The rise of ‘Talqaeda’

How the Taliban is winning in Pakistan and why that’s disastrous for the West

Adnan R. Khan

The rise of ‘Talqaeda’He’s not your typical-looking militant, nothing like the tall, ascetic Osama bin Laden or the choleric Ayman al-Zawahiri. He says nothing to a visiting reporter about destroying the evil West or raining vengeance down on the infidels. Sufi Muhammad, by most measures, is what any Canadian might affectionately call grandpa—in the right setting. But here in Mingora, the main city of Pakistan’s Swat valley, 150 km northwest of the capital Islamabad, the moniker doesn’t quite fit. Given the fact that he is surrounded by black-turbaned militants, the soft-spoken octogenarian inspires a different kind of respect than the one normally bestowed on elders, a respect based on fear.

In Swat, a mountainous former tourist mecca wracked by nearly two years of conflict and now overrun by Taliban militants, Muhammad seems an unlikely peace-broker. The head of Pakistan’s most feared militant outfit, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM), and a one-time jihadi who now claims to have renounced violence, Muhammad is positioning himself to be the new face of the Pakistani Taliban. This is the man whom Pakistani government officials view as a member of the “moderate” Taliban, a man dedicated not to global jihad but to Islam and Pashtun traditions, who can perhaps bring calm to paradise. Indeed, a Feb. 16 deal, brokered by him, between the provincial government in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Taliban militants led by his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, has brought some reprieve to Swat.

Also at Photo Gallery—Pakistan’s dangerous Swat Valley

But that agreement, and others like it with militants in parts of Pakistan’s ungoverned Tribal Areas, have led to international consternation that Pakistan is not committed to the fight against extremism. They have also raised new concerns that the authorities, by signing such peace deals, have left the extremists free to impose their harsh rule over the region, and pursue with impunity their war against the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

It is also unclear how much this fragile peace can help Swat. After nearly two years of violence, the picturesque valley has been reduced to a tattered shadow of its former self. Officials estimate it would take somewhere in the range of US$500 million, a princely fortune in Pakistani terms, to rehabilitate what was once a thriving tourist haven—assuming tourists would want to visit an area where militants espousing a harsh vision of Islam hold sway. Hotels with names like Rose Palace, White Palace and Paradise City sit empty on the green slopes of snow-peaked mountains, while in the remote villages where tribal Pashtuns eke out an impoverished existence, the Taliban is celebrating a victory.

Seated on the floor in a tiny, windowless room wedged into a back corner of his compound in Mingora, a small gas-powered heater aimed at his feet, the 80-year-old Sufi Muhammad chooses his words carefully when talking about the deal he’s put together. It’s rare for him to give private interviews, especially these days, with his health failing and the situation in Swat on a knife’s edge. “Since I was freed from jail, I have worked hard to end the violence here,” he says, referring to the six years he spent behind bars, starting in 2002, after returning from a failed jihad in support of the Afghan Taliban after the U.S.-led invasion of late 2001. “But with God’s help, I have succeeded.”

That may be overstating the case slightly. Though Pakistani authorities have capitulated to Taliban demands to impose sharia in Swat—the main feature of the deal—the odds may be against the agreement sticking if history is any indicator: similar agreements with Fazlullah in May 2007 and May 2008 crumbled before they were even implemented. This time around, though, with Muhammad acting as intermediary, some progress has been made. All-out war between the Pakistani military and the militants has been replaced with a tense peace, and sharia courts have started operating, although Muhammad has complained about how slowly they are being established, and has threatened to pull the plug on the agreement if the process is not speeded up.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that the Taliban have already begun cementing their harsh control over the region—only underscoring the concerns about Pakistani authorities having sanctioned a safe haven for extremists. Add to that recent atrocities, like last September’s suicide truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and gunmen brazenly attacking the Sri Lankan cricket team’s convoy in the normally peaceful city of Lahore, and the question arises: are militants in the process of winning over large areas of Pakistan? Certainly the attention of Pakistan’s all-powerful military has been diverted from the fight against militancy, in the face of increased tensions with India after Pakistani-connected terrorists struck in Mumbai last November. Meanwhile, word that Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which in the past helped foster the Taliban and other extremists, is continuing to support militants in the hope of exercising influence through them in Afghanistan, only adds another ominous dimension to this story. And even more dangerously for Pakistan, the agreements with extremists have come just as central authority in the country is being severely undermined by a government crisis—one that has, in itself, bolstered the militants’ antipathy toward secular authority.

That political instability has its roots in the ongoing power struggle between the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), under Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. The fuse for this immediate crisis was lit on Feb. 25, when the sitting judges of Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling barring Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from holding political office.

The decision instantly disqualified Shahbaz from his post as chief minister of the Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province, one dominated by the PML-N. Hours after that ruling, Zardari imposed a colonial-era rule allowing him to appoint the governor—in this case a PPP crony—to run the province. But those Supreme Court justices, all appointed by Pakistan’s previous leader, Pervez Musharraf, after he declared emergency rule in November 2007 and sacked most of the existing constitutional judiciary, are seen as illegitimate by the opposition. That, and Zardari’s manoeuvring, sent the Sharifs’ supporters to the streets in a wave of often-violent demonstrations.

They were bolstered by Pakistan’s lawyers, who had already been protesting every Thursday for the reinstatement of the constitutional judiciary, and especially former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, sacked by Musharraf in 2007 along with the others—just before he was due to deliver a ruling that would likely have illegitimized Musharraf’s rule. As part of their ongoing agitation, the lawyers had been planning a march on Islamabad—and it now became the focal point of opposition as tens of thousands joined in, in spite of another colonial-era law imposed by Zardari to ban public assembly. With police refusing to stop the protesters, on March 16, the day the demonstrators were due to arrive in the capital, Zardari blinked, and in a deal brokered under the watchful eyes of Pakistan’s all-powerful military and the U.S. administration, offered the opposition a concession: Chaudhry’s reinstatement.

Zardari followed that with another olive branch, ordering the Supreme Court to again look at the ruling prohibiting the Sharifs from holding political office. In some circles those initiatives have been hailed as positive steps toward dispelling the bad blood between Pakistan’s two biggest parties. But political uncertainty—and the possibility that it could further increase—remains. Zardari has emerged weakened and isolated. In the October 2007 deal with Musharraf that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan from an eight-year self-imposed exile, outstanding corruption charges against both Bhutto and Zardari were dropped; observers are wondering whether a reinstated Chaudhry might choose to reintroduce them. The prospect of the head of Pakistan’s largest political party being forced from office is only adding to the instability—which has already inflicted great damage on Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, and bolstered Islamic extremists who say democracy and the corruption it appears to foster is foreign to their Islamic culture. “Pakistan is an Islamic country,” says Sufi Mohammad. And then, in a hint of his true intentions, he adds: “We have brought sharia to Swat, but God made sharia to bring peace and justice to the world. God willing, we will spread sharia to the world from here.” The starting point will, of course, be Pakistan—all of Pakistan, if Muhammad has his way.

The country is a long way from that yet. But the conflict between the forces competing for its soul—religious fundamentalism versus secularism—is taking its toll on the population. As the world’s media focuses their attention on the war against militants, average Pakistanis, the vast majority of whom are moderate Muslims with a Western-leaning world view, are struggling to reconcile the backwater image being thrust on them with their desire to be seen as modern and progressive. The English-language Dawn News channel, arguably the country’s most secular media outlet, regularly runs advertisements exhorting Pakistanis to “Rise up” and “Reclaim Your Identity.” The net result is a schizophrenic national consciousness that simultaneously despises the West and aspires to it. Deals with militants that threaten to tear the country apart by a possible division into a sharia northwest and secular south and east only add to the chaos, and raise questions about whether any nation can survive in such a fractured state.

Pakistani authorities, confronted with the paradox of acquiescing to militant demands while vowing to continue on the path of democracy, are spinning the positive points of the Swat deal. “Sharia is what the local people have been demanding for years,” they say. “The government is still in control.” Realities on the ground, however, point to a less stellar conclusion. In the five weeks since the deal was signed, there have been numerous kidnappings, bombings, and bloody confrontations between the military and militants. Swat’s citizens, those who haven’t fled the fighting, huddle in dingy storefronts or makeshift refugee camps, staving off the wet alpine chill with thin shawls and dwindling hope. Taliban fighters roam the devastated streets of towns like Kanju, 10 km south of Mingora on the road to Matta, the Taliban stronghold, enforcing their code through fear and intimidation. When they catch this reporter photographing children playing in the rubble of a demolished home, they attack before asking questions, damaging his camera. Told that their leadership has given permission for him to be there, they apologize profusely and offer tea.

TNSM spokesmen say such incidents will soon end. “We need time to bring the situation under control,” says Izzat Khan, a senior aide to Muhammad, and also one of the commanders who made it back alive from Afghanistan in 2002. “Under the ceasefire, the army and the Taliban have removed their checkpoints. This has created a security vacuum for miscreants to carry out criminal acts.” The TNSM has announced that, after the recent chaos, police officers are safe to resume their duties in Swat without threat of attack. But according to Shaukat Hayat, the deputy inspector general in Mingora, over 800 policeman deserted the force during the fighting, not willing to risk their lives or the lives of their families for the paltry wages they are paid. Very few have returned and, considering the continuing lawlessness, it seems likely that many will stay away permanently.

For the time being, the Taliban are the law, and the order they have imposed is brutal and unflinching. Pickup trucks filled with Taliban militants and equipped with loudspeakers roam the streets of Mingora, warning people to abide by Islamic law or face the consequences. Out of fear, Mingora’s hoteliers and shopkeepers are respecting the bans on television, the Internet, and card playing. All barber shops have posted signs asking people not to request any services that would contradict sharia injunctions (meaning no shaving). The streets of Mingora, alive with music just a few short years ago, are devoid of melody these days, save the occasional Quranic recitation, blasting over the din of cars and trucks from boom boxes carted around by Taliban supporters selling religious tapes and CDs, eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Is this the sharia Pakistan’s political leaders claim the people of Swat want? Locals have repeatedly told Maclean’s they are not interested in Taliban-style sharia, the kind that chops off heads and hands. But the problem with agreeing with violent militants on laws governing crime and punishment means also agreeing to allow a militant interpretation of those laws into the political discourse. The early signs of how sharia will work in Swat are not promising. The religious judges who have begun working in the courts have all been vetted by Muhammad, and the TNSM has promised to oversee their work. “We will make sure they are making the correct decisions,” says Muhammad. “We will help the government run the system.” That “help” will undoubtedly come in the form of pushing for outdated edicts in line with the TNSM’s own rigid interpretation of religious doctrine.

Defending the new system, one of the new judges claims that sharia has been unjustly maligned in the West. “Cutting off the right hand of a thief is correct Islamic punishment,” says Ehsan ur Rehman, 41. “But it’s a last-case scenario. It could happen, but I doubt you’ll see it.” As for women, there is no moderation, he adds. They must be covered at all times and accompanied by a male family member when outside the home. If an unmarried woman is caught having sex, the penalty is 50 lashes, and for adultery, death by stoning. A clash seems inevitable, pitting the mild form of sharia that the locals want against a system similar to the barbarism that Afghans were subjected to under Taliban rule.

In defending the deal in Swat, Pakistani authorities have talked about this being a dialogue with the “moderate Taliban,” a phrase coined by Western leaders who believe there are elements among the militants whom they can bring to the negotiating table in Afghanistan. The argument behind talking to this so-called moderate Taliban is based on pursuing what virtually every military strategist will say is the key element of fighting a counter-insurgency, or what Jonathan Schell, a respected war historian and author, calls “people’s war”: winning hearts and minds. According to this school of thought, the vast majority of Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which most of the Taliban are drawn, do not subscribe to global jihad. These fighters are men from the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal interior, fighting what is for them, at least partly, a cultural war to preserve the Pashtun way of life: an ultra-conservative blend of Islam and tribal customs. No one from the U.S. or NATO is going to convince these people that their culture is not under threat (indeed, Pakistanis and Afghans have failed to do so). What’s needed are intermediaries—in other words, “moderate Taliban”—and concessions, for example the institution of some form of sharia.

Swat is the testing ground for this approach. The Obama administration, which has ordered another 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, has admitted as much, saying that it will see how the peace deal in Swat and the implementation of sharia law plays out before deciding if a similar approach can be applied to Afghanistan. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, appears to have gone a step further, acknowledging the possibility of a strong Taliban political presence in Afghanistan. “If the nationalist Taliban come to power through the vote and accept the constitution, that is the Afghans’ business,” he told Le Figaro on March 9. “What we cannot accept is support for international jihad.”

No one, from the Pakistani government to the U.S. administration, is talking about cozying up to global jihadists. Instead, the logic behind the Swat deal is to offer some militants, namely the “moderate” SufiMuhammad and his TNSM, the opportunity to join the political process. But Muhammad doesn’t appear to be working with the same playbook. Based on his vision for Swat, moderation appears to be only a cover for religious authoritarianism—and jihad, although he keeps silent about that. His ties to al-Qaeda are well-established. Indeed, Pakistan’s decision to negotiate with him highlights how difficult finding moderates will be: the key hurdle, possibly insurmountable, is that while there may indeed be “moderate” or “nationalist” Taliban, the movement itself has become deeply, and perhaps irrevocably, intertwined with the al-Qaeda-inspired global jihadist movement—and is now better described as Talqaeda. That is what is now in the process of being established on Pakistani territory, and from there it can potentially intensify its jihad in Afghanistan and around the world.

The likelihood of that happening is very real, given that the Taliban are still being supported by powerful elements in Pakistan’s military establishment. According to local ISI sources in Swat, who spoke to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity, the deal with the TNSM as well as the agreements in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal belt are part of a larger ISI-led plan to re-establish strategic depth in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban regime there, the ISI has been looking for a new ally that would counter rising Indian influence with the Karzai government in Kabul. The TNSM represents that ally. “How do you think the TNSM fighters got to Afghanistan?” says one of the sources with close ties to the TNSM, referring to the ill-fated mission led by Muhammad at the start of the Afghan war. “How do you think the leadership managed to make it back alive? The ISI has always had close ties with them.”

The common belief in Pakistani military circles, as many Western diplomats have also come to believe, is that the Taliban will eventually have to play a role in the future of Afghan politics. The situation would be much the same as in Iraq, where the former Baath party has been brought back into the political fold, albeit under a different name, the Sunni Awakening—ushering in some measure of peace there. (It’s no accident that Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. successful counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq, is now hard at work deciphering the Afghan puzzle.) If and when those elements enter the Afghan political arena, Pakistan wants to be sure it will have some leverage with them.

It’s an old and risky game, considering the current Taliban-al-Qaeda nexus. And what’s most interesting about the Swat deal is not what is present in the text but what is omitted: it does not require the TNSM to halt its support for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Indeed, what it does do is free up its own fighters, now hardened and experienced after two years of battling the Pakistani military, to carry the war across the border. Similarly, an agreement between opposing Taliban factions in the North and South Waziristan Tribal Areas suggests that the strategic shift is not limited to the Swati militants. The rapprochement between Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban warlord and target of recent U.S. drone attacks, and his rivals, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur (both of whom had signed peace deals with the Pakistani government), points to a larger Taliban objective. Indeed, a recent announcement from Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar asking the Pakistani Taliban to stop fighting Pakistani authorities and focus its attention on Afghanistan adds some credence to the speculation that the Taliban, with the aid of the ISI, is preparing for a major showdown with coalition troops.

In Swat, the TNSM militants will not be drawn into admitting that they will join the fight in Afghanistan. They do, however, voice their support for the Afghan jihad. “Our brothers there are suffering like us,” Muhammad says, adding ominously that the Afghan war is a valid jihad, which would imply that under his belief system all Muslims are required by Islamic law to go there and fight. By reining in his son-in-law in Swat, Muhammad appears to be falling in line with the overall Taliban strategy. “The jihad in Pakistan has been destructive to our cause,” he says. “Muslims have enough enemies; we should not be fighting each other.”

While Muhammad does not openly address the issue of global jihad, some of his supporters are less circumspect about their overarching mission. “I’ll tell you how we can end this war,” says Khan, the senior aide. “If we can get our men close to the U.S., in Venezuela, or Brazil, or Canada, and attack them from there, then they will stop attacking us.” Among the TNSM, there are already men who operate clandestinely, shaving off their beards and donning Western clothes.

Is this the new face of the Talqaeda of future global jihad, with Pakistan as its home turf? For Sufi Muhammad, it seems, an al-Qaeda-inspired jihad is his new mission: Swat first, then Pakistan, then the world. “My work has not finished,” he says. “My work has only begun.”