There are many players of the political game in Pakistan. Some are over ground, others are underground. Underground outfits have covert links with over ground powers. It is difficult to fathom who is what and who goes with whom. In this situation of Byzantine intrigue all the major players appear to be paralyzed. None appears willing to initiate change. But change in Pakistan is inevitable. The present state of affairs cannot continue. In this murky atmosphere truth remains obscure. Official pronouncements are dismissible. One therefore must rely on personal instinct.
The accepted version of recent events is unacceptable. Osama bin Laden was hiding in the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment. That no part of the Pakistan military establishment was aware is unbelievable. American operatives encroached into Pakistan in helicopters and killed Osama. That no part of the Pakistan military establishment was aware is unbelievable. But the fiction of ignorance on both counts has to be maintained by both America and Pakistan. Behind the curtain one does not know what bitter accusations of betrayal might be flowing inside Pakistan’s military establishment. What one does know is that neither the Pakistan military, nor the Pakistan civilian government, nor the US government is prepared to rock the boat.
Hypocritical silence must be maintained to continue the status quo. Each player has a vested interest in the fictitious official version. America dare not rock the boat for fear of losing access to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Pakistan’s army must perpetuate the fiction for fear of further exposure and disgrace. Pakistan’s civilian government must maintain the fiction to avoid provoking a disgraced army which can remove it. All the players are paralyzed. Then which player will initiate change in the situation?
There is one player that most likely will act. And its sustained action could alter for all time the situation in Pakistan. The Taliban could be the catalyst for change in Pakistan. The Pakistan army committed a double act of betrayal. It betrayed America and the world by housing Osama bin Laden. It betrayed the Taliban, which was covertly supported by it earlier, through allowing the Americans to kill Osama. America and the world may overlook the betrayal by the Pakistan army. One doubts if the Taliban will be as forgiving.
There are so many terrorist outfits owing covert allegiance to so many over ground entities that it is impossible for anyone except security experts to unravel the role of each. But for our purpose a broad categorization will serve. There is on the one hand the Lashkar-e-Toiba headed by Hafiz Saeed that operates mainly against India and in Kashmir. The Lashkar is controlled by the ISI and is loyal to the Pakistan army. On the other hand is the Taliban having branches in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban feels betrayed by the Pakistan army because it was supporting Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has already organized one major strike killing 80 Pakistan army recruits. It has threatened more strikes. Contrary to popular perception one consistently maintained that the prime source of Taliban’s motivation was not global jihad but frustration emanating from the century old domination and interference in the region by the big global powers.
Long before the current American war in Afghanistan that country was devastated by the Great Game played between colonial Britain and Tsarist Russia, and later by the Soviet occupation. This long spell ruined the lives of countless Pashtuns who reside on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Taliban recruits Pashtuns from both sides of the border. Thousands of Pashtuns joined the Taliban to oppose America since the war began in 2001. The American drone attacks in the NWFP led to heavy Pashtun recruitment on the Pakistani side of the border. There were distinct signs that the Taliban sided with Osama bin Laden not because it supported global jihad but because Osama was perceived as the enemy of America which had occupied Afghanistan. Several statements and offers made by Mullah Omar indicated this. The Americans chose to demonize the Taliban because it could not rely on its eventual cooperation in allowing US access to Central Asia. It failed to perceive that any mutually fair arrangement would be acceptable to the Taliban because the Pashtuns are starved for funds. Only recently have the Americans reversed policy to attempt negotiation with the Taliban.
The Pakistan army made a covert alliance with the Taliban in pursuit of its aim to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns were made to believe that the Pakistan army was merely bleeding America for funds in order to confront India. But the death of Osama has ripped the mask hiding the true face of the Pakistan army. One doubts if the Taliban will ever trust the Pakistan army any more. It is likely that Taliban attacks against the army will escalate. And if there is sustained confrontation the Taliban struggle could assume a new dimension.
It is quite likely that a prolonged confrontation between the Taliban and the Pakistan army could change the nature of the struggle and alter theTaliban’s goals. Over time the assertion of Pashtun identity and the consolidation of the Pashtun population could become the overriding goal. All Pashtuns on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, including those in the Karzai government and among the Taliban, and even the over 25 percent in the Pakistan army, would acquire a common unifying cause that has eluded them for over a century; the creation of a Pashtun state. It should be noted that in Pakistan’s tribal belt only a few families own orchards and land pastures that provide livelihood. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords control the timber from forests and operate the mines. There is economic deprivation and resentment among the Pashtun mass in the Swat valley and allied regions. The provincial government has failed to stem rampant corruption in the police and judiciary. In other words, although not properly articulated yet, the grievances of the Pakistani Pashtuns are largely political.
These factors indicate that the emergence of Pashtun consolidation and identity is unstoppable. If the Pakistan military and civilian establishment exhibit wisdom and decentralize the nation to peacefully integrate it with the rest of South Asia, Pakistan in its present form will survive and thrive. If not, Pakistan could balkanize. The Taliban revolt could lead to far reaching change.