Getting to Know Your Insurgents


There were plenty of glimpses into the mindset of the Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents last week. On Tuesday a gang of heavily armed men dressed in police uniforms stormed a police training school in Lahore killing at least 12 and injuring close to another 100.

It was an horrific experience for the young, traumatised cadets who survived the ordeal. They painted a gruesome picture of bloodstained walls and body parts. Beitullah Masud, leader of the umbrella network Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (literally, "The Pakistan Taliban Movement"), was quick to claim responsibility for the atrocities. 

That admission was later corroborated by Pakistan intelligence authorities, although Masud’s boast that he was behind a recent shooting spree in New York was quickly refuted by United States authorities.

Nevertheless, the message from the Taliban is fairly clear: they seek to violently capitalise on the everyday insecurities faced by most Pakistanis mired in poverty. Also last week, video footage emerged of a young woman being whipped by members of the Taliban in the Swat valley because she was alleged to have been with a man who was not a relative.

The Taliban gave a revealing set of responses to the footage. At first, Taliban spokesperson for the Swat valley, Muslim Khan, was critical of the press for broadcasting the video. He later claimed that the footage was faked, even though Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in Swat, routinely makes similar threats against women during his now infamous broadcasts over a clandestine radio station, including threatening violence against women seeking an education.

But when I put this to a Taliban commander I met in Swat last year he claimed that "someone else" was behind the violence, which has seen over 200 girls’ schools destroyed, as a way to damage the Taliban’s reputation.

But the Taliban continue to act in a manner that reinforces the widely held stereotype. On Friday, Taliban activists broke into the offices of a federal agency, telling bureaucrats to stop working because men and women were not segregated.

Around the same time, a suicide attack in a wealthy Islamabad neighbourhood not previously considered a target killed another eight policemen. The suicide attack was one of a number that have rocked the nation’s capital since last September’s devastating Marriott Hotel bombing.

These latest events are indeed shocking, but they also represent the logical development of the Taliban project. As an ostensibly "Islamic" insurgency born out of the violence and dislocation that followed the Afghan civil war, the Taliban believe that violence not only leads to success on the battle field, it is a means by which to shape a society as well.

The Taliban come from a different world from that with which most ordinary Pakistanis, or ordinary people anywhere, are familiar. But in a country where most spend their lives merely trying to survive and governments are rarely expected to deliver services or justice, the Taliban’s simple message and tenacity has proved to be key ingredients in their success so far.

Beitullah Masud claimed that the Lahore attack was "retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the US in collaboration with Pakistan on our people", and it wasn’t the only recent violence apparently provoked by the US attacks.

On Saturday seven people were killed and another 24 injured as Taliban fighters and Pakistan soldiers engaged in a firefight in the North Waziristan town of Miramshah. The Taliban are believed to have attacked the soldiers in response to an earlier US missile strike on one of their camps near the town.

Given that the Taliban came from violence, violence alone is unlikely to defeat them. In fact, they may well welcome an escalation in military operations against them as impetus to ramp up their bloody, asymmetrical conflict. Most alarming of all, if the Taliban (or civilians, who are often family members or fellow tribesmen of Taliban fighters) continue to suffer more casualties, we can expect to see more attacks on the most populated, urbanised parts of Pakistan.

In contrast to the military approach, the Pakistan Supreme Court — under newly reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry — has offered an institutional approach. The Supreme Court has offered to investigate the whipping of the girl in Swat that was carried out as part of the "justice system" that the Taliban wishes to impose over all of Pakistan.

By doing this, the Supreme Court is taking the first concrete step in introducing aspects of proper government into the tribal areas where the Taliban currently thrives because of lawlessness.

Across Pakistan, the recent violence — especially the woman’s flogging — has led to unprecedented widespread condemnation of extremism, reflecting a broad-based sentiment similar to that which two weeks ago helped achieve the reinstatement of Chaudhry as the nation’s senior most judge.

All, from the secular NGOs to the religious leaders, have chanted the same, positive slogan: extremism is against the principles of Islam. Yet even here, unfortunately, there is an important potential disclaimer.

To some, especially Pakistan’s secular-minded liberal elite, the Taliban are synonymous with extremism. To others however, such as the nation’s mainstream religious groups, extremism and the Taliban are not necessarily the same thing. These mainstream groups believe much of the worst violence in Pakistan is being committed by proxies for foreign actors such as Israel and India. Pakistan can’t help noticing the close links between these two countries (including their massive arms trade agreements) and many religious Pakistanis suspect them of brewing mischief in an attempt to destabilise the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country.

To these Pakistanis, it is still too difficult to accept the idea that some of the country’s religious seminaries have been tainted with the Taliban’s violent creed. That’s because large mainstream political groups helped taint them — with keen support from the Army and Saudi Arabian money.

That is one of the psychologically uncomfortable realities that postpones proper scrutiny of the intolerant, chauvinist Islam that has developed in thousands of madrassas across Pakistan. The Pakistan Government has condemned extremism, but that did not prevent three more members of the Taliban being freed from prison on Saturday under the recent Swat valley peace deal.

Of course, merely condemning an abstract notion like extremism without an institutional response — like revitalising Pakistan’s poor public education system or prosecuting those believed to have committed atrocities — will allow the Taliban to keep spreading its brand of intolerance further, no matter how many of its members are killed or captured.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.