At the time of writing this, Pakistan’s neighbour to the north, Afghanistan, is going through another spasm of violence in the seemingly unending series of crises that began in 1978. If some thought the long Afghan War had finally wound down with the establishment of the successive faux-democratic governments of Presidents Karzai and Ghani, they are facing sad disillusionment. With so-called ‘peace’ talks in process and the American forces impatient to leave this latest scene of their abject failure, the power vacuum has encouraged the Taliban to accelerate their military offensive.
Fierce fighting is going on in 26 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, a number of which are already close to falling under the Taliban’s control. There is no sign of the warring sides reaching a negotiated political settlement. After all, what would they negotiate? The Taliban have no intention of accepting their country’s new Constitution and contesting peaceful elections! They are adamant in their stance that they will only talk to the Americans, not the “unrepresentative” Ghani administration. So are their like-minded rival groups, such as Da’esh (the Islamic State group), with whom they may eventually squabble over the spoils, not to mention other such monsters, such as TTP and al-Qaeda, who would follow in their ruinous wake. Let us not live in illusions. Whatever their proclaimed differences, all these – and other like-minded entities – have congruent objectives and were conceived in similar sets of test tubes.
Whatever their proclaimed differences, all these – and other like-minded entities – have congruent objectives and were conceived in similar sets of test tubes
But squabble over the spoils they will, and unleash immense violence all around, as they did in the years between 1991 and 2009.
If some had thought that times had moved beyond that particularly appalling era, let us clearly understand that these warring entities, notably the Taliban, are emerging into the spotlight again. Let us take a few minutes to recall a little history.
The Taliban were a movement of Pashtun religious students (talib) exiled as refugees in Pakistan, who had been educated at Madrassas here, especially the Madrassa Darul Uloom of Maulana Samiul Haq at Akora Khattak. Mullah Mohammad Omar, along with fifty others, founded the group in September 1994 at Kandahar, which they had retaken as successful anti-Soviet fighters. In his own battles against the USSR, Omar had lost an arm and an eye. These founders were unhappy that what they regarded as Islamic law had not been installed in Afghanistan after the ousting of communist rule, and now they pledged to rid Afghanistan of warlords and criminals.
They raised a force of around 15,000 students from similar backgrounds, most of whom who, like Omar himself, had been trained in Guerrilla warfare by the CIA.
At this time, the Afghan Civil War that had followed the Soviet retreat in 1989 was raging between the various bands of the Mujahiddeen and was devastating the war-ravaged country still further. The Taliban emerged on the scene in August 1994, announcing to liberate Afghanistan from its corrupt leadership of warlords and establish a “pure Islamic society”.
On the 3rd of November 1994, the Taliban in a surprise attack conquered Kandahar. Before 4th January 1995, they controlled 12 Afghan provinces. The various militias controlling the different areas often surrendered without a fight. Some claim they received massive payments from Omar’s cohorts, who did not seem to be at a loss for resources. The Taliban achieved some popularity for stamping out corruption and lawlessness, and making the roads and areas safe.
Pakistan’s response at first alternated between the sporadic use of force and attempts to negotiate treaties and make “deals.” These merely resulted in further strengthening this completely unprincipled enemy
In September 1996, the Taliban entered Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The kind of crude, bigoted, totalitarian state they were to run for the next five years is too well known to need further description here. We in Pakistan also experienced a similar dispensation later, in Swat.
The relationship between the Taliban and the multinational terror consortium known as al-Qaeda was extremely close from the beginning. Whether it was the émigré revolutionaries who sought cover within the Taliban “broad front,” or the other way around, is unimportant. The fact is that, very soon after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Osama bin Laden and Aiman al-Zwahiri exiled themselves there and obtained political asylum. Other Arab and African extremists, who were their followers, also moved to Afghanistan as a safe haven. To cement ties, these Arab warriors were encouraged to marry Afghan women and vice versa.
Mullah Omar himself married Osama bin Laden’s daughter. Those authorities who would later believe that Mullah Omar could “give up” bin Laden would seem to have been at least naïve. The Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorists were, after all, family.
September 2001 saw the spectacular terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. In less than a month thereafter, the US and George Bush’s so-called Coalition of the Willing had invaded Afghanistan. And the next war there was on. By the end of that year, the Taliban were defeated and driven out of power. A number of their key figures found clandestine refuge in Pakistan.
Thereafter, the Taliban regrouped quite quickly. With one section continuing guerrilla activities in Afghanistan, affiliates of theirs became active in mounting a lethal insurgency that quickly seized control of major portions of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Soon, they has also seized control of Malakand and Swat, were about to overrun Buner, and were threatening Islamabad itself. They also mounted a deadly campaign of terrorist violence right across Pakistan. Even President Musharraf was forced to escape two attempts on his life. Numerous others were not as fortunate, notably former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who embraced martyrdom in December 2007. The Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, the Police Academy in Lahore, the GHQ itself – no place, it seemed, was safe from terror attacks. Especially despicable targets included religious shrines and mosques, marketplaces, hospitals, and schools.
It is alleged with some considerable justification that the insurgents within Pakistan belonged to the TTP, not the “real” Taliban, and were backed by Indian intelligence forces. The likely validity of this contention notwithstanding, the TTP sprang from the same nexus as the Taliban and had congruent objectives.
Pakistan’s response at first alternated between the sporadic use of force and attempts to negotiate treaties and make “deals.” These merely resulted in further strengthening this completely unprincipled enemy and violence would flare again after each agreement collapsed. A number of counter-insurgency campaigns were conducted against these killers. Regrettably, our civilian leaders, with few exceptions, remained mealy-mouthed and cowardly and were unsupportive of the Army’s efforts. Amongst these was our present Prime Minister, who declared that the Taliban were “our brothers” and swore that he would not send the Army into the then Tribal Areas.
Finally, this dire tide of terrorism was reversed, thanks, first, to the Army’s Operations Rah-e-Rast and Black Thunderstorm under General Ashfaq Kayani, which restored the region of Swat to Pakistan’s sovereignty, and then Operation Jazb-e-Azb, under General Raheel Sharif, which firmly and definitively cleansed the country of these virulent insurgents.
But, and this is the point, all that Generals Kayani and, especially, Sharif achieved for Pakistan on the battlefield is at risk from the deadly peril that will – soon, and inevitably – threaten us.
Another possible nightmare is rapidly developing to our North. Are we – morally, intellectually, politically, militarily – prepared for this?