By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.
Shireen Mazari is a prominent Pakistani politician who many say is as feisty as she is conservative. In 2011, for example, Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported an incident at an Islamabad restaurant in which Mazari allegedly cursed out a Westerner after his chair bumped into hers. One of the printable portions of the polemic was “Who do you think you are, you bloody CIA agent?”
These days, Mazari is strongly supporting Islamabad’s preliminary peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). It’s a little ironic, because if these talks succeed, Mazari may no longer have the same kind of freedom to pick fights at restaurants – or even many freedoms at all. After all, the TTP vows to impose extreme forms of Sharia law throughout Pakistan – just as it once did in Swat, a region it briefly controlled in 2009. Girls’ schools were shuttered or blown up, and women were whipped. The region gained international notoriety when gunmen boarded a bus and shot schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.
In reality, the current talks will likely go nowhere. The TTP’s demands – which go well beyond Sharia – are hopelessly unrealistic. They reportedly require Pakistan to sever all ties with Washington, and to withdraw all its troops from the tribal belt.
And yet nowhere is precisely where Pakistani officials likely want this to go. If the talks fail, Pakistan’s powerful army – which has little patience for negotiations with those who have killed thousands of its soldiers – would be able to better marshal public support for a rumored offensive in North Waziristan. Islamabad could declare that the failure of diplomacy has given the state no choice but to use force.
Such a pattern has been followed before. The Pakistani military, ever sensitive to public opinion, stormed into Swat in 2009 only after a widely circulated video of a woman getting flogged there shifted public opinion in favor of an operation.
But an offensive in North Waziristan would do little to stop the TTP, whose presence extends across Pakistan and into its major cities. And it’s hard to overstate its clout. It kills soldiers and school kids and politicians and polio workers, yet rarely are there arrests and prosecutions. It taps into the masses’ deepest grievances, from corruption to class inequality (the TTP seized Swat in part by exploiting tensions between landless tenants and their wealthy landlords). It even holds sway over Pakistan’s freewheeling private media. After the TTP killed a number of Express News staff members last month, the television channel put a former TTP spokesman on the air – and Foreign Policy reports the anchor proceeded to promise him coverage if the organization stops killing journalists.
Pakistan has waged military offensives against the TTP in other tribal areas before, but with little success. As the group’s spokesman bragged in a recent Newsweek Pakistan interview: “Another military operation cannot harm the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Our network has only expanded economically, military, and politically.”
So, expect future desperate governments to pursue negotiations anew – and not as mere preludes to offensives. Ominously, in the coming years, talks may well succeed. For all the jokes in Pakistan about the TTP’s unrealistically rigid demands – “the Caliphate Cometh,” blared one local headline – the country could one day become something resembling a Sharia state. In fact, it’s already well on its way.
In recent years, state and society in Pakistan have become increasingly ideologically conservative. Telecommunications officials routinely ban supposedly “immoral” products and content – from cell phone plans with cheap late-night minutes to gay rights websites. Provincial parliaments have passed resolutions banning concerts in educational institutions. Girls are beaten for not wearing the hijab. Movie theaters are routinely attacked.
Young Pakistanis are especially conservative – quite noteworthy in a nation where two thirds of the population is under 30 and the median age is 21. In a recent poll, more than a third of Pakistani youth supported Sharia-style justice. Pakistani youth appear to defy the adage that young generations are more liberal than their parents, in part because younger Pakistanis started their educations after more hardline Islamist school curriculums were implemented in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many also came of age during Pakistan’s media liberalization in the early 2000s, which sparked the proliferation of conservative – and wildly popular – private televisions channels.
Fundamentalist ideologies are deeply entrenched across Pakistan. Dozens of jihadist organizations – some with alleged links to the Pakistani security establishment – exploit this extremism-rich environment. So long as such a climate endures (and it will for the foreseeable future), outfits such as the TTP can espouse, if not impose, their dangerous doctrines – from strict Sharia law to violent sectarianism.
For now, all Pakistan can do is try to limit the damage, meaning neither talking to nor fighting militants. Instead, it means arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning them. One may argue that more robust law enforcement wouldn’t deter defiant terrorists. Perhaps, but one can’t know for sure until such a deterrent is actually attempted. Washington can help by restructuring its civilian assistance program to Pakistan (the current one ends this year) so that it focuses less on infrastructure projects (which are already heavily funded by other external donors) and more on police and legal reform.
Until then, don’t expect the TTP to relent – especially with Mullah Fazlullah in charge. He’s the TTP’s new leader, and the commander who oversaw the group’s brief but brutal rule over Swat in 2009.