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Support for Taliban in Pakistan goes beyond military and maulvis now

In Pakistan, it's now ‘proper’ to glorify extremism in government circles, and is no more the prerogative of extremist groups.

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As the situation in Afghanistan continues to fall into deep dive amid reports of infighting between Taliban leaders, and several public protests, Pakistan seems to be getting desperate at one level, even as ISI chief Faiz Hameed plays emperor in Kabul at another. As international agencies warn of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, Islamabad fears an influx of refugees. But Islamabad should worry less about an ingress of desperate people. What is far more dangerous is the seeping inwards of the effects of decades of Pakistani adventurism, now worsened by Taliban victory; effects that are apparent in some expected and some not so expected areas.

Also read: Pakistan has a new divide-and-rule strategy for Taliban. It’s called ISIS-K

From the bottom up

Take a bottom up review. The Taliban’s ‘victory’ is being celebrated not just by the usual religious zealots, but by the man in the street, particularly along the tribal areas of Pakistan, the ‘rest and recuperation’ ground for Taliban recruits and leaders. Billboards have appeared in Peshawar, hailing the Taliban leadership, alongside much distribution of sweets.  Social media was agog with the Taliban victory, with some crowing over this as a ‘win’ against New Delhi.  Further up the ladder is the jubilation in Akora Khattak, where the Darul Uloom Haqqania is situated. The seminary has produced most of the top brass of the Taliban, and the Mujahideen before them. Its importance was evident when it received about  a million dollars from the Imran Khan government, a reversal of the earlier policy under General Pervez Musharraf of a drastic modernisation programme. The seminary head, Maulana Hamid ul Haq, who is also a former member of the Pakistani parliament, lauds the heady success of his proteges, and wants its ideology in Pakistan as well. The Urdu media similarly advises sharia law as it praises the Taliban for “defeating superpowers and their forty allies besides compelling them to kneel down and beg for negotiations”.

Meanwhile, other religious groups are engaged in competitive celebrations to ‘prove’ their credentials. That includes not only the Jamaat e Islami but also the Jamait ul Islam(F) of Fazlur Rehman, who sent congratulatory messages, just like the other factions of the outfit. Madrassa networks such as the Wafaq ul Madaris Al Arabiya are similarly expressing their admiration. Pakistan’s religious seminaries numbered 37,517 in 2019, with some 4.59 million students enrolled. That’s rather a lot of young minds being influenced. Add to this, the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami that has over 39,000 card-carrying members and thousands more in its support base. Also include several other large parties and smaller groups, and the numbers start climbing. These several thousands along with a multiplicity of smaller groups add heft to the influence on young minds. Their dangerous influence was recently apparent when Taliban flags fluttered above the Jamia Hafsa, a women’s seminary in Islamabad, where children were singing praises of the Taliban. That this is being replicated across religious schools in Pakistan is a given.

Also read: To recognise Taliban or not? This question shows poor understanding of international law

At nearly the top…

Then there is the Prime Minister and his chosen few. Imran Khan echoed the views of the religious Right in an interview with the CNN where he wondered why he should not cheer the freedom of the Afghans. Few now have any illusions about Imran Khan. ‘Taliban’ Khan made his views clear years ago, when he equated playing cricket against India as a jihad. Imran has called Osama bin Laden a martyr, and blames women’s dressing for rapes in Pakistan. Most shocking was his comment that the Taliban had broken the “shackles of slavery” at a time when a virtual stampede was on, as Afghans scrambled to get out of the country. That was a comment that no political leader before him would ever have made, even if they flirted with the Right as Nawaz Sharif did. Khan seems increasingly divorced from reality, calling for ‘incentives’ for the Taliban and making no effort to hide his glee.

Then there are his advisors. Special Assistant Raoof Hassan was on Twitter deriding the collapse of the US-built ‘house of cards’. A tweet by Pakistan minister Zartaj Gul Wazir declared “India gets an appropriate gift for its Independence Day”. Most outrageous of all was the comment by the National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf who warned of a ‘second 9/11’ if the world failed to recognise the Taliban. Again, no NSA worth his salt, certainly not the likes of veteran Sartaj Aziz, would have made such a remark. Clearly, these are calculated by ‘loyal’ ministers to please the establishment in Islamabad. After the Taliban victory, it seems that even the wafer-thin gloves of conventional thinking have been set aside. It’s now ‘proper’ to glorify extremism in government circles, and no more the prerogative of extremist groups.

Also read: Afghanistan shows US failed to address issues that went beyond military means

…and at the very top  

If this was the triumphalism in political circles, the glee in Rawalpindi can only be imagined. It must be remembered that until recently, the Pakistan army was contemptuous of the mullahs — using them but making sure they toe the line. Matters began to unravel as army operations started in the tribal areas. With some   20-25 per cent Pashtuns in the army, many began to sympathise with the Taliban. Reports of units refusing to fight, and desertion followed; then came attempts on General Musharraf’s life from within the Pakistan Air Force, while an al Qaeda attempt to hijack a ship involved two serving sub-lieutenants. Other incidents like the arrest of a Brigadier Ali Khan for ties to the extremist Hizb ut Tahrir, and the capture of bin Laden in Abbottabad, all sent shock waves in the army. One such incident involved a junior officer confronting COAS Ashfaq Parvez Kayani over the incident. It may be argued that all of this involved ‘fringe elements’  in the forces. But that a lot has changed, is apparent in ISI Chief Faiz Hameed’s decision to flaunt his presence in Kabul, just before a Taliban cabinet announcement. ISI chiefs in the past would certainly be present in Kabul but would take extreme care not to be seen at all. This move sets the new normal — it is good policy to showcase terrorist ties.

Also read: Jaishankar discusses Afghanistan, India-Saudi ties in meeting with counterpart Al Saud

Terrorists come home to roost

It’s worth remembering that Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed, like others before him, can take credit for creating, controlling and blatantly paying off  extremist groups like the Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that tore into the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017 on the issue of blasphemy. The TLP later won 2.2 million votes, effectively pushing Sharif’s party into second position, and gaining the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) the elections. When the same group took on the Imran Khan government in November 2020, its chief Khadim Rizvi died mysteriously. His funeral could have been mistaken for that of a head of State, given the massive crowds that thronged the site. Under his son Saad Rizvi, the TLP has increased its violent activities, even holding several policemen hostage. After declaring that he would crack down on the group, Khan accepted ‘advice’ from his army chief and negotiated. The incongruity was that parliamentarians were praying for the TLP during the chaos, and mainstream parties hurried to endorse their position on Khatm e Nabuwat (Protection of the Prophet). As Raza Rumi notes, TLP followers are drawn from all walks of life, not just madrassas, testifying to the appeal among the youth in particular.

Meanwhile, other extremists such as Mazhar Saeed Shah, a former Tehrik e Taliban cadre with a long record of extremist violence, was nominated by the PTI for a seat in recent elections in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And Nasir Qayoom of the Jamaat ud Dawa contested under the banner of the United Kashmir Movement. In the last general election, religious parties fielded 460 candidates — the highest in Pakistan’s history. In other words, the days when the Jamaat and others had to rely on Army patronage to get elected are over. They’re strong enough to stand on their own, using the very ideology preached by the establishment to justify jihad into Kashmir and Afghanistan. This is the viper biting back with a vengeance.

An easy prediction is that the next general election in Pakistan will see not just more representation from the Right, but demands for shariat from mainstream parties struggling to keep up. The Taliban victory is likely to slip out of its Pakistan-made frame of ‘freedom’ for Afghans, and enter into the country’s political dialogue as an ideology that has delivered victory against three ‘infidel’ empires. The difference is that this time round, the establishment may be enthusiastic, rather than adapting it to their own ends. After all, it has been so very rewarding.

A Pakistan wedded to extreme beliefs is a danger to itself and everyone else, including its ‘iron brother’ China. As Rawalpindi has found, extremism has such a stealthy tread. As the country slides irrevocably to the Right, a lot of people in high places are going to wonder if such a country should have nuclear weapons at all, especially when this slide is not about the economy or poverty or the usual placebos that are offered up at international seminars. It’s about a country gone bad from the top.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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