For the most part, the language we have used to describe the massacre of 132 school children in Peshawar has consisted of cliché: the perpetrators were evil, cowardly, animals. This language of righteous rage tells us next to nothing about the perpetrators and why they acted as they did. The Taliban’s justification of the carnage may be self-serving, but it also tells us that their acts had context. It is important to understand this context, because the ideals that drove the perpetrators are inexorably shaping Pakistan’s destiny, no matter what the outcome of the war between the state and the Taliban might be.
The story dates back to the late-1970s, to when military despot Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, flush with Saudi cash and United States arms, launched his great jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The jihad saw the recruitment of thousands of young men from Pakistan’s northwest. The recruits were mainly young men with some elementary secular or seminary education, and ambitions far greater than the roles traditional tribal society had assigned them.
Following 9/11, the Islamic utopia these men had sought to build in Afghanistan imploded, and they returned home. In 2004, the US pushed military ruler General Pervez Musharraf into action against Arab, Chechen and Uzbek jihadists operating from Pakistan’s South Waziristan Agency, with the help of local warlords who had fled Afghanistan after 9/11. The offensive proved disastrous. Facing rebellion from within his force, Musharraf sold the US the idea that he could co-opt the jihadist leadership using his intelligence services.
In April 2004, key warlord Nek Muhammad Wazir agreed to stop support to foreign jihadists. In a video recorded in the spring of 2004, Nek Muhammad garlanded Lieutenant General Safdar Husain, head of Pakistan’s XI corps. “The most important thing”, he said, “is that we are Pakistani soldiers, too. The tribal people are Pakistan’s atomic bomb. When India attacks Pakistan, you will see the tribals defending 14,000 kilometres of the border.” Days later, though, the Shakai agreement unravelled. Nek Muhammad refused to hand over foreign jihadists. He began assassinating traditional tribal leaders who competed with him for power.
The warlord’s story goes to the heart of who the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership are. The son of a farmer from the village of Kalosha in South Waziristan, Nek Muhammad was schooled at an influential Islamist-controlled seminary, the Jamia Dar-ul-Uloom, before going to study at a college run by the secular-nationalist Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. He soon dropped out and set up a shop in the main bazaar of Wana, South Waziristan’s main town. Less than 18 years old at the time, Nek Muhammad volunteered for service with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. He was operating alongside the Taliban by 1995-1996. He became close friends with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan chief Tahir Yaldashev and Uighur jihadist Hasan Mohsin. Following the events of 9/11, Nek Muhammad returned to Waziristan and grabbed power in the Shakai valley, using his al-Qaeda contacts. Pakistan’s army, still hoping to plant jihadists back in power in Kabul, wasn’t displeased.
Every peace deal since Shakai has ended in the same way, for pretty much the same reasons. In February 2005, the Pakistan army signed a peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, then chief of the Pakistan Taliban, operating in South Waziristan. Within months, clashes broke out again. In the Mohmand Agency, Taliban commander Abdul Wali, who prefers the pseudonym Omar Khalid Khurasani and was among the Lal Masjid jihadists, was handed total power. “Polio vaccination was stopped, sharia courts were established, women were directed to wear the veil in public and criminals were arrested and judged in sharia courts,” the journalist Amir Mir reported.
Perhaps the most unsuccessful peace effort involved Maulana Fazlullah, now head of the Pakistan Taliban, whose jihadists barred Swat’s girls from schools and unveiled women from the streets. In February 2009, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s battered provincial government agreed to implement the sharia-based Nizam-e-Adl laws, conceding Fazlullah’s demands. Floggings, beheadings and suicide-bombings replaced the law.
“None of the agreements with Taliban factions involved in attacks in Pakistan”, journalist Daud Khattak has recorded, “lasted for more than a few months, and the breaking of each agreement resulted in severe bouts of violence, including attacks on government installations, security forces and civilians.”
The Pakistan army’s Zarb-e-Azb offensive in North Waziristan, the war that built up to the Peshawar carnage, is the latest in a series of similar campaigns: Rah-e-Rast, Rah-e-Nijat, Sher-Dil, Khyber 1, Khyber 2, even the farcically-named Daraghlam (I’m Coming), Bia Daraghlam (Here I Come Again) and Khwakh Ba De Sham (I’m Going To Fix You). Zarb-e-Azb has, military experts agree, gone further in targeting jihadist combat units than its predecessors.
Yet, these offensives have done nothing to erode the actual reach and influence of jihadism across the country. The army has, in particular, remained allied to pro-government jihadists east of the Indus, in the plains of Punjab and in Sindh. The state may fight jihadist fighters, but not their project.
For decades, scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy has written, Pakistanis have been taught that their country’s “raison d’être was the creation of an Islamic state where the sharia must reign supreme”. It’s a task successive governments, both military and civil, have participated in since 1953: it was, after all, so-called democrat Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who proscribed the Ahmadi minority.
The jihadists see themselves as revolutionaries fighting to build the utopia promised in 1947. Large numbers of Pakistanis, especially an affluent but disenfranchised petty bourgeoisie fed up with both an elite-run democracy and military rule, don’t disagree with their ideals. The state has neither the will nor the desire to reinvent the idea of Pakistan: no government, after all, has even shown a desire to overturn Pakistan’s toxic blasphemy laws.
Even as Taliban violence has escalated, polling data shows, support for violent Islamist groups has held steady, expanding in some regions.
The data also shows that India, notwithstanding visiting journalists’ accounts to the contrary, is seen as the principal enemy. There are some, like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who have cast the killing as an Indian plot, thus seeking to protect the jihadist ideal from the acts of its practitioners. There are others who have even refused to condemn the Peshawar slaughter.
Umberto Eco, the great Italian scholar and author, described a visit to an amusement-park house-of-horrors thus: “there are mirrors, so on the right you see Dracula raising the lid of a tomb, and on the left your own face reflected next to Dracula’s, while at the same time there is the glimmering image of the Ripper or of Jesus, duplicated by an astute play of corners, curves and perspective, until it is hard to realise which is which”.
Five decades ago, and more, Pakistan threw away the moral compass that could have guided it out of the darkness. Each day it spends in the house-of-horrors, dystopia will seem a normal state of being.