Tricks of the Taliban
BARBARIC and bumbling, leaping over boulders in sockless high top sneakers, their faces hidden behind black cloth, the Taliban of yesteryear seemed a scruffy lot with sinister intentions.
When Pakistanis first heard of them, long before Sept 11, 2001 and long before they showed up in Swat or recruited allies in Sialkot, they appeared incapable of orchestrating anything more than the random attack.
This was accomplished not because it required planning or support or strategic sense but because it was inordinately easy to throw a bomb into a crowd of unarmed civilians.
The war-weary Afghans may have let them roll into their streets, gather up and burn their CDs and take apart their cellphones but this would never happen in Pakistan.
Pakistanis would not let their schools be burned down or the faces of women blackened on posters on their street corners. Pakistan was not the hinterland Afghanistan had become, some said. Pakistanis were moderate, another echoed.
Years passed and the picture of the Taliban as a ragtag, amateur terrorist group in Afghanistan remained stuck in Pakistani heads.
Few questioned their image; after all, how could any group want to appear illiterate and even inept or wish to cultivate a barbarous anti-intellectualism built on the bonfires of books?
In the rest of Pakistan of the late 1990s, at least the members of the flat-renting, hatchback-driving middle class lining up for admissions to English-medium schools and cramming for exams they hoped would lead to jobs could not quite fathom such a thing.
The Taliban with their school burnings and floggings seem to belong to some netherworld, real but not quite touching the consciousness of the urban Pakistani mired in the task of trying to get access to water, electricity and a job all at the same time.
In the meantime, as the 1990s wore on into the millennium, the Taliban continued to develop their brand. Halfway through the first decade of the new century, the Pakistani brand emerged. They, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, made their sales pitch to those at the bottom of Pakistan’s social strata.
In remote villages where the poorest of Pakistanis were having trouble imagining a better life, they sold the story not of an existence improved but of an order imposed.
A large number of groups came to be united under the ‘Taliban’ label. This simultaneous unity and disunity meant that a single umbrella could encompass all.
It was not the only contradiction they embraced; while burning books and torching schools they kept their name, ‘Taliban’ or ‘students’, never once betraying a self-consciousness at what would seem an unwieldy burden eluding justification.
Critics and analysts relished these incongruent directions, forecasting that an illiterate bunch including 16-year-old soldiers and with a fetish for floggings could never take over the hearts and minds of a country for any sustained period.
In the meantime, from a branding perspective, the Taliban’s capacity for inclusion gave even the most derelict and hapless young boy from the most remote and forgotten region the power to be a part of something big and powerful.
The recruits from Miramshah and Mingora and Malakand lined up and were taken in. If their lives lacked hope before, they now had meaning. If they had felt inadequate before, the inspirational aspects of an organisation that called all its members eternal ‘students’ absorbed them.
The Taliban always knew that Pakistan has far more of these — the forgotten, the rural and the constantly marginalised. They did not care what the others thought and it did not matter.
It was a ruse perpetrated on those who thought that the existence of democratic institutions — however flailing — and religious moderation — however silent — would save the country from being overtaken by those who did not believe in them.
In the wake of the attacks on PNS Mehran and Kamra airbase and many, many others, having witnessed the suave alacrity with which Taliban ‘spokespersons’ issue press releases and media communiqués claiming responsibility, we can see that the joke was on all those who underestimated them.
At the core of the Tehrik-i-Taliban’s success then lie some sharp and sophisticated calculations about Pakistan, human nature and the desires of the disenfranchised. If those that supported liberal democracy in Pakistan remained focused on the future, on the idea that education would deliver and democratic institutions represent, the Taliban focused on the people too crushed to see education as an option, too daunted by the prospect of fighting for seats in schools that barely offered an education in the first place.
If quota systems in Pakistani universities and government institutions asked for domiciles and required favours and connections, the Taliban practised open recruitment and took everyone. If liberal democracy and progressive ideas relied on what is good and hopeful in mankind, the Tehrik-i-Taliban relied on what is despondent and dark; the part of us that obeys from fear and follows from cowardice.
A poem, quoted by James Caron in an essay on the Taliban, goes thus “Once more my poor heart breaks out into naras/ The Taliban come to my memory like flowers/ Oh Lord, what happened to those red and white birds/ The Taliban come to my memory like flowers/ Much time has passed my dear since our meetings ended/ The Taliban come to my memory as flowers”.
A poem in praise of those who have killed poets and flogged musicians cannot but sting. But in its unapologetic embrace of contradiction it shows exactly the recipe employed by the militants who have harnessed the darkness in Pakistan’s soul, appropriated its poetry and its patriotism and brought Pakistanis to consider a conquest they could not, even a short 10 years ago, have imagined.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.