Farooq Tariq and Tariq Ali on the 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan and the Afghan war blowback

Tariq Ali appeared on the December 18, 2014, episode of Democracy Now! (text below).

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By Farooq Tariq

December 19, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- It was the most deadly attack on any school by religious fanatics: 146 were killed in a Peshawar Army Public School, including 136 children, ages ranging from 10 to 17 years. The attackers asked the children to recite the Kalma and then fired at them. It was an attack on Muslim children by Muslim fanatics.

Tehreek Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility and sent a group photo of the seven militants who took part in the “operation” holding guns and bombs. This was in response to the posting online of the dead faces of the seven who were killed by the army in the counter attack, not before they caused maximum damage.

The fanatics claim that they do not kill little children, that “enemy” aged less than 12 are not allowed to be killed by their “Islam”. Almost 11 per cent of the total children enrolled in the school were killed within 15 minutes of the occupation of the school.

The body of the principal of the school was not recognisable due to gunshot wounds. Her crime? She tried to guide children to escape from the school during the attack. Children were asked to line up and then were shot. Those who dared to run were chased and shot also.

Such was the devastating effect on children across Pakistan that my son aged 14 asked his mum what should he do in case they come to his school, “line up or run”.

The day shocked Pakistan and the world. The news of the killing of innocent children was flashed all over the world as the main story of the day. There was a great anger and shock.

A spontaneous general strike in all parts of Pakistan was observed on December 17, a day after the attack. It was not called by any political party. This was one of the most successful strikes, with no transport on the roads and almost all shops and institutions closed. This reminded us of the aftermath of Benazhir Bhutto’s killing in December 2007, when all of Pakistan was shut in grief and anger.

A two-minute silence was held in all schools in India, a so-called arch rival, with the Indian parliament passing a resolution condemning the attack.

On the same day, heads of all the political parties represented in Pakistan's parliament met in Peshawar for a useless day agreeing to “work together” with no mind-set change and no concrete proposal for dealing with fanatics. How could they?

In the meeting was Imran Khan, whose party is in power in Khaiber Pukhtonkhawa, where the incident took place. He was too busy in campaigning for the overthrow of the federal government with his sit-ins and rallies in other parts of the country while totally ignoring the task of securing lives in the province.

Imran Khan’s philosophy of “good and bad Taliban” meant that no action was taken against the fanatics who have built safe heavens in the tribal areas. He was a strong advocate of “talks with good Taliban” to divide the fanatics. There are no good or bad Taliban. They are all in the same family of neo-fascism.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has long-term contacts with most of the religious fanatic groups and used them to win the 2013 general election. Fanatics carried out suicide attacks on most of the opponents of PMLN and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), thus preventing them from running effective election campaigns.

Sitting in the meeting was Jamaat Islami, whose former head declared dead Taliban as Shaheed (martyr) and army men killed by fanatics as dead. There was also Jamiat Ulemai Islam, the known political wing of one section of the religious fanatics. Also several other political parties who maintain regular contacts and links with religious extremists groups for their narrow political interests and subscribe to the same millenarian ideology of the jihadists.

The meeting agreed to form a committee to formulate the security policy for the state within a week, as if in one week they could come up with a magic formula.

The Pakistan has state failed miserably to curb the rise of religious fundamentalism. There is always a soft spot for them. For a long time, they were encouraged by the state as a second line of security. The security paradigm meant an anti-India enmity was the core purpose of state patronage. The process of Islamisation was accelerated by military Dictator Zia Ul Haq with the full support of US imperialism.

Apart from creating and supporting jihadist groups, for decades the state and military with the financial and political assistance of imperial powers has indoctrinated millions with conservative Islamic ideology for the purpose of safeguarding its strategic interests.

The three decades since 1980 are seen as the years of madrassas, more than 20,000 at present provide home ground for recruitment for suicide attackers. Supported mainly by Saudi Arabia and many million Muslim immigrants, they have become the alternative to the regular school system. Most of the terrorist activities carried out in Pakistan and elsewhere are linked to the organisational and political support of these madrassas.

After 9/11, the state’s close relationship with the fundamentalists has changed to some extent but not broken in real terms. The banned terrorist groups change their name and carry out activities on a regular basis. They hold meetings and public rallies, collect funds and publish their literature without any state intervention.

Pakistan has become more conservative, more Islamic and more right wing resulting in the growth of the extreme Islamists' ideas. Blasphemy laws are frequently used for settling personal and ideological scores. Religious minorities, women and children are the easy targets. These soft targets are paying the greatest price for this decisive right-wing turn.

The rise of religious fundamentalism has emerged as the most serious challenge not only to progressive forces but also to the very foundation of a modern society. Education and health are the real targets of the fanatics.

Polio workers, mainly women, are killed by fanatics on the assumption that a team working for the elimination of polio led to the discovery of Osama Bin Ladin, leading to his assassination. The net result is that the World Health Organization has recommended a ban on all Pakistanis travelling abroad without a polio vaccination certificate.

The primary and high school syllabus in Punjab and Khaiber Pukhonkhawa provinces are amended to give room to more unscientific and pro-jihad ideas in the name of religion. Education in most schools has been littered with war-promoting philosophy.

Religious fanatic groups are the new version of fascism. They are fascists in the making. They have all the historic characteristics of fascism. They kill opponents en mass. They have found considerable space among the middle class, particularly educated ones. They are against trade unions and social movements. They are promoting women as inferior to men, and aim to keep them in the home. Attacking religious minorities has become a norm.

The religious fanatic groups are internationalists. They want an Islamic world. They are against democracy and promote Khilafat (kingdom) as a way of governance. They are the most barbaric force recent history has seen in the shape of “Islamic State” and Taliban. There is nothing progressive in their ideology. They are not anti-imperialist but anti-American and anti-West. They have created and carried out the most barbaric terrorist activities in the shape of suicide attacks, bomb blasts, mass killings and indiscriminate shootings.

They must be countered. The US way of fighting back in shape of “war on terror” has failed miserably. Despite all the US initiatives of occupations, wars and creating democratic alternatives, the religious fundamentalists have grown with more force.

Fundamentalists are stronger than they were at 9/11, despite the occupation of Afghanistan.

A whole package is needed. The state must break all links with fanatic groups. The mindset that religious fundamentalists are “our own brothers, our own people, our security line and guarantee against 'Hindus'", "some are bad and some are good” and so on must be changed. The conspiracy theories are most favourable arguments among the religious right wingers. They do not want to face the reality.

There is no short cut to end religious fundamentalism. There is no military solution. It has to be a political fight with dramatic reforms in education, health and working realities in most Muslim countries. Starting from nationalisation of madrassas, it must go on to provide free education, health and transport as one of most effective means to counter fundamentalism.

Right-wing ideas are promoting extreme right-wing ideology. A mass working-class alternative in the shape of trade unions and political parties linked with social movements is the most effective manner to counter religious fundamentalism.

[Farooq Tariq is general secretary of the Awami Workers Party Pakistan.]

Tariq Ali on Taliban school massacre and US Afghan war blowback

By Tariq Ali

December 18, 2014 -- excerpt from Democracy Now! (video above) -- Tariq Ali, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you just respond to this horrific attack with 132 schoolchildren dead, 145 altogether including teachers?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, two things need to be said about this straightaway. This has very little to do with religion. What we are witnessing in Pakistan now is a form of a power struggle going on between militants aligned with the umbrella of pro-Taliban groups known as the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which isn’t a single movement, a struggle between them and the Pakistani—or segments of the Pakistani state to determine who controls the country. And the fact that over the last decade or so the authorities of the state—the military and the political parties, especially those parties sympathetic to the Taliban—have been incapable of or have refused to do anything about it, we now see the results and the impact of that. And that’s the first point.

The second is that we shouldn’t forget for a moment that one reason these Taliban groups have not been dealt with is because sections of the state still feel—even after this atrocity, by the way—that they can’t completely get rid of them because they are linked to the fight in Afghanistan, and the notion of the Pakistani military high commanders being that we need Afghanistan to give ourselves strategic depth—always a nonsensical notion, but it’s now exacting a very heavy price in Pakistan itself.

At the time when the United States went into Afghanistan, I remember writing in The Guardian that one consequence of this massive presence of Western military troops is going to be the destabilisation and the advancement of terror inside Pakistan itself.

So, it’s a horrific attack. It can’t be justified. What the Taliban are saying is, of course, true, that they are bombed, that their kids die, and no one says a word. That’s absolutely true. But you cannot justify one crime by committing another.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tariq, what about this continuing assault on North Waziristan by the Pakistan government, especially as the foreign troops, US troops, in Afghanistan wind down and leave the country?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that this is the million-dollar question. Are they going to leave the country? Are they going to take their military bases with them? The latest from there, Juan, is that their military bases are going to stay with a very limited number of troops. But the Afghan Taliban has emerged as the winner in this conflict, and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that they are in touch with elements of the Pakistani military apparatus to discuss what to do now. I mean, they’ve been close for a long, long time, and so they will be discussing that, which is why the thing becomes much more complex, because I don’t think the Pakistani military has given up ever on the notion of taking Afghanistan back once the West leaves. And the fact that the Taliban in Afghanistan, with new supporters, has managed to hold the West at bay and defeated them, effectively, politically, if not militarily, is a sign that the Pakistani military has not given up.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined, in addition to Tariq Ali, by Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English correspondent in Islamabad, in Pakistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Asad. Talk about the latest there and the response within Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the latest in Pakistan right now and the response to this horrific massacre?

ASAD HASHIM: Well, the public response has been, as you can imagine, one of shock and outrage and horror. As Mr. Ali said, I mean, this was just something that was completely unprecedented, in a way. I mean, the Taliban has been, and their allies have been, carrying out attacks against civilian targets in Pakistan for many years now, but we’ve very rarely seen something on this scale. And it’s not just about the scale, I think; it’s also about the fact that it was children who were killed in execution-style killings, really, at the school. They lined them up in the auditorium in rows and face down, and then were shooting them in the head. And that really has brought about a visceral response from Pakistanis. So, today, really, the day was spent in sort of like numb horror, I think. Even now, most people who are in offices or in shops—a lot of shops were closed today, even though there was not necessarily a strike called of any kind and this wasn’t being enforced. People literally just did not want to work.

On the political front, there was the multi-party conference, the all-party conference, which you spoke about earlier and alluded to. That ended a little while ago, but it not really ended up with anything concrete. I mean, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, really, held a press conference with all of the leaders beside him, which was a show of unity, but they didn’t say anything concrete. They essentially just said, "We will come up with a plan in the next week that will be a united plan to resolve the issue of extremism," which is a really nothing statement, to be honest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Asad, I wanted to ask you, the—could you talk a little bit more about the [TTP], the group that’s claimed responsibility for the attack, and its relationship to other insurgent groups? Because there are reports that the Taliban in Afghanistan have condemned this attack.

ASAD HASHIM: Yes, yes. So, the Taliban in Afghanistan do appear to have condemned the attack, and that’s interesting in and of itself, because the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan owes its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and to Mullah Omar and, through them, to al-Qaeda. And this is very interesting because the TTP has actually suffered in recent months from a number of divisions and factions that have formed within it due to internal leadership issues, but also due to the issue of certain commanders pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, which obviously is a competitor in the global terrorism game, I suppose, to al-Qaeda. And so, you had the TTP actually suffering for its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, and to have the Afghan Taliban now condemn this attack is very significant for them.

The TTP itself is a group that was formed—it’s an umbrella organisation of terrorist groups that were formed in 2007 under Baitullah Mehsud. In the last year or so, we’ve seen it considerably weakened. As I said, there were leadership issues when they elected their new leader, which is Mullah Fazlullah. Now, he’s not from the tribal areas, which is where the group mainly operates and is from and where it draws its strength from. He’s from an area called Swat, where he conducted a very successful campaign against the Pakistani state. And I guess on the back of that, he was given the leadership role. But he’s—in the time that he’s been in office, since November last year, he has seen the TTP really sick several times. He’s had several—he’s had to fire several commanders who were not willing to follow him. So we’ve seen the TTP weaken to a degree.

The other reason why I would say we’ve seen the TTP weaken is because, since Zarb-e-Azb, since the military operation began on June 15 in North Waziristan, which you were referring to earlier, we were already expecting a large number of blowback attacks in urban areas, as we have seen after similar operations in the past. And this time, we really have seen very limited attacks of that kind. There was the attack in the Wagah border post that took place last month where about 60 civilians were killed. That was the first really large-scale attack. And this one is—as I said, it’s unprecedented in its scale—141 people killed, 143 now, I believe, with the death toll rising as people succumb to their injuries. This is the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan’s recent history.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, in 2012, one of Pakistan’s leading English daily newspapers revealed a large majority of high-profile terrorism cases has resulted in acquittals in the country’s largest province. The piece appeared in The Express Tribune and was headlined "High-profile cases in Punjab: 63% terror suspects acquitted." Could you explain how the Pakistani state, and in particular the judiciary, have dealt with the rising number of militant attacks in the country?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, this is absolutely true, what The Express Tribune reported. And I would add to it that the fact that his own bodyguard killed the late governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and were—and the guy is still awaiting punishment, and the fact that many lawyers in the court came to welcome the assassin of the governor is an indication of how deep the rot has gone. Now, a number of senior magistrates and judges in charge of the terrorism courts are basically scared. Witnesses who come before them are threatened, so they withdraw their testimony. That leaves them with no legal basis on which to punish or sentence the perpetrators, and they have to release them. But I think a very large number of judges in these courts are scared. They’re scared that if they do their duty, they’ll be shot dead. And the inability of the state to protect them is something which a number of people have remarked on.

If I could just add one thing to what your man in Islamabad was saying, that it’s not the first time that the Afghan Taliban have attacked their Pakistani so-called supporters. They did so some years ago when there were other atrocities carried out. And the basic difference between the two groups is that the Afghan Taliban feel that the main target should be NATO and the West, and not the Pakistani state, on which, after all, they have relied for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this horrific story, this massacre that has taken place in Peshawar, 132 schoolchildren killed. Tariq Ali is a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, filmmaker, novelist, editor of the New Left Review. And thanks so much to Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English web correspondent in Pakistan, based in the capital, Islamabad. He recently co-authored two pieces for Al Jazeera, one headlined "Breaking Down the Tehreek-e-Taliban [Pakistan]" and the other titled "Children massacred in Pakistan school attack."