No sex, some lies and a video: Pakistan's Taliban impasse

It was not an act of violence against women but a macabre video that led to the abortion of this round of peace talks with the Taliban in Pakistan

Afiya Shehrbano Zia
3 March 2014

The cautious decision to enter into the ninth round of peace talks with the religious militants of the Tehreeq e Taliban (TTP) over as many years, was taken after Islamabad’s newly elected government had been in power for nearly ten dithering months. True to their historical pattern, the talks wavered for the first ten days and broke down after another ten. There was, however, a novel formula to the talks this time. The government nominated a peace talks committee that didn’t include a single member of the government, and the Taliban’s recommendations didn’t include any member of the Tehreeq e Taliban Pakistan.

The irony of peace talks through proxies was lost on most. The mujahideen-turned-Taliban, are often memorialized as proxy agents of the cold war fought by the US against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many Pakistanis are resentful over subsequent ‘betrayal’ by both, the US and the Taliban, since it was Pakistan’s intelligence agencies which had organized the training of the madrassa-indoctrinated Talibs to become jihadists who fought America’s proxy war against the spectre of communism in the 1980s. Now, both punish Pakistan according to their respective perspectives of not doing enough, or doing too much as allies of the 'War on Terror'.

In any case, as soon as both the ‘proxy’ peace committees were announced at the start of February, their representation was questioned by several analysts and newspaper columnists. The ‘Taliban committee’ is simply a formal conduit for conveying the conditions and messages of the banned Taliban’s, Shura (Council). However, all the nominated men, of both committees, comprise members who are considered to be sympathetic to the Taliban. One newspaper columnist likened the internecine nature of the committee engagements to that of a football game of ‘Belfast vs Belfast’. This is also a comment on how the religious narrative in Pakistan is closing in and shifting wholesale towards that of radical Islamist politics.

There were further ironies. Cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, is leader of the political party, the Pakistan Tehreeq e Insaaf (PTI), which won substantial seats in the elections in 2013 for the first time. This enabled Khan to form a government in the frontline province of the Pushtoon dominant, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. This province borders with Afghanistan, and also the tribal agencies of Pakistan where the Taliban insurgency is in full swing.

Khan has been relentless in his demand for peace negotiations rather than any “America dictated” military action against the Taliban stronghold of the tribal areas. This has been despite the Taliban’s well-orchestrated and murderous repeat attacks against the Pakistani state, its military installations, bazaars and metropolis centres. The death toll estimated from these over the last decade are estimated anywhere between 25,000 to 60,000 Pakistanis, mostly military men. However, even Khan was taken aback when he was nominated by the Taliban as one of their recommended representatives.

Many erstwhile supporters, as well as consistent detractors, have despaired over Imran Khan’s narrow and naïve insistence that the Taliban are simply extracting tribal-style revenge for US drone strikes in the region, and are otherwise honourable and historic anti-imperialist warriors. His sympathetic views about the Taliban as innocent victims of US imperialism and the 'War on Terror' has won him the title of Taliban Khan by some and as the Devil’s Advocate by others. His proposal for peace, soon after assuming power in 2013, included the formal recognition and opening of an office for the multi-franchised TTP, ostensibly as an attempt to weed out the ‘Good’ from the ‘Bad’ Taliban. This was soon after a deadly bombing of a church on Sunday mass in Peshawar city which killed some 85 Christian minority worshippers.  Khan’s theory has been rubbished by some analysts who argue that this false binary is based on a bias against the so-called 'Bad' Taliban, considered so because they attack the heartland of Pakistan, while the ‘Good’ limit their atrocities against the people of the neglected and poverty stricken tribal belt of the country.

Despite defensive protest, and even a defamation case filed by Khan’s party against such accusations, it was nonetheless an embarrassing moment for the PTI when the anti-state Taliban itself claimed Khan as an appropriate spokesperson for them in the peace talks with the spurious Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Khan declined the offer, understanding the political ramifications of being seen as team Taliban and given the extreme atrocities committed by them against the state and its people – the majority of which have been the Pukhtuns themselves who voted in Khan’s party.

Sharia vs Sharia – are we Muslim enough? 

The stuttering commencement of the talks, marked by continuing acts of violence by the Taliban, met an interesting first hurdle in the early days. TTP set a pre-condition stating that they would only agree to talks if these were framed within their broader vision of ‘Sharia’ -  in other words, the talks should be Sharia compliant.

There was immediate confusion. What kind of a condition is that to set for a country that has prided itself for being the only ideological based Islamic nation-state that was divinely created explicitly for the cause of Muslims? Faisal Devji, Salman Rushdie and others may have culled out books from the fairly obvious observation that Pakistan is an (insufficient) political imaginary rather than one rooted in ethnic or soil connections, but for the majority of Pakistanis this is simply common sense.

While western writers may not necessarily offer this as a complimentary observation, the concept of an imagined Muslim Zion state is clear in the words of the poet laureate philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal.  Iqbal’s ideology is the bedrock of Pakistan studies in schools and the base for many conservative political parties’ manifestoes and ideological bearing.

The Constitution of Pakistan was amended multiple times by the military dictator, Gen Zia ul Haq (1977-88) as part of his Islamisation campaign. In 1985, a free-floating Objectives Resolution (1949) was inducted to serve as the theocratising corrective to what was considered to be a secular Constitution. This resolution recognizes that ‘Whereas sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the state of Pakistan, through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust”.  To seal the trust, we also created the ‘Islamic Bomb’.

The Taliban are clearly not impressed by these principled turns that have directed significant structural change in Pakistan’s judicial, legal and social systems, and influenced attitudinal shifts in public discourse over the last 30 years.

More interestingly, rather than a dismissal of the Taliban’s crude and rudderless demand, a national debate broke out in the media on whether Pakistan was adequately Sharia compliant or not. It seemed as if, in fact, the Taliban had a made an erudite and valid observation about Pakistan’s inadequate Islamic pursuits and status as a Sharia observing state or society.

The TTP is perhaps the most radical and insurgent face of Islamist activism, but more important has been the trickle down of what is called extremist Islam, to normative religious conservatism. Secondly, it is not just that terrorist organisations have a nexus and symbiotic relationship with mainstream Islamist groups (banned or not), but also that these often align themselves along ethnic lines which also feeds the conflict in a multi-complex manner.

Just one example of the increasing normativity of outliers of the religious discourse can be seen in the membership of the ‘Taliban peace talks committee’. One of its Taliban nominated members was chief cleric of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad,  which was the target of a state siege in 2007 due to the suspicion that it was the hub of terrorist planning. Abdul Aziz famously escaped the state operation by fleeing in the disguise of a burqa, earning him the title of Mullah Burqa. His agreement to the TTP’s precondition for Sharia came with the consensus that in Islam, women are ‘objects to be protected’, and that they cannot serve in Parliament alongside men. Prone to performativity, Aziz also made a dramatic ‘revelation’ that the TTP had an army of some 500 women suicide bombers.

Several mainstream Islamists and scholars have expressed dismay at what is being seen as a mainstreaming of the Taliban’s religious narrative. This threatens to displace all their efforts of seaming together a moderate and peaceful, scholarly and pragmatic Sharia that is compatible with modernity and globalization.  However, the ones who are most wary of the implications of this shift, as a result of justifications and rationalizing of the Taliban narrative, are women and the religious minorities of the country.

The counter-narrative – at what cost?

Several diasporic Pakistani scholars have invested in countering the ‘bad press’ that religious politics and militancy has been receiving in the West. Causes for the Taliban atrocities have been ascribed to US occupation of Muslim countries, Western governments’ imperialist designs, native human rights and liberal collusion with western rights-based networks, a racist global media, drone attacks and meddling by India and Afghanistan. Such commentary is completely unwilling to examine or consider the internal sociological and structural changes that have in fact strengthened the religious narrative of the Taliban and its influences which find resonance with mainstream Islamists.

Instead, there is a wide range of excuses and ascribed motives attributed to the misguided Taliban. These span from the Taliban’s ‘secular’ desire to effect quick and speedy justice in the face of a neglectful and failed state judicial system when they took over Swat in 2006, to equating Taliban atrocities as no different to routine violence against women in rural Pakistan. The Islamic punishments subsequently executed by the TTP through public hangings, hand choppings, stonings and a complete embargo on women’s mobility, payment of religious tax by minorities and the resurgence of polio resulted in the people of Swat terming the Taliban as the pharaohs of fitna (chaos). Sadly, this kind of academic indulgence by west-based Pakistani scholars is never recanted nor revisited. Instead, they move on to the next topic – the more recent trend now seems to be not about victims of the Taliban, or even the current Pakistani military operations, but specifically and exclusively a flood of events on the victims of US drone operations in the tribal agencies.

The finer details of drone warfare

An emerging consensus amongst political analysts in Pakistan seems to be that Talk is Cheap. Unlike the diasporics’ grand narrative approach, local analysts tend to focus on smaller details such as the fact that peace talks were initiated with no concept of the parameters of these talks - hence the reactionary discussion around abstractions such as ‘Sharia’. They argue that while many may have objected to the illegality of drone warfare that was supposedly an economical and precise operation, the current operations are likely to take far more lives and displace millions in the process. Further, they argue that if Pakistan is using drones for surveillance before air or ground strikes, how does that translate in legal terms, and what exactly was then the moral objection to US drone operations?

Academics have the privilege of not answering these questions, nor do they have to take a position on peace talks or the pressing challenge that there is no single opposing entity that can represent the franchise, The Taliban. Given that the TTP comprises a splintered opposition, each with its own modus operandi and different terms and definitions of what constitutes the main enemy, how successful can talks be if the goal posts keep shifting?

For some TTP militants the enemy is the infidel Pakistan military and state, for others the infidels include sects such as the Shias and the excommunicated Ahmedis, and for others still, Pakistan should be cleansed of the Christians and Hindus. For each branch, there is a corresponding mainstream Islamist group that would be in agreement. For example, the ameer of the largest Islamist political party (Jamaat e Islami) considers the Taliban to be true Muslim martyrs in the conflict and not the Pakistani soldiers fighting “America’s war”. This statement was condemned by Pakistan’s Interservices agency but appreciated by the Taliban spokesman.

Not women this time

The current undoing of the peace talks has not been a ‘gendered’ concern. In 2009, the leaked video of the public flogging of Chand Bibi by the Taliban was considered to be the trigger that enabled a public appetite for a military operation to retrieve Taliban-captured Swat. In 2012, the shooting by the Taliban of school-girl, Malala Yousufzai, as punishment for pursuing a secular education, was considered a provocation that could have led to another operation against the advancement of the insurgents in Swat. However, when Malala was taken to Britain for treatment, and after her successful recovery, the entire incident was spun into a conspiracy theory suggesting that this was a fabricated anti-Taliban propaganda. Her quick rise as a global icon of women’s resistance to obscurantist forces, and subsequent nomination for a Nobel peace prize fed into the conspiracy theory that she was a planted western agent and was never attacked. This suspicion lingers even after the Taliban spokesman painstakingly clarified the confusion that followed, and explained that Malala was specifically targeted for her secular defiance to their sharia rules and for criticizing the Taliban.

This time, a gruesome video of the TTP beheading 23 captured men of the Frontier Corps was released in the midst of the peace talks. The nationwide shock prompted the stalling Prime Minister to call on the military to commence operations against the Taliban’s strongholds in North Waziristan. The government says peace talks are still on the table provided the Taliban recognize and adhere to Pakistan’s Constitution.

Between the clear misogynists, the sympathetic rationalisers, and the weak record of normative women’s rights in Pakistan, women (and minorities) are all too aware that they are often the casualties of conflict negotiations. It does not help that commentators continue to insist that the conflict is simply an external creation. This allows attention to be deflected away from the vertical and horizontal nexus of influence, as well as the ideological and operational shield that sustains Islamist groups in Pakistan and makes orthodox religion a valuable political resource and hegemonic future. Peace, even should the conflict end, is unlikely under such a narrative.


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