A week after the drone strike that killed Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, public discourse remains dominated by questions of ‘what comes next?’ Mehsud’s death actually changed very little, if anything, in the equation. The Taliban has vowed to continue attacks, the government continues to demand that peace talks are the only solution, and the military remains ever silent. Whether or not the Taliban is interested in talks, the public debate has settled on the question of ‘talk’ or ‘fight’. It’s a seemingly impossible puzzle. How do we negotiate with uncompromising extremists? How do we defeat a loosely organised, ‘asymmetric’ insurgency? We have become paralysed by this paradox, but there is an answer to our problem: Stop fighting the symptoms and start fighting the disease.
Imran Khan is right about one thing: We can’t kill our way out of this problem. The power behind terrorist organisations is not their leaders, but their ideology. Killing bin Laden did not destroy al Qaeda, and killing Hakimullah Mehsud did not destroy the Taliban. Such tactics may temporarily disrupt their organisations, but another leader will step into place. And you cannot win a war of attrition against a force that willingly kills its own troops in suicide attacks.
We have reached a stalemate in the physical war against the Taliban. They kill our generals, we kill theirs. They kill our soldiers, we kill theirs. The good news is that, at a minimum, we are not losing ground. The Taliban is not marching on Islamabad as they did in 2009. Fighting will continue, but there are not signs that the Taliban is making military advances. Unfortunately, we face a greater threat: We are losing the ideological war.
If we cannot kill our way out of this war, we must win by draining the Taliban’s ability to recruit new fighters. Because they are an ideological organisation, that means that we must actively counter their ideological propaganda. It is here where we are losing the war by giving ground the Taliban.
The prime example of our failure to address the ideological war is in the reaction to the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud. Leaders of religious political parties termed the slain Taliban leader as ‘martyr’, as if he gave his life defending Pakistan, not fighting to destroy it. This led to a statement by Sunni Ittehad Council denouncing that claim and issuing two fatwas against terming the Taliban chief as ‘martyr’. The issue that should concern us is not whether or not it is right to term Hakimullah Mehsud as martyr, but that this debate exists at all.
Many educated and otherwise rational people respond, like Falzur Rehman, that ‘anyone killed by the US is a martyr’, but this was not the reaction to the death of Baitullah Mehsud, also by a drone strike’ in 2009. Others try to take a more spiritual tone and claim that the death of any Pakistani should be mourned, but this was not the reaction to the death of Salmaan Taseer, killed by a self-appointed jihadi in 2011.
These disparate reactions hold the key to our failure to defeat the Taliban. We are literally mourning the death of extremism, and praise the death of tolerance. In doing so, we inflict damage far beyond any IED or Taliban suicide attack. Allowing extremist ideology into our minds is more dangerous than allowing militants into our garrisons because in doing so we do not become the Taliban’s captives, we become the Taliban ourselves.