The Blog

Pakistan's Tragedy, and Why 'Homeland' Is More Informative Than the News


After the terrible massacre yesterday at Peshawar's Army Public School a three-day nationwide mourning begins in Pakistan. At least 132 children and 9 adults were killed by Taliban gunmen. The headmistress of the school, Mrs Tahira Kazi was burnt to death. A truly devastating tragedy!

The condemnation worldwide has been vocal and explicit. In Pakistan, however, a different picture has emerged. While the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has announced new security measures, including an end to the moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism offences, politicians of all shades have been reluctant even to name the Taliban as perpetrators of the massacre.

This is not the first attack with devastating consequences in Pakistan. And I am afraid it won't be the last. The country has suffered a series of terrorist attacks since 'the war on terror' was declared by George W Bush in 2001. The former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in one such attack in October 2007, in which at least 130 people died. In Peshawar itself there was the attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in 2009 in which 15 people were killed, including foreign nationals working for the UN and NGOs. Last year alone the city saw the bombing of the Kissa Kwani market, which killed 42 people, mostly women and children. A week earlier, an attack on a church in Peshawar killed 81 people, and another 19 died in an attack on a bus carrying civil servants.

To suggest, as some news reports have done, that the public outrage at yesterday's attack was such that there would be a miraculous turn around of Pakistan's love-hate relationship with the Taliban is wrong. Pakistan created the Taliban. The distinction between the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban is tenuous - they are two heads of the same hydra but share the same body and, more importantly, the same heart. They share the same ideology. They use the same means to achieve it. They want to impose strict Sharia law and both oppose any Western interference in the region. To suggest, as some commentators have done, that Pakistan may support the Afghan Taliban but opposes its Pakistani branch is simply avoiding the main issue

Confused? You should be. Honest analysis of Pakistan's ambivalent security policies is hard to come by. The US gives billions of dollars a year in military aid to the Pakistani government and yet the CIA managed to track down Osama bin Laden to a place outside Islamabad only after it stopped sharing information with its Pakistani counterparts.

I am afraid in order to get a glimpse of the inner workings of the Pakistani security services you have to watch the latest episodes of the groundbreaking American television series 'Homeland'. The plot centres on a Taliban attack on the US embassy in Islamabad with the active help of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. Far-fetched?

It may not seem so if you look further back into the past. Legend has it that in the chaos of the civil war in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 one Mullah Omar started his movement with fewer than 50 fighters, known as the Students (Taliban). Reportedly, in early 1994 Mullah Omar punished a local warlord accused of corruption and rape by hanging him from the gun of a tank. This swift justice soon gained him recognition and his movement gathered momentum. In September 1996, Kabul fell to the Taliban. If only history could be that simple!

If you look at Pakistan from a geopolitical point of view, it's squashed between two big unfriendly powers - its archenemy, India, to the east, and Iran to the west. Sunni by faith and Pashtun by ethnicity, the Taliban provided the perfect vehicle for Pakistan to counterbalance the Iranian influence in the region during the power vacuum after the Soviet withdrawal. The Persian-speaking Tajik population in the northwest of Afghanistan opposed the Taliban and formed the basis of the Northern Alliance, which displaced the Taliban with American help in 2001. Regionally, the Northern Alliance was supported by Iran, India and Russia.

In this intricate geopolitical web, Pakistan's secret service, the ISI, became instrumental in nurturing the Taliban. The ISI was heavily infiltrated by Islamic fundamentalists in a process started by the Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s in an effort to combat the Soviet influence. In the 1990s, after the Russian pull out from Afghanistan, Pakistan felt abandoned by the Americans. It sent an outstanding ISI officer, known as Colonel Imam, a man with a good track record of training anti-Soviet fighters, to advise Mullah Omar. With the help of the ISI the Taliban swept to power in Kabul to provide a friendly buffer zone between Pakistan and Iran. Ironically, Colonel Imam was killed by the Pakistani Taliban three years ago. Hundreds of ISI officers died in attacks by the Taliban and hundreds of ISI spies were beheaded in the tribal areas. The beast that the ISI had unleashed is biting back. But Mullah Omar is said to be living in a heavily protected compound in Quetta, southwest Pakistan. Eyewitnesses in Quetta say that official limousines are often seen going in and out of Mullah Omar's compound.

With the latest attack on the army school in Peshawar, the Pakistani Taliban has declared an open war on the Army, the most powerful institution in Pakistan. It accuses the Army of killing innocent women and children in indiscriminate attacks on its hideouts. The Army may close ranks and step up its attacks on the Taliban in the tribal areas. But no guerrilla movement survives for so long without the support, explicit and implicit, of the general population. That is more difficult to change in a conservative and deeply religious society.

Ah, and there's the conspiracy theory. As one former Pakistani spymaster once remarked about the hunt for Osama bin Laden: 'Why look for him if not finding him earns you billions of dollars a year?'

Could that be true about the war against the Taliban?

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