Fighting the Barbarian Hordes

This article originally appeared on

By Shafqat Mahmood

The sight of men, women and children making a desperate escape from the war zones in Swat and Buner is heart-wrenching. They are the unintended victims of the ignorant cavemen masquerading as fighters of Islam.

Two distinctions made in the last sentence are important. The hapless people fleeing their homes in the war zone owe their misery to the extremists not to the military. It is they who have instigated this fight by invading these areas. The state had no option but to respond.

The other distinction is also important. These people have appropriated the word Taliban for themselves, which is a distorted plural of someone who seeks. In our context, it has come to mean those that seek knowledge of Islam.

The only thing that these people, the throat-cutters of Swat, Buner and Dir, seek is territory over which they can lord over. It has been clear from the start that their real interest was never the enforcement of a sharia-based judicial system. That was only a soft facade to hide the hard drive for power.

Now they stand fully exposed. If there has been any advantage to the deal cut by the ANP government in the Frontier, it is only this. This is a fight for power not Islam. There is no ambiguity any longer about what these people really want. They have been so exposed that even the media Taliban are finding it difficult to defend them.

This clarity, this comprehension has cost us dearly. But finally the nation seems to have come together. If the likes of Fazalur Rehman want to play all sides, let them. Their motives in the political game are well known. It is important for all other parties to declare their unambiguous support for the military operation that has been thrust on us.

This principally means the PML -N. Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif have made hard hitting statements against the extremists. Nawaz Sharif has even said that enforcement of a judicial system in Swat at gunpoint is unacceptable. But, considering the serious challenge that the nation faces, more is required.

It is obvious that there are voices within their party that keep holding them back. Such people calculate that the party’s religious vote bank may be affected if the PML-N takes an upfront position on the war against extremism. They are wrong politically and from a national perspective.

The challenge we confront today is beyond politics. An entire province of the country has been invaded by barbarians. Unless they are pushed back, politics, as we have known it, is meaningless.

The media Taliban having access to PML-N leaders and some others in their party make the contrary argument. But Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif must go with their instincts. Time has come for them to lead from the front. It will be truly sad if Altaf Hussain becomes the voice to articulate national concern about extremism.

The PPP has never had a problem with denouncing terrorism but it has other baggage to carry. These days it is that of running an ineffective government. This perception reflects very poorly on the competence of its leadership. The party’s problem therefore is not its stand on terrorism but its ability to deliver. This is perhaps what prompted President Obama and others in the US government to say harsh words about the civil government in Pakistan.

Since US view on these matters is taken very seriously here, it started a frenzy of speculation regarding an imminent political change in the country. This issue thus became an important subtext of President Zardari’s visit to the United States. He not only had to assure his US hosts that he will assiduously pursue the good fight against extremism, he also had to get their endorsement for his government.

He seems to have succeeded in both. He has said all the right words about extremism – more clearly than most people expected. He has also received an unambiguous support for his democratically elected presidency. In fact, the words democratically elected, democratic government, etc, have been used so often by US leaders during the Zardari visit, that it obviously was a message meant to be conveyed to Pakistani public opinion.

The deft hand of Haqqani’s skilful diplomacy can be seen in this because he was able to make the Obama team understand how deeply their statements had undermined the PPP government. The US leadership made a concerted effort to dilute this impression by repeated references to the democratic credentials of the Pakistani president.

While this short-term gain has been made, Mr Zardari needs to understand that much of this is optics. The US government was made to understand the damage its words had inflicted and wanted to redress the balance. This does not mean that it will have unlimited patience with his performance. The support for him within the Obama administration is thin.

Why should it matter what the US thinks about the Pakistani government and why should it impact Pakistani politics? In the best of all possible worlds, it should not and every red-blooded patriot in this country has every right to take umbrage at foreign interference in our domestic affairs.

But, sadly, we live in an imperfect world. Whether we like it or not, our history is replete with examples of how US perception has influenced events in Pakistan. This is more important now than ever in the past. It is no small matter that the preeminent global power is saying its security is linked to developments in Pakistan. It will thus use every weapon in its political, diplomatic and security arsenal to shape an outcome to its liking in this country.

It may not necessarily succeed because its failures in other places are legendary. But, in the context of the current government in Pakistan, it would not condone failure just because of its democratic credentials. This puts the Zardari-led PPP government on notice, as far as the US is concerned. It has to deliver on its promises or whatever endorsements it has garnered on this apparently successful visit will quickly vanish.

Tough times lie ahead. Besides the difficulty of the military battles with the insurgents, there is much to be done by the federal and the provincial government. A priority has to be looking after the displaced people. The effort so far does not seem to be very efficient.

Mr Gilani has given a measly fifty crores to the provincial government but this is just a drop in the bucket. As the fighting intensifies, as it will, more people will be internally displaced. The way we look after them is an important benchmark of our commitment to the difficult struggle we find ourselves in. Other priorities must take a back seat because we are truly in a state of war.

If we overcome this challenge, as we must, there will be time to focus on other things. For the moment, let us put all our energies in fighting this barbarian horde at our gate.


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