The political discourse in the aftermath of the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in Pakistan shows that the political class, especially political leaders, are sharply divided and confused about the violent activities of the Taliban. Despite the fact that the Taliban have claimed responsibility for killing ordinary people, military and paramilitary personnel and policemen by suicide attacks, bombings and physical assaults, many political and religious leaders are not willing to condemn them. Some of them publicly glorify the death of Hakimullah Mehsud and other Taliban leaders and describe the deaths of Pakistani personnel while fighting against the Taliban as a purposeless loss of life.
The flawed approach of some Islamic parties is caused by their policy of viewing everything as a function of religion. When it comes to religion, they rely heavily on their sectarian interpretation of Islam or the party considerations in the present-day Pakistani context.
The Jamaat-e-Islami is now bitterly opposed to Pakistanís counterterrorism policies and Pakistanís relations with the United States. The same can be said about the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. In the decade of the 1980s, Pakistanís religious parties fought the Soviet troops in Afghanistan with American money and weapons. There is no statement by any Pakistani Islamic leader during these years that the United States was an enemy of Islam. They invoked Islam to justify their struggle against the Soviets with American cooperation. Now, as the interests of Pakistani religious parties have conflicted with those of the United States, the latter has been designated the enemy of Islam and Muslims.
A deeper analysis of the current disposition of Islamic parties towards the Taliban and militancy shows that there is a strong imprint of Islamic-denominational identity on militancy and support for it in Pakistan. Militant groups identify with Salafi/Wahabi, Deoband and Ahle-Hadith Islamic traditions. The Islamic parties subscribing to these Islamic traditions either support the Taliban or avoid their criticism. The Islamic political parties with Barelvi and Shia Islamic traditions view the Taliban movement as a threat to Pakistan and a negation of the spirit of Islam. However, both categories of Islamic parties are equally anti-United States and hold it responsible for Pakistanís current predicament.
Only three mainstream political parties publicly condemn the Taliban and their violence against the civilian population and personnel of the army, paramilitary forces and the police. These include the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. Other political parties shy from adopting a categorical anti-Taliban position either because they draw political support from the people and groups with political right and far-right to Islamist orientations or they are afraid of the Taliban and other militant groups. The PML-Nís main political support base ranges from the right-of-centre to far-right to Islamists in Punjab. These political circles express varying degrees of support for militancy, the Taliban and anti-Americanism. Therefore, the PML-N has traditionally maintained ambiguity towards militancy and the Taliban. The PML-N Punjab government cultivated an accommodating approach towards various Punjab-based militant groups. Therefore, Punjab experienced limited violence by militant groups during 2011-2013.
However, the PML-N faces a dilemma after assuming power at the federal level in June 2013. On the one hand, it cannot play tough towards the Taliban and other militant groups because of its pro-militancy political support base. On the other hand, the imperative of running the federal government demands that the PML-N takes a firm stand to curb violence by militant groups.
Before assuming power, the PML-N thought that it could replicate the Punjab-like arrangements with the Taliban at the federal level. This Punjab model was based on a tacit accommodation with militant groups whereby their activities were ignored in return for restraint on the part of militant groups in Punjab.
The Taliban had a different agenda. They wanted to demonstrate their violent capacity and outreach in mainland Pakistan to the new federal government to intimidate it from the beginning. They engaged in a series of violent attacks in the first month of assumption of power by the new federal government. This shattered the PML-Nís old plan of action for peace with the Taliban and it had no readymade alternative plan of action.
Pakistanís official circles fear that the Taliban might target Punjab for violence as it is the mainstay of political power of the PML-N. Therefore, the federal government is now pursuing a two-track policy. The interior minister has adopted a strong anti-American posture blaming the drone attack as the main cause of disruption of the dialogue process with the Taliban, which in the opinion of the interior minister, was about to take off. He is repeatedly assuring the Taliban that the federal government had nothing to do with the drone attack and that it condemns this attack. This posture is to appease the Taliban so that they do not launch attacks in Punjab. These PML-N leaders also want to compete with the Islamic parties and Imran Khan in anti-Americanism in order to protect their right-wing political support base.
The prime minister is pursuing second policy track, emphasising moderation in disposition towards the US and engagement with the international system. However, the key challenge for the prime minister is how to pull together the PML-N, not to speak the country as a whole, in one direction for controlling militancy and the neutralisation of the Taliban movement that has penetrated mainland Pakistan.
The prime ministerís consultations with the army top brass on November 12, 2013, may help him to bring coherence and direction in Pakistanís policy of countering terrorism and interaction with the international system. If the present domestic political drift is not managed, Pakistan is likely to experience more internal confusion and anarchy. This will benefit the Taliban, other militants and their Pakistani allies who will become a deadly threat beyond the capacity of the civilian government.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2013.