A divisive narrative

November 21, 2021

A calculated narrative and a deliberate resolution steered much of the violence

A divisive narrative

Once again, the government is negotiating with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) amid fears of militant attacks across the country in the wake of Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Ordinary Pakistanis are as confused about this development as they were about the war with them, which only ended when the Pakistan Army took military action following the December 16, 2014, attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

Remember that confusion? Remember the bomb explosions, the suicide attacks, the IEDs in our cities? Blood and gore all around. But TV anchors, politicians, intellectuals, journalists, defence analysts, all would be telling us that the perpetrators were “not Muslims, not Pakistanis”, not this, that or the other thing. Fingers were pointed at India, even when all names were Pakistanis. Adding further confusion to this sorry state of affairs was the emphasis that these were “our misled brethren” and that, what they said was right but the way they had chosen to express themselves was wrong. In the end, till 2014, the consensus among most political players seemed in favour of negotiating with them, to handle them with kid gloves, all the while lamenting that the Americans should not violate Pakistan’s sovereignty through drone attacks. One theory about suicide bombers was that they were poor Pashtun kids seeking vengeance for their relatives killed by drones.

Gen Zia ul Haq made us the frontline state fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviets could have wreaked havoc upon us, but did not. Instead, the radical Islamists the Americans brought, and whom we fully supported, wreaked the havoc. This second war was Gen Musharraf’s gift to us. On one hand Musharraf made Pakistan a US ally, on the other he facilitated the Taliban giving some of them safehouses in Pakistan to survive the American military action. This policy – of hunting with the hounds while running with the hare – was part of the proxy war with India which, during American intervention in Afghanistan, had increased its presence there. The logic then was that if the Taliban came to power and India’s influence were eliminated, Pakistan’s interests would be served better. The policy failed but the militants became so powerful that the state concluded that it needed to constantly negotiate with them.

Let us take a fresh look at the debates that so confused us. First, let us take the case of drone attacks. The attacks were not a violation of our sovereignty as they were permitted by Pakistani authorities, civil and military. The intelligence about their targets was supplied by Pakistani agents on the ground. Saleeem Safi, the famous anchor person, told me that the drones broke the back of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, though people sharing a room with a militant did die. He then gave me a list of names that included: Atiyah Abd-al-Rahman (August 22, 2011); Ilyas Kashmiri (June 3, 2011); Saif Ullah, an Australian, (July 5, 2011); Aslam Awan also called Abdullah Khorasani (January 10, 2012); Badr Mansoor, Al Qaeda chief for Pakistan after Kashmiri (February 8, 2012). Taliban commanders Baitullah and Hakimullah Mahsud were probably the most important targets.

It is, however, correct to say that the drones represented a violation of human rights since, while only about ten high-ranking and some scores of militant leaders were eliminated, about six hundred civilians died. That is why Daniel L Byman, writing for the Brookings Institute, said that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died”. Brig Bajwa and other senior military officers reached the same conclusion. So, while some locals were for the attacks, many were against those for the correct reason that if death hovers in the air somewhere above you, the stress becomes unbearable. The right thing to do was to evacuate the inhabitants of these areas as the Pakistan Army did later, when they used heavy weapons and infantry against them.

But did drone attacks actually create an army of youths bent upon revenge?

The answer is that while a few youths seeking revenge for their dead might have become suicide bombers, most were actively recruited for this very purpose. They were trained for attacks and did not spontaneously tie suicide jackets and plunge headlong into annihilation. Journalist Zahid Hussain, and eyewitnesses like Brig Abu Bakr Bajwa, author of a book on Waziristan, described their training. Bajwa described a complex where boys were given sermons about jihad and their reward in paradise. He added that “they are given a Valium (Diazepam) injection 1 mg and Xanax (Alprazolam) tablets 0.5 mg, and a weekly Penzocine (Pentazocine) injection 1 ml”. He also said that subjects preferred included those who were seriously ill (cases of renal failure, for instance), mentally challenged, or those seeking revenge for somebody killed in an attack (Inside Waziristan).

Besides being brainwashed and drugged, the Taliban made sure that the boys completed their mission by sending someone to follow them, especially in the case of the mentally challenged. This person would press the trigger of the explosive jackets if the panicked teenager, just realising the imminence of annihilation or guilt about murdering others, wanted to run away at the last moment. Brig Bajwa gives some instances of youths who were caught but generally managed to explode their jackets. Rarely, he says, was one caught alive, and at least in one case when this happened, he was found drugged. The expenditure on creating these living bombs “in July 2009 was Rs 450,000, out of which Rs 150,000 was paid to the family of the bomber and the remaining 300,000 [was spent] on other miscellaneous expenses, including the trainers’ fee” (Ibid, 49).

So, it was not a matter of spontaneous revenge but of a certain narrative, training and deliberate resolution. The most dangerous fallout of this narrative was not the human suffering, the deaths, the blood and gore — it was the divisive potential of the narrative. We must remember that at one time while the army faced a really difficult time as its soldiers were being killed by the Taliban, some people preached that these soldiers were getting killed for nothing. Thus, Syed Munawwar Hassan, head of the Jamaat-i-Islami declared that Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, who had then just been killed was a martyr but not the army soldiers who were pitted against him. We don’t want this to happen again.

A look at our previous attempts at appeasing the militants reveals that they broke peace treaties as soon as they gained enough military power to do so. The most prominent of these treaties are: Shakai (March 2004), between Nek Mohammad and Lt Gen Safdar, the Peshawar corps commander, with the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe; Sararogha (February 2005) with Baitullah Mehsud and the Mehsud tribe; Khyber (June 2008) with Mangal Bagh and his Afridi Lashkar-i-Islam; North Waziristan (September 2006) by Lt Gen AJ Aurakzai with the tribes of that area; South Waziristan (2007) with Maulvi Nazir and the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe; Swat (2009) with Sufi Muhammad, where the powerful leader was Mullah Fazal Hayat, commonly known as Mullah Fazlullah. The one signed at Sararogha near Wana in February 2005 with Baitullah Mehsud handed over South Waziristan to him as well as millions of dollars of US aid to develop the area.

In conclusion, if the negotiations are just an ultimatum from a position of strength giving the Islamist radicals ways and a timeframe for laying down arms in exchange for an amnesty, then that is something many states in Latin America have done with communist insurgents. But if they are something like our recent negotiations with the TLP, which may bring them into political power, then we should think twice about what kind of state we want our children to grow up in. History can teach us a thing or two — but are we ready to learn from it?

The author is an   occasional   contributor

A divisive narrative