Taliban: Pakistan's Nemesis or Opportunity?

The biggest threat to Pakistanï's survival comes not from India but from the Taliban entrenched firmly within its own territory. To understand why, some facts need to be recalled.

The Taliban headquartered in Afghanistan is led by Mullah Omar. Its Pakistan affiliate is the Tehreek-e-Taliban led by Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah's brother, Hakimullah, is his most active commander derailing convoys carting supplies from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass to NATO forces operating in Afghanistan. Earlier, Hakimullah reportedly masterminded the killing of Chinese officials working in Pakistan. This turn-around from the traditionally friendly Taliban attitude towards China came about, most likely, after China supplied arms to Iran's Shiite militants operating in Iraq. This would have infuriated Al Qaida's Sunni deputy entrusted with masterminding operations, Ayman-al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri is considered to be Baitullah's mentor.

The Pashtun tribes, from whom the Taliban are recruited, are thrice as many within Pakistan as in Afghanistan itself. The Pakistani Taliban faction therefore is a powerful force in the jihaadi war. Some Punjabis too have been recruited in its ranks. Historically, the Pashtuns had friendly ties with India. Even after the creation of Pakistan, the attendant Indo-Pak hostility, and the influence of Taliban on Pashtun society, a substantial number of Pashtuns continue to happily reside in India.

Recently Baitullah Mehsud caused a flutter by stating that if Pakistan had war with India the Taliban would help its war effort by providing fighters. The Pakistani Taliban's ties with the Pakistan army run deep. Even before Baitullah's offer, before the Mumbai terror, the Pakistan army had described the Taliban as patriots. Obviously, if the Taliban were to provide fighters to aid the Pakistan army in the event of a war with India, hostilities on Pakistan's western border would cease. Even if there is no war with India, Mehsud's statement encourages a ceasefire. This is good news for Pakistan in the short term. It could be very bad news in the long term.

Mehsud's offer to Pakistan should be read in the light of what Mullah Omar is attempting inside Afghanistan. He is reaching out to the US and has even offered a "seven point plan" to end the war. Mullah Omar delivered his plan through Saudi King Abdullah. Earlier, the Taliban had insisted that all NATO and US troops must leave Afghanistan. Now it accepts a timetable for their withdrawal. It seeks their replacement by peacekeeping forces from Muslim nations until a consensus Afghan government is formed. Mullah Omar suggested Jordan, Algeria and Egypt. According to reports King Abdullah passed on the peace offer to President Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai when the leaders met at the UN conference in November. Mullah Omar appeared willing to share power with the Hamid Karzai government provided there was a change in the current political set-up based upon the earlier Bonn Conference which the Taliban did not attend. The Taliban appears ready to distance itself from Al Qaida. Some sections are reported to be willing to surrender Zawahiri, but not Osama bin Laden.

Iran would welcome the diminution of Al Qaida even as it remained wary of Taliban resurfacing in the Kabul government. But America had invested considerable effort in quiet diplomacy to cement ties between the Sunnis and the Shiites through contacts encouraged between the Saudis and Iran. Now those efforts might pay off. Bringing peace to Afghanistan would strengthen America's hand to settle with Iran. The latter would welcome the Indo-Pak-Iranian pipeline-deal getting back on track.

It will be seen therefore that Baitullah Mehsud's offer of providing Taliban fighters to the Pakistan army in case of war with India, which necessarily would divert Pakistan from fighting in Afghanistan, complements very well Mullah Omar's peace initiative. At the end of it all, if the peace efforts did succeed, the Pashtuns cutting across Pakistan and Afghanistan would have emerged as a consolidated, unified group. If they failed, war would escalate and bring incalculable results. If forced to choose between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which would the Pakistani Taliban choose? If the formation of a new independent Pashtun nation is to be avoided, Pakistan would have to show flexibility. It would have to accept a regional arrangement allowing free intermingling of peoples in South Asian nations that did not alter the present international borders. In other words Pakistan would have to support a South Asian Union. India could help by taking an initiative on Kashmir. The current Kashmir poll inspires confidence.

Most recently President Zardari said that the current situation would change by February. He added that the only solution to all the problems of the region lay through having a dialogue. Does he know something that most of us don't?


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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