Two months ago, Bashir Hussein was hoping that a peace deal between the Taliban and the provincial government in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) would finally bring an end to the violence that has plagued the Swat Valley for the past two years. The 75-year-old principal at the al-Mannar public high school in Mingora, Swat’s main city, says he’s seen so much violence in that time that the preceding decades of peace feel like a distant memory. After the accord was signed, some measure of normalcy returned to the school, one of the few co-ed institutions that remained open throughout the Taliban takeover of Pakistan’s mountainous north. But not without changes: Hussein renovated the school building to comply with the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law that bars any interaction between males and females, religious studies were given more attention, and the female staff were ordered to wear burkas, the all-encompassing shroud commonly worn by women in the ethnic Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Hussein says he did what was necessary to keep his boys and girls learning. “There was a time, before the deal came into place,” he recalls, “when I told my staff that if they wanted, they could go back to their villages and I would close the school. But one of the teachers stood up and said, ‘No. If you are going to die here, we will die with you.’ ” The accord signed in February, giving the Taliban de facto control over a large swath of territory northwest of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, was a kind of blessing. Hussein and his staff could go on with the task of educating Swat’s youth, as long as they followed the Taliban’s anachronistic code of conduct.
That was the theory. But last week’s collapse of the accord exposes a much more sobering fact: the Swat Taliban never intended to accept the terms of the deal. Sharia, their key demand, which many Pakistanis accepted as either a localized desire for justice or an expression of the Islamic faith that is at the heart of the Pakistani identity, was only the first stage of a far-reaching agenda by the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. When the Taliban violated the terms of the accord three weeks ago, pushing into the Buner district, a mere 100 km from Islamabad, Pakistanis began to understand what that agenda might be. This was not an isolated fundamentalist Islamic revivalist movement, limited to the ethnic Pashtun north and west of their country, but a much broader and more sinister drive, powered by al-Qaeda’s radical hatred of the West, to turn Pakistan into the world’s epicentre of ultra-orthodoxy.
As Pakistanis have woken up to that reality, taking to the streets to protest the Taliban’s self-proclaimed Islamic revolution, shells are raining down on the towns and villages of Swat. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are on the move in what human rights organizations are warning could quickly become the worst internal displacement crisis in the world. Organizers at refugee camps scattered around Swat and Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP, already overwhelmed by the victims of the Pakistan military’s new offensive against Islamic militancy, are bracing for another massive influx. Meanwhile, the blame game has begun, with Pakistan’s militant preachers blaming the government for the crisis and the government blaming the militants.
Pakistanis find themselves at a crossroads. Do they demand an end to the offensive for the sake of safeguarding civilians, at the cost of giving the Taliban, now indistinguishable from their al-Qaeda allies in terms of their ideological scope, another opportunity to regroup and entrench themselves even more deeply into their nation’s social fabric—well beyond what even they accepted as radical Islam’s home turf in the north and west? Or will Pakistanis back their leaders and prepare for a fight to the finish? Both the Taliban and the Pakistani authorities realize just how crucial it is to win over the local population in what is, ultimately, a battle of ideas. For months, the Taliban had taken advantage of civilian casualties caused by the Pakistani military’s ongoing offensives against militants, which they blamed on U.S. pressure and influence. In Swat, they had embarked on a rare public relations campaign, inviting in journalists, holding press conferences, and framing their demands in the context of peace and justice for the people. It seemed the Taliban had wised up to the power of spin.
But some Pakistani leaders were not about to let the extremists gain the PR upper hand. According to Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s military spokesman, the controversial Swat deal was part of the military’s own counter-spin strategy. It worked on two levels. First and perhaps foremost, it showed the Pakistani people that the government was not being dictated to by the U.S. administration, which was deeply skeptical of the accord; secondly, it proved the government was willing to negotiate, something Pakistanis had been demanding for years. “But we are always ready to defend Pakistan against terrorists,” Abbas told Maclean’s three weeks before the deal collapsed. “If this deal fails, it will be because the Taliban did not keep their word.” Indeed, even then Abbas was cynical of the Swat Taliban’s willingness to limit their activities in exchange for a truce, accusing their leader Sufi Muhammad of having his own agenda. If the Taliban reneged on the deal, as he expected, they would reveal their true face to the Pakistani people.
In the end Abbas, and other observers from around the world, were proven right, and the pendulum has now swung back in favour of the Pakistani authorities. The Taliban pushed beyond the parameters of the Swat deal, giving Pakistan’s government and military leaders justification to engage them in an all-out offensive. But the Taliban and other al-Qaeda-linked militant groups in Pakistan can still point to the fact that the military operation began only after intense criticism from the White House, and during a visit by Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington. That reinforces the militants’ argument that the Pakistani government and military are mere pawns of the U.S. It’s part of a narrative that is relatively straightforward and common, whether you’re talking to a villager in the mountains of Swat or a day labourer in the semi-arid deserts of southern Punjab: the West, and the U.S. in particular, is out to destroy Islam. Period. And the Pakistani government is complicit. A new U.S. administration that has tried to prove it is on a new path means little to these people—they either do not understand the way Western democracy operates, or have absorbed the spin of the “evil West,” clinging to it regardless of changes in leadership and policy.
This, perhaps, is al-Qaeda’s greatest victory in Pakistan, and not the rising power of their Taliban proxies or any single attack, regardless of how spectacular it might be. Their triumph is in how thoroughly they have spread the message and convinced the poor and uneducated in places far beyond Pakistan’s militant heartland that the West is a disease, and global jihad its cure. Whether al-Qaeda survives is irrelevant now; the ideology has a life of its own, and is infinitely more difficult to kill.
The steady rise of al-Qaeda-style Islamic militancy in Punjab, for example, Pakistan’s most populous province, is part of this. In the poverty-stricken deep south, bordering volatile Baluchistan province, discussions in mosques and other religious institutions inevitably revolve around the mortal threat Islam faces from the West. In Rajanpur, a dusty, ramshackle town 550 km south of Islamabad, more and more Islamic missionaries are arriving to preach the kind of hatred for the West that is commonly the theme of videotaped rants by al-Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. At the Makki Jamia mosque in the centre of the town, one such missionary, travelling from the southern port city of Karachi, puts it bluntly: “You can’t use the name al-Qaeda anymore,” he says. “If you say even one good thing about al-Qaeda, you will be arrested. So groups now give themselves different names—Jaish-so-and-so, Lashkar-this-and-that. But it’s all the same. They are all working toward what al-Qaeda is working toward: to destroy America.”
Recent events only prove to him, and other like-minded militant preachers, that Islam is the real target of America’s war on terror. U.S. drone attacks targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders but often killing innocent civilians as well are one element of a growing list of grievances that Muslims in Pakistan point to as evidence of a U.S. plot. “As the U.S. drone attacks increase, anger toward the U.S. will increase and support for al-Qaeda will grow,” says Muhammad Ramzan Shahid, the head of security for Rajanpur. “The attacks are killing Muslims. That’s not good for us. That’s not good for our religion.”
Areas like south Punjab and Swat are a prime focus for militant preachers looking for new recruits, and they find ready converts in the masses of ultra-conservative villagers. South Punjab has for years been the heartland of Punjabi militant outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba—pre-al-Qaeda groups that worked with the Pakistani military to destabilize Indian-controlled Kashmir. More recently, both of these have turned their fury on targets outside Kashmir—their traditional battleground—like the high-profile attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police training centre in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, and last November’s bloodbath in Mumbai, India’s economic hub. “They used to have offices around here,” says Azam, the owner of a shop in Rajanpur, only giving his first name. “But they were all closed after the Sept. 11 attacks in America. Nobody knows where these guys went.”
If their recent activities are any indication, they have moved closer to al-Qaeda, focusing their attacks against the Pakistani government and preaching their anti-Western message in mosques and religious schools—madrasas—closer to, and sometimes in, key Pakistani cities like Lahore and Islamabad. The July 2007 confrontation at the Red Mosque in Islamabad was the first indication that these same Punjabi extremists had infiltrated the Pakistani capital. During a violent week-long standoff there pitting the mosque’s faithful and radicalized religious students at an adjoining madrasa against the Pakistani army, hundreds were killed. For the militants, the slaughter was a kind of Pearl Harbor—it closed the door on their relationship with Pakistan’s military, and converted them into another adjunct of the al-Qaeda network.
Much changed in Pakistan after that incident. The Swat Taliban increased their activities, setting off the cycle of violence that led to the peace deal there and its eventual collapse. Attacks in Punjab against Pakistani security forces spiked, and anger skyrocketed in south Punjab, the home region of the leaders of the Red Mosque, Abdul Aziz Ghazi and his brother Abdul Rashid. Abdul Rashid was killed during the standoff, but his brother was arrested while trying to escape, disguised as a woman in a burka. His release on bail on April 16, and his immediate return to the Red Mosque as its religious leader, was, according to government sources, intended to placate the Punjabi militants. In much the same way, Sufi Muhammad’s release in 2008, after his more than six years of incarceration for leading a failed jihad against the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001, was meant to help the government negotiate with the Swat Taliban. That strategy has failed.
At the Ghazi family madrasa in south Punjab, in a barren desert setting straddling Baluchistan, Abdul Aziz’s cousin, Riaz Muhammad Ghazi, frames his leader’s release in much the same way followers of Sufi Muhammad framed his. “God’s hand is in this,” says the 40-year-old headmaster of the religious school. “Our leader has made his first speech at the Red Mosque. Our brothers have brought God’s law to Swat. And, inshallah, we will create the perfect Islamic society in Pakistan soon.” In the courtyard of the madrasa, boys roughhouse around the gravesite of Abdul Rashid. In these parts, he is considered a saint. Locals say that for days after his burial, the dirt covering his body gave off a sweet odour. Hundreds of people from all over Punjab raced to the site to carry away a small piece of that sanctified earth.
But if the Pakistani authorities were hoping Abdul Aziz’s release would help placate his followers, they were spectacularly wrong. As his cousin explains the weakness in Muslims that has led them down the path of subjugation to the West, 700 km to the north in Islamabad Abdul Aziz is telling his followers during his Friday sermon that “the day is not far away when Islam will be enforced in the whole of the country.” Crowds of followers at the mosque chant: “Jihad! Jihad!”
A few hundred kilometres to the west, al-Qaeda’s hidden leaders, the puppet masters of Pakistan’s descent into radicalization, must be celebrating. But all is not lost. For the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in Swat, leaving behind all their life’s possessions, the jihad has been a disaster. “Our livelihoods have been destroyed,” Akil Zada, one refugee who had just arrived in Mardan, 110 km northwest of Islamabad, told Maclean’s over the telephone. “All we wanted was the Taliban to accept the government’s promise of sharia and the government to keep its promise to implement it.”
Other moderate Muslims, like Bashir Hussein, the school principal in Mingora, are equally disillusioned with both the Taliban and the government. They have become innocent victims caught between Pakistan’s rising militancy and the government’s failed policies to contain it. Few, if any, believe that this latest offensive will be decisive. Indeed, most will tell you that America’s war has come to Pakistan, and it’s come to stay.