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A totalitarian ideology vs democratic forces

The Pakistan government effectively ceded more than a third of the NWFP to the Taliban, ended military operations in the Malakand division, and agreed to impose the Sharia.

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IIn his novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling rapturously describes the Grand Trunk Road, the arterial highway that in its prime linked the mercantile destinies of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

Today, however, that macadam marvel — or at least, such portions of it that run through Afghanistan and Pakistan — is associated more with death than with life. According to the latest ‘Afghanistan Index’, a measure compiled by researchers at the Brookings Institution to gauge the security environment in post-9/11 Afghanistan, civilian fatalities in 2008 from the “war on terror” were twice as high as in 2006.

More strikingly, the theatre of war in this new Great Game is spreading across the border and deeper into Pakistan, where Taliban forces, which have enjoyed sanctuary for long, have now legitimised their presence by securing for themselves a space in the Swat valley in Pakistan’s lawless North West Frontier Province.

Last fortnight, the Pakistan government effectively ceded more than a third of the NWFP to the Taliban, ended military operations in the Malakand division, and agreed to impose the Sharia, the regressive 9th-10th century system of Islamic jurisprudence, as a concession to the Taliban’s pledge to abide by a ceasefire. This is fraught with “tremendous implications,” points out Walid Phares, director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. “It is as if Islamabad has conceded the establishment of an Emirate in Swat! It will empower radical Islamists and jihadist movements to create a large pool of jihad-indoctrinated people.”

The Pakistan government has embarked on a “dangerous path”, avers Ziauddin Sardar, a Pakistan-born, London-based scholar who writes on the future of Islam. “Wherever the Taliban rules, it creates a fertile breeding ground for jihadi culture.” The slide into Sharia is also a slippery slope, he points out. “Fundamentalist groups in other parts of Pakistan will now start demanding the Sharia.”

In the month and a bit since US President Barack Obama took office, his administration has signalled that it is refocussing the “war on terror” on Afghanistan and Pakistan with a surge in the number of troops there, and simultaneously announced a phased withdrawal from Iraq. US forces have also expanded the missile attacks on suspected terrorist hideouts on the Pakistani side of the border.

It remains to be seen how the US strategy evolves after the additional forces begin engaging the Taliban and Al Qaeda. One possibility, reckons Phares, is that the Obama administration may “think of opening a dialogue with a weakened Taliban.”

There’s even speculation that the US gave its tacit support for the Swat valley deal with the Taliban on the strength of the argument that some of them are “good”. But according to Phares, “The jihadists will perceive it as a victory and will be emboldened to do the same elsewhere, including in Afghanistan.”

Phares also dismisses the notion that there is a “good Taliban” and a “bad Taliban”. That, he adds, “is a myth created by those in the West who advocate engagement with jihadists. It reflects a poor understanding of the ideology and nature of the Taliban movement.” The Taliban, he points out, is totalitarian and does not recognise international law.

Jihadist supporters “manoeuvre their ‘enemies’ into believing that they can do business with some members of the Taliban, and sadly many in the West have fallen into that trap… The Obama administration must be wary of this trap.”

The other challenge for the Obama administration is the fact that the Pakistani military, intelligence and power structure all stand deeply infiltrated by jihadists, and have been playing a ‘double game’ with the US in the war on terror. “Many high-level Pakistani officials admit that many sectors have been infiltrated by jihadists, but claim this situation has been inherited from previous decades,” says Phares. The Obama administration, he adds, must identify and support those elements that are confronting the extremists.

India, which has already faced down countless terror attacks originating from Pakistani soil, could be more severely tested as
Pakistan slides further into radicalism. But India needs to act with restraint and not play into the jihadists’ war-room strategy of seeing India and Pakistan at war, reasons Phares. That, he adds, would be a cue for a jihadi takeover of the Pakistani government. “This is an opportunity for India to form a global coalition against jihadi forces.” Phares reckons the process of “creeping Talibanisation” in Pakistan can be reversed only by a secular and democratic process. That process is a long and winding road —much like the Grand Trunk Road — and there are no short-cuts.
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