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Old Tuesday, July 06, 2010
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Post The discourse on Punjabi Taliban BY Rahimullah Yusufzai

A term that was first used by Pakhtun tribal people to describe Punjabi militants in their midst in Waziristan has become a matter of dispute between the leaders of the PPP and the PML-N. Interestingly, mostly Punjabis from the two major political parties of Pakistan are involved in this controversy at a time when unity is needed to tackle terrorism. There is no doubt that this is an ideal outcome for the terrorists and whoever is sponsoring them because terrorist acts are committed not only to cause death and destruction but also chaos and uncertainty.

The PML-N leaders object to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has accused Interior Minister Rahman Malik, a lateral entrant in the PPP, of using it to create rift between the provinces. He argued that the statement by Rahman Malik, who is a Punjabi from Sialkot, using the word Punjabi Taliban and Punjabi terrorists amounted to a condemnation of the people of Punjab. Shahbaz Sharif also stressed that he has never used the term Pakhtun Taliban or Pakhtun terrorists.

Nawaz Sharif also took exception to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban by remarking that terrorists are just terrorists as they had no boundaries and territories. Indeed this is the line now being taken by most politicians, but political point-scoring and backstabbing is prompting some of them to paint the terrorists and militants in ethnic and sectarian colours.

Not long ago Pakhtuns were the villains as almost all Taliban were Pakhtun. Common Pakhtuns earning their livelihood in Punjab, Sindh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad were increasingly being viewed with suspicion and the police in some places rounded up innocent Pashto-speakers after accusing them of being militants or their facilitators. It would be a while before these poor souls are able to prove their innocence. Many wealthy Karachi and Lahore families stopped hiring Pakhtuns, known for their loyalty and for doing tough menial jobs, or fired those already in their pay. One wonders if those denied an opportunity to earn an honest livelihood wouldn't consider returning to their wretched villages and joining the militants.

Isn't it a fact that the record unemployment, which is highest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa compared to other provinces, has already pushed many jobless young men into the ranks of the militants? It is also difficult to forget how attempts were made to prevent Pakhtuns displaced by militancy and military operations from seeking refuge and work in Sindh and Punjab and Sindhi nationalists and MQM, following a wink by the Qaim Ali Shah-led PPP government, staged strikes to keep out the largely poor Pakistanis of Pakhtun origin from a part of their own country. At the time, one felt all this talk about nationhood and national solidarity was rather artificial.

Returning to the debate on Punjabi Taliban, Rahman Malik denied using this term and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said he was satisfied with his explanation. The Interior Minister is obsessed with media coverage and often he lands himself in trouble by talking too much and about matters, like military operations and strategies, that aren't part of his job. Despite being proved wrong on a number of occasions, he didn't stop claiming the death of top Taliban commanders in tribal areas that are beyond his mandate and where intelligence networks have usually been found wanting.

The discourse about Punjabi Taliban is taking place at a time when a recent IMF report put Pakistan's losses in the past five years due to the 'war on terror' at Rs2.08 trillion and when the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is attempting a comeback in South Waziristan, Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions by launching fresh attacks against the security forces and target-killing government supporters. Its jihadi allies are aiding these efforts by striking in the cities, particularly in Lahore, and in the process sowing the seeds of discord in the country's political, religious and ethnic fabric. The faultlines in our society are being exposed and cleverly exploited. There is talk of the Deobandi-Barelvi divide as numerous organizations claiming to speak for the majority Sunnis clamour to grab attention and gain ascendance in the wake of the suicide bombings at the Data Darbar of Lahore's patron saint Syed Ali Hajvairi. The Ahle Hadith sect and others that don't like visits to shrines and condemn certain rituals that go on around the graves of the saints are attracting flak. There are fresh demands for more and tougher military operations against the militants not only in the tribal borderlands of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in southern Punjab.

The same politicians fighting over the Punjabi Taliban terminology are loudly welcoming the holding of a national conference on the issue of terrorism. Those unable to agree on simple things due to politics cannot be expected to take major decisions. If the past conferences are a guide, one could say beforehand that this effort too would be an exercise in futility. The conference would make feel-good recommendations, which the PPP-led federal government would be unwilling and unable to implement considering its past refusal to take seriously the now forgotten unanimous parliamentary resolution on the subject. The politicians, ruling or otherwise, would have to keep in mind the reaction of the powerful military and the interfering Americans, who despite their failure to contain the Taliban in Afghanistan still believe that they are qualified to advise Islamabad on how to tackle the Pakistani Taliban. On a previous occasion, all these politicians almost absolved themselves of responsibility and gave a free hand to the military to carry out action against the militants.

There is renewed demand by certain politicians for negotiating peace with the Pakistani Taliban to end their devastating bombings in the cities. This demand is unlikely to be accepted by the powers that be even though two peace accords, one with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led Taliban faction in North Waziristan and another with Maulvi Nazeer's tribal fighters in Wana and Shakai in South Waziristan, are still in place and accepted by both the militants and the military. Besides, the other insurmountable hurdle is the TTP's main demand that Pakistan should end its alliance with the US and stop being part of the 'war on terror.' Is it possible for our leading politicians and generals to accept this demand in view of the international situation and on account of the tendency of our ruling elite to cling to the US in the hope of advancing their personal interest? In fact, Pakistan would be better off if it wasn't such a close ally of the US but it is a relationship that cannot be given up easily due to the ground realities and for want of better options.

Even if the Sharif brothers are justified in objecting to the use of the term Punjabi Taliban, the fact remains that the militants themselves prefer its usage. Mohammad Omar proudly introduces himself as spokesman for Punjabi Taliban when he phones journalists from somewhere in North Waziristan and speaks in his Punjabi-accented Urdu. For him, all Punjabi militants presently aligned to the TTP are part of the network of Punjabi Taliban. Government officials have also being using the term Punjabi Taliban. When South Waziristan's political agent Shahab Ali Shah convened a jirga of Ahmadzai Wazir tribal elders in Wana on July 4 to warn them about military operation in their area if they didn't expel foreign militants, he specifically mentioned Punjabi Taliban.

It is interesting though that the original Taliban in Afghanistan have curtailed the use of Taliban and prefer calling their movement the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan while those inspired by them insist on being identified as Pakistani, Punjabi or Swati Taliban.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com
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