Monday June 17, 2024

Dealing with the Taliban

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
September 11, 2023

The 1990s saw the emergence of the Taliban and in the 2000s the TTP appeared to be distinct from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In this story we have had to shift our focus from our eastern borders to the western and vice versa; then you see the emergence of some patterns. You put on boots purportedly made to protect your feet but in actuality they may be erasing your footprints. All is fair in love and war, or is it? Then the chief threat starts coming from your own creations, and you end up losing hundreds of thousands of your own people. In over seven decades, nearly all voices of sanity have disappeared – or rather have been made to disappear.

By way of habitat loss, any potential species in society that could stand up to extremism whether the TTP’s or TLP’s has either migrated or keeps silent. The insanity of extremism is not new, neither is it spontaneous; it is home-grown and self-nurtured. The Taliban and many other outfits operating now with impunity have been able to adapt and evolve in the past couple of decades. They have been receiving shots of home-made energizers, which promise good performance in time of need. But now the time of need is not controllable and the outfits themselves decide when and where to strike.

From the mujahideen to the Taliban these outfits can claim many achievements, including the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the US. The creators of these outfits may also feel elated at the strategy their successive leaders have been following. But at what cost? Look at the plight of the Afghans – and of course Pakistanis themselves. The sky looks overcast for all of them from Kabul and Kalash to Karachi. Just peer down the main thoroughfare leading to the international arena of economic and human development, and you don’t see us anywhere.

What we see is streets in Afghanistan and Pakistan where stooped men and women beg for a bowl of rice. People in their 70s and 80s are left without care but fed with songs of nationalism and patriotism. What our children get in colleges and schools is not good quality education but an overdose of tales about past victories, which perhaps we never scored. Afghanistan and Pakistan are now tottering across a bridge leading to despotism and destitution. Afghanistan has already reached there and we are on our way; the Taliban and their creators have a lot to do with it.

The dynamic society that we could have had once is now strangled and hollowed out. Afghanistan’s path after the Taliban victory two years ago, foreshadows what’s coming in Pakistan. The Pyrrhic victory that former prime minister Imran Khan and his facilitators eulogized and welcomed in no uncertain terms has changed the fabric of society in ways both obvious and subtle. The hardscrabble neighbourhood has sprung up in the past two years during the Taliban boom, with aging infrastructure and declining economy. The system is strained and the increasing insularity of the Taliban is rubbing off on the youth of Pakistan.

It is a daunting list of failures that has led Pakistan to its sorry state now. No amount of sugar-coating or whitewashing can hide the stark contrast between what is on the ground and what the state wants us to believe. Had there been an incremental pace of reform in defence and foreign policies, Pakistan could also have witnessed corresponding economic and fiscal improvements. The state has scrunched all possibilities of activities and communication in society, other than the ones it approves. Those who have moved out of the country are calling for their kin, and the caretaker prime minister says “so what?” with a sombre demeanour.

The youth are indignant and panicked; they feel abandoned and have no education and skills that can underpin their future. But the state is more interested in the housing societies and authorities that dot the outskirts of many of the larger cities in Pakistan; while a vast majority of Pakistani people cannot even afford mud constructions of their own, let alone a concrete structure. Just look at the millions that the floods affected not long ago, and ask yourself what gateway the state is providing them. Some of the abandonment of traditional state responsibilities may simply be a function of changing state priorities.

You prioritize backward groups over active citizenry and you get a conservative society devoid of initiative. Our communities have become more communal than inclusive; they suffocate individuality the way the Taliban have been doing in Afghanistan. The Talibanization of society presents a particular challenge that requires a drastic change in state priorities in policies from education and defence to foreign affairs. Just by reviving the memories of past sacrifices and victories – both real and imaginary – we are not heading anywhere. The state has already lost its grip on public imagination and now it is a formidable task to restore it.

Cross-border infiltration by militants is increasing by the day and tensions on the borders are a disturbing reality. Just by fighting on the security front, the situation will not change. The state of Pakistan believed that bilateral ties would improve after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Independent observers including this writer had no such hope and kept writing about a possible upsurge in militant activities if the Taliban captured Kabul. Now we see that AfPak relations have become more dysfunctional than they were during the past two decades under the Hamid-Karzai and Ashraf-Ghani governments.

This dysfunctional phase is likely to continue even if the ties improve temporarily. The main reason is that the Taliban are better-equipped and emboldened now than ever before, and the economic condition in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has pushed the bulging youth of this region into an abyss. State policies in the past 40 years have put this region into a perpetual state of war, which has benefitted a limited number of groups and individuals in society. The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan needed a tension-free atmosphere after over four decades of intermittent fighting. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was the last thing they needed, but those at the helm believed otherwise.

The ruling structure in Pakistan has consistently miscalculated its ambitions and the balance is even now out of place. Those who cautioned against nurturing the mujahideen and the Taliban did not get a sympathetic ear from the state as it wanted a favourable dispensation in Afghanistan. Now those expectations have fallen flat and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has worsened the situation which some still refuse to acknowledge.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: