In Pakistan, sympathy for the Taliban
By Mustafa Qadri
Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) , the umbrella
organization for Pakistan's multiple Taliban movements, seeks to spread its
strict Deobandi interpretation of Islam to all of Pakistan.
"They don't just want to control FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
where they are based], but want to control the entire country," says Ayesha
Jalal, one of the foremost historians of Pakistan who recently wrote a book on
the history of jihad in South Asia. The Taliban claim they fight in the name of
But if the Taliban are judged by actions and not words, their primary targets
are ordinary Muslims.
A Taliban suicide attack on the Wah army munitions facility in
August killed 70 and injured over 100 more. All those killed were ordinary,
working Muslims, as were the people killed by a Taliban suicide bomber when he
blew himself up at the casualty ward of a hospital in the city of Dera Ismail
Khan on August 19. The Taliban said the attack was justified because the
hospital was administering polio vaccinations, something it considers
prohibited by Islam.
The nearly weekly attacks on girls' schools - such as the more than 100
destroyed in Pakistan's northwestern and mountainous Swat district in the past
10 months - are justified in the same way.
Such acts against fellow Muslims seem unconscionable even to conservative
Muslims not affiliated with the Taliban. "The people who planned the
assassination attack on me are not Muslim," declared former Pakistan prime
minister Benazir Bhutto after she survived the first attempt on her life in
October last year. "No Muslim can attack a woman. No Muslim can attack innocent
After the Wah blasts, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani told parliament,
"We cannot allow terrorists to challenge the writ of the government."
Yet the Taliban manage to retain the sympathy of many Muslims in Afghanistan
and Pakistan. A major reason for this is the presence of foreign troops that do
not appear to understand the dynamics of local tribal politics. Another is the
insecurity that most civilians exposed to the conflict face. When foreign
forces kill civilians, the Taliban are able to avoid responsibility for the
atrocities they commit.
Long line of occupiers
Pakistan's political and religious leadership, while routinely condemning their
violence, has generally avoided challenging the Taliban's credentials as a
Muslim movement. Many leaders, like the Jamiat-Ulema-Islami's Maulana Fazal
Rehman, prefer to focus on deaths caused by Western forces in Pakistan's
North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan. The inescapable message is
that the Taliban may not be loved, but the real criminals are foreign
This double standard is partially explained by popular antipathy toward the
involvement of Western armies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States
and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) follow in a long line of
foreign armies that have claimed to bring order to the region but have instead
killed many civilians while serving their own interests and failing to respect
US and NATO attacks have increased in 2008, as have civilian casualties, and US
officials recently admitted that their forces conducted what may have been the
first US ground assault against the Taliban in Pakistan in early September.
NATO forces also stand accused of taking part in the operation in which up to
20 civilians, including women and children, were killed.
Some Pakistanis believe the Taliban insurgency is the latest in a long line of
anti-colonial militancy stretching back to the mid-19th century uprisings
against British rule. The Pakistan army, in contrast, is seen as an agent of
the United States. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf exacerbated this
perception with his unquestioning support for US intervention in the region.
Under Musharraf, the US established a massive air base near Quetta, just south
of NWFP, from which it launches air strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan with
Nor have people forgotten that Pakistan was the conduit for America's proxy war
with the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. That war developed the
infrastructure that the Taliban now uses to prosecute its war. Moreover,
Pakistan's war with the Taliban in the NWFP has displaced up to 300,000
citizens. US and NATO missile strikes have also displaced tens of thousands of
people. This has helped nurture sympathy for the Taliban at a time when many
Pakistanis feel besieged by the US and India, an old rival that's developing
greater regional power.
Another factor is that the conflict isn't merely between the Taliban and the
armies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and NATO. That conflict is but one
strand of a complex web of conflicts that includes militant groups either
supported or opposed by Pakistan's military establishment, and rival tribes
involved in regional disputes that have been co-opted into the wider conflict,
such as the inter-tribal and sectarian clashes currently occurring in the
Kurram Agency region of NWFP.
The lack of clearly distinguishable friends and foes has made it difficult for
both Pakistan's politicians and the general population to single out the
Taliban for the atrocities they have committed. As a result, many in Pakistan
live in denial of the existence and motives of Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan.
"There is no Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan," says Asif, a musician from Lahore.
"This is a civil war [but] they don't want to tell people that."
Others like Mahmoud, a Karachi rickshaw driver, are openly supportive of the
Taliban. "They are holy warriors, true Muslims," he said. To people like
Mahmoud, the Wah suicide attacks were justified. The people killed or injured
"deserved their fate for serving the interests of America and the Jews. The
[Pakistan] army has killed so many in [NWFP] and in the Red Mosque [during a
Pakistan army siege that killed many hundreds including women and children] ...
according to our faith, those who do not obey Islam are no longer Muslim and it
is lawful to kill them."
But such sentiments don't go unchallenged. Many understand the Taliban as a
violent, extremist organization whose targeting of girls' schools and civilians
is inimical to the sub-continent's traditionally moderate Muslim traditions.
"Islamic faith spread [in the sub-continent] through the Sufi tradition [of]
inclusiveness, embracing local traditions and religious concepts," notes
Pakistani historian Jalal.
A large demonstration took place in Wah after the suicide attacks and shops
closed the next day, also in protest. In several parts of NWFP, people are
forming armed squads to take on the Taliban. The tide may be starting to turn
against the Taliban, much as it did for Islamic militants in Algeria during the
Without adequate political leadership, eradicating sympathy for the Taliban may
prove more difficult than eradicating their hideouts in frontier Pakistan. But
as long as NATO and the United States continue unilateral strikes in Pakistan
that kill civilians, the real battle - for hearts and minds - will be lost.
Mustafa Qadri, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a freelance
journalist from Australia reporting from Pakistan. His website is