by Irfan Husain
IMAGINE a world where 9/11 did not happen. In such a scenario, the Taliban would probably have all of Afghanistan by the jugular, having overrun the country and defeated the Northern Alliance years ago.
Having achieved total victory, it is highly unlikely that Mullah Omar and his followers would take their orders from their Pakistani handlers. As it is, when the whole world tried to prevent the tragic destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan, nobody – including Gen Musharraf and the ISI – could prevail upon the mediaeval rulers next door to halt this wicked act.
In fact, it was this single stroke of vicious vandalism that opened the world’s eyes to the reality of the Taliban mindset. Earlier, they had been just another benighted mob of holy warriors persecuting their own people; now they were viewed with more than distaste. This revulsion ensured that when they were kicked out of Kabul by the Northern Alliance supported by American Special Forces, few tears were shed.
Luckily for the rest of us, neither the leaders of Al Qaeda nor the Taliban appear to have studied military history or psychology. While the former numbers engineers and doctors among its ranks, it does not seem to have recruited social scientists. Over the centuries, a vast number of treatises on the theory and practice of asymmetrical warfare have been written. From Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, to T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, many theorists and military leaders have dwelt upon the lessons weaker forces have learned about fighting and defeating larger armies.
One major lesson is that the commander of the smaller force does not deliberately alienate the population whose support is crucial to success. The masses are ‘the sea guerrillas swim in’. Apart from providing recruits, ordinary people shelter and feed the insurgents. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, jihadi groups have become arrogant through their success, and now terrorise locals into submission.
Had the Taliban tried to create a genuinely egalitarian state in Afghanistan, they would have acted as a powerful magnet for extremists. As it was, they put off many by their brutal treatment of women, and by their stone-age punishments for the smallest infringement of their medieval laws. And by allowing their Al Qaeda guests to plot the 9/11 attacks on their soil – and later refusing to hand them over to the Americans – the Taliban ensured the end of their rule.
Mullah Fazlullah and his cohorts blew a similar opportunity in Swat. Once they had been handed the valley through irresponsible deals, these clerics and their armed band of thugs had a great chance to build a model Islamic state. But they overreached themselves, finally alerting the government and the army to the real and immediate threat they posed. And during their fleeting grip on power, they carried out a reign of terror that thoroughly disgusted the rest of the country. Never again will the people of Swat demand instant ‘Islamic’ justice.
Revolutionaries need to convince people that their vision would lead to a more just order and a better life for them. But utopias are easier to conceive on paper than implement in practice. An absence of economists and managers, combined with a clerical hierarchy ignorant of the complex nature of the modern world, made it impossible for the Taliban to establish and run a functioning government. Their ‘emirate’ was dysfunctional and chaotic, focusing only on flogging and executing their unfortunate citizens. Maulana Fazlullah’s thugs went around torturing and decapitating their victims at will.
Given the large number of Pakistanis who continue to believe that a truly Islamic dispensation will solve all our many problems, the Taliban had an excellent opportunity to win them over. As we saw on our television sets, many supposedly educated and loud-mouthed anchors and panellists have held forth at length about the virtues of theocratic rule. They have argued at interminable length about the need to engage these extremists and offer them deals.
Luckily for the rest of us, these ignorant jihadis did not take advantage of this support, and have done everything to turn this large section of the chattering classes against them. The recent suicide bombing of the Islamic University in Islamabad is a case in point. Here were students who would have normally supported an Islamic order, but instead of courting them, the Taliban sent a suicide bomber to blow up several of these young idealists.
Another key potential ally and erstwhile benefactor is the section of the military establishment that is known to have long supported the jihadis for their own ends. Even after 9/11 and Musharraf’s famous U-turn, some elements of our intelligence agencies continued their covert support to the Taliban. But now, by deliberately targeting and humiliating the military, these short-sighted jihadis have sown the seeds of their own destruction.
In Sri Lanka’s recently concluded civil war, we saw that even a highly motivated and well-armed irregular group like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam does not stand a chance against a modern army. There is no way the Taliban can hope to win a conventional battle against the Pakistan Army, backed as it is by air power. Their only chance is to engage in guerrilla warfare that neutralises the army’s natural advantage of numbers and organisation. But for a successful campaign, they need the support of the people.
As the controversial drone campaign has demonstrated, there are many in the tribal areas who betray the terrorists sheltering in their midst. These informers pinpoint targets to the Americans who then send their Predators to hunt them down. Had the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies not antagonised their hosts, many of them might still have been alive.
Another element of support for fundamentalists were the shopkeepers and small businessmen who have been contributing to the coffers of the many jihadi outfits that have proliferated in Pakistan over the years. By causing mayhem in crowded bazaars across Pakistan with their relentless suicide bombing campaign, the Taliban and their ilk have created a crisis for the country’s commercial interests.
So in one way or another, the jihadis have alienated most of the segments of the population who might have backed them. Even Islamic parties are now careful of voicing their support. Although they may appear invincible, they are on the run. Our political parties and the army must stay united in routing them. They are the real threat; everything else is secondary.