Pakistan and the threat of extremism - Despite outrage over Malala’s shooting, the dark forces are gathering again
Back home, says Nusrat Javed, host of a popular political show, “Malala has liberated Pakistan.” Pakistanis have voiced unprecedented anger against the Pakistani Taliban, calling for the peaceful majority to reclaim the country’s destiny from gun-toting, head-chopping extremists.
The question is whether political, military and religious leaders have Malala’s gumption. Most condemned the attack without condemning the Pakistani Taliban. A few went further. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who had already taken a more aggressive stance against extremists in recent months, sounded ready for action. After visiting Malala in hospital in Pakistan, he said: “We refuse to bow before terror. We will fight, regardless of the cost. We will prevail.”
The obvious military response would be to go after the Pakistani Taliban in their stronghold of North Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan. The United States has long urged the army to go after extremists there. The government coalition, led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), also proposed a resolution calling for (presumably military) “practical measures” in response to the attack on Malala.
It is all starting to look like the high-water mark of courage. No national consensus exists about whether to fight the home-grown Taliban or, in some unexplained way, to make peace with them. On October 16th the main opposition party, led by a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, opposed the government’s resolution, demanding proof that earlier military operations had not weakened the country rather than strengthened it. The PPP balked, and dropped its proposal. With an election due in the next few months, politicians of all stripes are cautious about advocating operations against extremists that could result in a violent blowback across Pakistan.
Besides, the army appears not to have a plan and rationale for going into North Waziristan. Past military operations in the tribal areas, including in Swat, have not cleared them of extremists. The operations were often half-hearted, leaving the tribal people deeply cynical of the army’s intentions. After all, the army has long used jihadists as its proxy warriors. Awkwardly, the leadership of the Swat branch of the Pakistani Taliban is based not in North Waziristan but in Afghanistan.
And now, stung by the opprobrium, the Taliban is lashing out. Pakistani journalists are under serious threat, while international news organisations are lying low or scaling back their operations in Islamabad, the capital. A smear campaign by religious conservatives has begun against Malala, painting her as some kind of “American agent”. And on October 15th over 100 Taliban attacked a police station near the north-western city of Peshawar. After killing the local police chief and five of his men, they sliced off his head and took it away as a trophy.
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