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Taliban and anti-Taliban

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Post 9/11, as the war on terror unfolded, loads of literature on the Taliban has emerged across the globe. Much of literary toil has undergone in producing insights on the inception of Taliban- the groups’ present shape, its future course and repercussions on regional/global security. Notwithstanding, the end resulting discourse has been illuminating, it is fretted with confusion, contradictions and paradoxes. Against this kind of profusion, the book Taliban and Anti-Taliban by Farhat Taj, a Pakhtun from North West Pakistan, has been conceptualized to serve as a rejoinder to several myths and misleading data regarding the Taliban, which have been afloat over the years. 

Based on extensive field research and travel throughout the tribal belt of north western Pakistan, referred to as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the book brings forth interesting facets of Taliban militancy, most of which has remained unacknowledged. At the outset, the author makes scathing assertions regarding the collision of Pakistani state with the Taliban. Ranks of Taliban were accommodated in Pakistan’s FATA region at the behest of the state and the military. Pakistan army’s associations with fundamentalist forces goes back to the time when the so called Mujahideen were trained under its aegis to counter the advances made by the erstwhile Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan. While commenting on the Taliban army nexus, the author indicates how it was probably at this point of time that fundamentalism and extremist jihadi ideology permeated into Pakistan army’s overall character. Even after the Soviet withdrawal, the extremist forces were retained and nurtured as a strategic tool against India’s rising influence in Afghanistan, in a quest to exercise greater power and authority in neighbourhood. In this regard, the author clearly puts the onus on the state apparatus, noting that it is entirely up to the will of the state whether a militant “can ever stay in Waziristan or elsewhere in FATA” (p. 3).

One of the principle propositions contained in the book is regarding the non-receptivity of the tribal people towards the Taliban. On this issue, the author primarily challenges the notion that the tribal people have never resisted the fundamentalist forces/Taliban elements.  The author contests the belief that these fighters ever surrendered their weapons before the tribal population in FATA. On the contrary, the locals have been averse to the presence of such extremist elements on their land. Not only this, they have been subjected to atrocities if they resisted Taliban presence in the area. In one of such instances, based on her interactions with the tribal people, she remarks on how the military would encourage tribal leaders to blurt out their hatred against the Taliban, record their outburst and pass it onto the Taliban, who would later threaten and execute those tribal leaders.  This fed into widespread enrage amongst tribals who felt they had been betrayed by the state.

The author posits certain key assertions regarding tribal structures such as the Tribal Lashkars which she argues were formed to protect the resident tribal population from the clutches of Taliban led militancy. Here, Taj refutes the claim that these Lashkars were either formed by the state machinery or are pro-government in stance. She also rejects the idea of recurring cases of marital ties between the local women belonging to FATA and the foreign jihadi elements who sought refuge in the region. Taj makes significant remarks on the literature which portrays that having married the local women, the Taliban have become part of social interactions, local businesses and various other exchanges in the tribal region. According to her, several authors either devoid of first-hand information or due to lack of in-depth understanding have come to argue this case of matrimonial affiliation between locals and the Taliban. The author suggests that there is’nt enough evidence to prove this kind of assimilation of the Taliban fighters with the local tribal population.

Contrary to the popular belief that drone attacks targeting militants in the FATA region have caused unprecedented collateral damage, the author argues there have not been as many civilian causalities as has been projected by the state and the media. She notes that people have been very supportive of the action to eradicate militants from the tribal region. The author’s assertion stems from the Peshawar Declaration signed in 2009 by a cross section of political parties, civil society, and tribal people amongst others. The declaration underscored popular support towards every effort directed at combating militancy in the region, including the drone strikes.  

Taliban and Anti-Taliban is a commendable effort and captures FATA, often described as the epicenter of global jihad or as being the most dangerous place on earth, in a rather different light. The cardinal belief is that the scourge of terrorism in Pakistan and beyond is said to be emanating from this otherwise picturesque terrain of FATA. Therefore, since Pakistan’s slide into the abyss of militancy, scores of writings has been produced which have coloured FATA as a land of primitive practices- a highly orthodox society with conditions conducive to serve as a militant sanctuary.  Farhat Taj sets out to dislodge what according to her have been the prevalent myths regarding the tribal population, the “colonial stereotypes” or the perception drawn by the mighty military establishment in Pakistan (p.xi). To commensurate with long held misperceptions, the author attempts a two way course correction: to present the region through the prism of the people of FATA and to highlight their perception on the existing literature by collating their views obtained during interactions.

The book is a summation of the author’s quest to explore the truth on FATA which for long has been overridden by rigid unfounded notions. She has adeptly put together a treasure of information by interviewing a broad spectrum of people cutting across class and sections in FATA. The book is essentially critical in essence: some of the assertions and arguments directly indict the military, the politicians and other stake holders in Pakistan. Conscious of the likely fallout, the author appeals that her criticism of the intuitions, the systems or of the the existing literature be taken constructively.  She believes a careful understating of the accurate situation and issues would make Pakistan’s fight against militancy stand in good stead.

Priyanka Singh is associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, India.

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