The globally accepted stereotypical image of hawk-nosed men, swathed in flowing turbans and chadors, the latest model AK-47 slung over their shoulder as they stride through rugged, mountainous territory in Pakistan and Afghanistan couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to defining the word ‘Talib’ as, in real terms, such a neat and tailored definition is nothing more than a potentially dangerous illusion.
During a recent visit to Afghanistan, I saw a group of men congregate on the outskirts of a ramshackle, treacherously muddy bazaar in the ‘one horse town’ known as Phul-i-Kumri in Baghlan province in the country’s north. The day was dark and miserable, persistent rain swelling scummy puddles dotted with the half-submerged carapaces of imported Pakistani oranges and indigenous pomegranate rinds. The men of various ages, with facial characteristics suggesting Central Asian, Pathan and an intermediate mix it is difficult to name, wear mud-splashed shalwar kameez, trailing chadors or brightly-striped chapans whose empty, elongated sleeves, flap in seeming frustration in the bitterly cold wind blowing in from steppe country to the north. They look, to the uninitiated, just like a bunch of men discussing the topic of the day as men in groups habitually do in this part of the world.
“Taliban” says the bodyguard glued to my side. “Hide your camera. Look away. If they see you there will be trouble.”
“How do you know?” I ask later. “They look just like everyone else.”
“We all know” my companions respond. “These criminals have been among us long enough for us to learn what they look like, how they stand, how they walk, how their eyes work and even how they smell. We know, and they know that we know. The situation is increasingly dangerous. The hatred is simmering and will boil over again like it did before”.
“Taliban do not belong in Afghanistan” — they are adamant on this point. “Their ideology is completely different from ours. Such ideology is alien to all that is Afghan. If an Afghan wants to pray then he does so. If he doesn’t then that is between him and Allah and nothing to do with anyone else. Forcing people to pray, to follow certain codes of conduct is not our way. We have always been a free people. Free to live as we please, practice our religion in our own personal ways. Our women, urban women at least, are encouraged to study, permitted to work if they want too yet, these so-called Talibs, most of whom have no education and no understanding of Islam, try to force Saudi Arabian style culture down our throats. It is alien to us. We do not want it. We do not want Taliban on our soil. Taliban are not ‘us’. They are not the Afghan way. They should go back to Pakistan where they came from and make their problems there. Pakistan deserves them after all that Pakistan has done and keeps on doing to us”.
The concept that all Taliban originate in Pakistan — still believed widely many years since they first appeared on the scene — is no longer true. However, the brutal truth that they did manifest here in the first place cannot be denied and if, and when they are pushed back, in full force, over our northwestern border, we have only ourselves to blame as their ideology does not belong here either.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.