There is a lot of talk about the Afghan government talking to the Taliban these days. The idea is to find a way of co-opting the Pashtuns in the Afghan power structure and thereby putting an end to an insurgency that is costing western governments billions of dollars every year.
The more I read about it, the more I am reminded of a running argument I have with a friend of mine, Ilyas Khan — a brilliant Pashtun journalist who did me proud month after month in my days as the editor of Herald in Karachi. Among many other brilliant pieces, Ilyas Khan did a series of articles focused on the Taliban-ISI nexus in the wake of 9/11, that were accurate enough to force the ISI into summoning me to their Islamabad headquarters for a caution.
Ilyas Khan believes that the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal area can easily be dealt with, provided Pakistan makes up its mind on what to do with them. I last met him a month ago in Islamabad and as has been our tradition for several years now, we exchanged some analytical notes on where Pakistan stands vis-a-vis the Taliban problem.
“I know you won't agree with me Aamer,” he said, “But you don't need an army or the Frontier Corps or the Khasadars to deal with the Taliban. If the army decides to stop flirting with them, the locals themselves will take care of the Taliban. I cannot tell you how sick they are of them.”
I, on the other hand, would argue that the problem has gone beyond the point where a bunch of armed tribesmen could drive the Taliban out of Pakistan's tribal areas. True, that it is a monster created by the Pakistan army, but it has now acquired a life of its own and is unlikely to buckle meekly if the army withdraws its patronage.
Soon after returning to London, I came across a BBC documentary on Iraq. An utterly brilliant piece of work, it charted the sequence of events in the Iraqi city of Basra which saw its fortunes shifting from being under British occupation to falling into al Qaeda control to being liberated from al Qaeda by local Shia militias aided by the very occupation forces that these militias were initially resisting.
The basic thesis was simple yet compelling: the documentary established, using interviews with top US and British commanders as well as insurgent leaders, that the only people who can bring peace to their land are the locals. No amount of firepower or aerial war technology can achieve what a bunch of determined locals can do armed with no more than assault rifles and a will to liberate their land from the clutches of global jihadis.
The documentary brought to my mind bits from a sketchy analytical book by Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul that I have just finished reading. Titled The Most Dangerous Place, it tries to make sense of the war raging in Pakistan's tribal areas. There is this bit about the Pakistan army's alliance with militant leader Mullah Nazir against Uzbek warriors in South Waziristan which resonates with what transpired in Basra. Mullah Nazir, with his ragtag army of militants, was able to drive out Uzbek warriors from South Waziristan at a fraction of the human and material cost that the Pakistan army had paid until then, with far less returns.
The question then is that if the British could do it in Basra and Pakistan could do it against the Uzbeks in South Waziristan, what is stopping us from encouraging an all out assault by local tribesmen against Taliban militants of all shades holed up in North and South Waziristan?
It cannot be that no one in the army has given it a think. And that leaves us with the only conclusion, that, to borrow a phrase from Ilyas Khan, the army's flirtation with the Taliban hasn't quite come to an end.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2010.
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