Raza Habib Raja
A lot has been written about the phenomenon of Taliban and today a broad range of narratives try to offer various explanations about the reasons of their creation, the nature of their links with the state, their relationship with the Pashtun nationalism as well as their ability to ideologically overwhelm Pakistan.
This article will try to counter some of the commonly held perceptions about Taliban by some of the thinkers/journalists (including those who are against Taliban). It will then try to assess the possibility of a Taliban takeover of Pakistani society and state
A misperception about Taliban and quite prevalent amongst the liberal press is that state is actively supporting ALL the Taliban factions. In my opinion, the dominant “liberal” narrative that Pakistani state is actively supporting Taliban even now, is flawed because it fails to explain the fact that Pakistani army has itself fought Taliban. Even recently there have been reports of killings of army personnel by Taliban. Moreover, although the state, including the government, publicly has been opposing the drone attacks yet the fact is that prior to Osama bin Laden’s assassination, drone attacks were conducted from Shamsi Airbase in Baluchistan. These drones were and still targeting the Taliban militants. Obviously all of this had complete support of the Pakistani armed forces as well as the government.
What is probably true is that state is supporting some of the factions for its realpolitik concerns while continuing to aggressively engage others. By and large there is perhaps little to no resemblance between the monolithic version of Taliban of the 1990s and today’s fragmented and at times even mutually hostile Taliban groups.
Over the years, the state-sponsored monster has largely turned against it. Today this monster may bear little resemblance to the original version meant largely as an instrument to create the so-called strategic depth. Yes, Pakistani state may be supporting some of the groups—often the Haqqani Network is mentioned in this regard—but it cannot be fighting and supporting every group at the same time.
Let us not forget that more than 35,000 people have died during the past ten years. To simply assume that state itself is killing its own citizens and also its army personnel is stretching it too much.
This is an important fact to realize in our discourse because otherwise we are likely to come up with faulty conclusions and also end up having excessive blame on the state alone. Yes state has been responsible but with the passage of time, these actors have become more anti-state rather than its instruments.
This conclusion by no stretch of imagination diminishes the threat posed by Taliban and in fact further augments it, at least in the strict military sense. If state has less “control” over religious extremists then the extreme possibility of (i.e. takeover of the state), though remote, cannot be ruled out.
How realistic is the threat of Taliban to either ideologically takeover Pakistani society or physical takeover through military means by overthrowing the state?
I have often heard how religious Pakistan is rapidly becoming and this increasing religiosity is paving the way for an ideological takeover of the society by the Taliban. I fully agree that reigious fanaticism is on the rise and country’s ideological fabric is more religious. However, without underestimating the treat of Taliban, I really do not think that it is possible for Taliban to score any sort of ideological victory.
There are two major factors which thwart such a possibility. First, Pakistan has no singular version of Islam. Yes Pakistan is more religious compared to the past but that religiousity is not confined wthin one sect. There are many strains of religious beliefs and some of these are vehemently contradictory to Wahabi as well as Deobandi beliefs. Pakistan has substantial number of Brailvis, Shias and other sects. The lack of monolithic version of Islam makes it extremely difficult for an extreme outfit like Taliban to score an ideological victory of any sorts. They are inspired from Wahabi and Deobandi schools of thought and both of these are loathed by many other sects. The sectarian diversity, while being a reason for sectarian violence, has also acted as a countering force to the spread of scripture-based orthodox versions of Islam.
Second, Pakistan remains a society which is still largely rural and with very strong kinship and tribal characteristics. This is a very important element which makes any “revolution” whether of socialist or religious type extremely difficult. The rural cum tribal society which thrives on kinship has made Pakistan a country less vulnerable to Islamic radicalism. This fact has been explained at length by Anatol Lieven in his brilliant book titled “Pakistan: A Hard Country”. Lieven argues that the rural structure of the Pakistani society has put severe limits on radicalism.
I think rather than an ideological takeover a more realistic possibility is of Taliban becoming militarily so powerful that they take over some parts of the country or even the entire country through overthrowing the state. The former has already happened as there are areas where Taliban are in complete control and Pakistan does not enjoy sovereignty as the state has no writ and has ceded the sole authority over physical violence. However, it is still difficult for Taliban to take control of the entire country like that.
Another possibility of Taliban takeover is to gain significant influence on some of country’s key components such as armed forces. If an important section of the army can be “converted” to Taliban cause then through a coup the entire leadership can be deposed. In fact in the past there have been attempts by the Islamic extremists to do that.
Journalist Saleem Shezad has written about the possible infiltration of armed forces by Taliban and Al-Qaida, an act which eventually cost him his life. If this infiltration continues then Taliban do not have to conquer Pakistan through conventional means as they can do so through “softer” means such as a coup. Even if a coup does not take place, infiltration of key state institutions allows them to indulge in extremists activities freely and more effectively.
Apart from armed forces, we have to be watchful for sympathetic elements within civil services, judiciary and media. Eventually it is the professional classes more vulnerable to such influences.