As its army confronts, ever more bloodily, the Taliban in Swat Valley, Pakistan is fighting for its very soul. The army appears to be winning this time around, in marked contrast to its recent half-hearted confrontations with Taliban forces in neighboring tribal areas. For now, the Taliban are on the run, some with shaved beards and some in burqas, to avoid being recognized and thrashed. The reason is simple: Increasingly, people across Pakistan support the army’s action. This support persists despite the terrible humanitarian cost: more than 1.5 million internal refugees.
This round of fighting was preceded by a negotiated calm, as the government sought to quell militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas by striking a deal with the Taliban leader, Sufi Mohammad. The deal, which instituted a version of Shariah law in the region in exchange for a commitment that militants would lay down their weapons, was blessed by the comparatively liberal Awami National Party, which governs the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Swat is located.
But the Taliban’s assurances of a lower profile were upended by two incidents that exposed its real face. First, private news channels broadcast across the country a video clip recorded on a cellphone of the public flogging of a 17-year-old Swat girl. This gave the public a stark sense of what Taliban justice really meant.
Then, Mohammad was interviewed on GEO TV, where he explained his political views. Mohammad said democracy was un-Islamic, as were Pakistan’s Constitution and judiciary, and Islam bared women from getting an education or leaving their homes except to perform the hajj in Mecca. Religious conservatives were stunned. Leaders of the religious parties rushed to denounce Mohammad’s views. The Pakistani media revisited a famous comment by Mohammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher who devised the idea of an independent Muslim state in Pakistan.
“The religion of the mullah,” he said, “is anarchy in the name of Allah.”
Still, it’s not over until it’s over — and in the short-term a lot depends on the state’s capacity to hold the Swat area and re-establish civilian institutions there. And even if the state succeeds, re-asserting control over Swat will only be the first step. The Taliban is spread throughout the NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “Punjabi Taliban” militants from the fighting in Kashmir against India continue to shuttle between the Punjab heartland and the Northwest Territories, posing another serious challenge to government authority.
In the long-term, however, what really matters is whether the Muslims of South Asia will be able to roll back the spread of Talibanization altogether. The answer to that question lies within the various Muslim communities of the region, not just in Pakistan.
Afghanistan faces an election later this year. A clear and transparent vote will make a real difference in establishing the credibility of the Afghan government. In Pakistan, the democratic transition, after years of military rule, is still not complete. There is much hope, though, in the vibrancy of the Pakistani media, as well as in the energy that the legal community generated last March in restoring deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to his seat on the Supreme Court.
Then there is the Pakistani army, the country’s “super political party.” To a large degree, Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the US depend on the military. Army commander Ashfaq Kiyani has shown no interest in taking over the state, as his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, did. But the army must accept its subservience to Pakistan’s political leadership. The army command must finally recognize that repeated military interventions have not served the country well.
Most significantly, in the face of martial law and political assassination, Pakistanis have not given up their dream of democracy. A living example of this is Afzal Lala, a Pashtun politician associated with the Awami National Party who, despite all the threats from the bloodthirsty Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, remained in Swat through the recent fighting.
Democracy will be decisive because it generates investments in education, health and economic empowerment that reward ordinary voters. Talibanization gains ground when people lose faith in the capacity of the modern state to improve their lives.
Hassan Abbas is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE
Since COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, there has been a fair amount of news regarding discrimination and “witch hunts” against medical personnel, people under self-quarantine and other targets, such as the students of a school where an infection was discovered. Quarantine breakers are almost certainly on the loose and it is only natural for people to be vigilant. One in Chiayi was found by accident at a traffic stop because his helmet was not fastened. However, those who follow the rules by quarantining themselves should be encouraged to keep up the good work in a difficult situation, instead of being
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator-at-large Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷) has said that there is a huge difference between Chinese military aircraft circling Taiwan along the edges of its airspace and invading Taiwan’s airspace. He also said that whether it is US or Chinese aircraft flying along or encircling Taiwan’s airspace, there is no legal basis to say that such actions imply a clear provocation of Taiwan, and asked the Ministry of National Defense not to mislead the public. People who hear this might think that it is not a very Taiwanese thing to say. US military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan
As the nation welcomes home Taiwanese who had been stranded in China’s Hubei Province — arguably one of the most dangerous places on Earth since the novel coronavirus outbreak began in its capital, Wuhan, late last year — problems surrounding the “quasi-charter flights” that brought them back have been largely overlooked. The media used the term to describe the two flights dispatched by Taiwan’s state-run China Airlines because they do not count as charter flights. Taiwanese wanting to board those flights had to travel — most likely by train — more than 1,000km from Hubei to Shanghai Pudong International Airport
As the COVID-19 pandemic spins out of control, many parts of the world are experiencing shortages of medical masks and other protective equipment. I am studying in Washington state, which at the time of writing is the US state that has suffered the largest number of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The week before last, UW Medicine — an organization that includes the University of Washington School of Medicine and associated medical centers and clinics — sent its volunteers an e-mail asking the public to make masks and donate them to hospitals. Attached to the message was a mask donation