition of Pakistan’s national interests. It is recommended however that before doing so, this group puts itself in the shoes of the parents who lost children in Matanai; it is very likely that the word “pragmatism” might have a different meaning then.
The writer is a freelancer who blogs at iopyne.wordpress.com and tweets @iopyne. Email: [email protected]