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Pakistani Public Opinion Swings Against The Taliban

  • Abubakar Siddique

Activists protest against the Taliban militants in Lahore on April 28.

Activists protest against the Taliban militants in Lahore on April 28.

Middle-aged school teacher Rehmat Shah is one of the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled western Pakistan's Swat Valley and areas of the surrounding Malakand region. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the exodus as an "intensifying" humanitarian crisis.

Shah says he and his family left their mud house in a small hamlet in the mountains of Malakand's Buner district and walked kilometers to a displacement camp in the plains of neighboring Swabi district. Fleeing in haste after the government suddenly launched a military operation against the Taliban occupying their villages, they left with only the clothes on their backs.

"In what condition did we arrive here? We arrived with absolutely nothing. We walked here. Our elders, our boys and girls, arrived with injured feet," Shah says.

Shah has already started a makeshift school in his new home, teaching children sitting beside him on a wooden cot. Even after being forced to flee his village, he avoids directly blaming the Taliban, whom many of his fellow ethnic Pashtuns now consider their main tormentors.

"The people are being crushed. Everything is getting destroyed," Shah says. "If schools are being blown up, whose loss is it? It is our loss, it is Pakistan's loss, it is the whole country's loss. Basically, it is our children's loss."

Taliban Exposed

Public opinion has swung decisively against the Taliban since the beginning of this year. And a controversial -- and all but dead -- peace agreement the provincial government worked out with the insurgents is receiving some credit for helping change citizens' perceptions of the Taliban.

Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, says that the Pakistani public was mostly in denial of the Taliban's intentions because what they were doing in Waziristan and other remote parts of Pakistan's tribal areas was largely hidden from the public eye and scantily reported in the national media.

Pakistani Islamists march in an anti-Taliban and anti-U.S. protest rally in Islamabad on May 4.
As a result, the public often faulted the United States and its Western allies for their woes. But recent events in Swat have changed that.

"I was one of the people here with reservations about the peace deal. It also raised a lot of international concerns including about its long-term consequences," Khan says.

"Putting the debate on whether the peace deal was right or wrong aside, it achieved something," he adds. "It exposed the Taliban to the people. Under the peace deal their demands for Islamic courts were granted and even judges were appointed. But still they were snatching homes from people. They continued killing and kidnappings and expanded into new areas in an effort to establish their rule. All this exposed them to the people."

Khan suggests that the Pakistani public was shocked when Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a senior religious figure in Malakand who was key in brokering the controversial Swat peace deal, declared "courts, elections, and democracy as un-Islamic."

The octogenarian Muhammad and his Movement for the Enforcement of Shari'a were expected to play a large role in convincing his son-in-law, local Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, to give up the insurgency. But people see the Taliban as having taken advantage of the deal by projecting their power into neighboring areas and refusing to disarm even after the government stuck to its side of the bargain by implementing all the provisions of the peace deal.

"Among the Pashtuns in particular and the rest of the country in general, this created a lot of worries," Khan says. "People can now see that all this is a direct and a very serious threat to their way of life. And that it is not far off -- it's already here inside our home. That's why people now have very clear views against all this."

Growing Anti-Taliban Feelings

Experts suggest that reliable public-opinion data is difficult to obtain in Pakistan, particularly when intimidation prevents people from openly expressing their views. But anecdotal evidence and changes in the way the media present the issue hint at a sea change in the public mood.

This has also affected the religious right -- once considered a big constituency of Taliban support in the country. Many among Pakistan's conservative religious political parties today do not see a future under the Taliban, who are increasingly seen as intent on imposing their hard-line views at gunpoint if need be.

On May 4, a small anti-Taliban protest in Islamabad was organized by Aalmi Tanzeem-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat, a Barelvi Sunni political party that fears the domination of rival hard-line Sunni Deobandi Taliban, who in turn oppose the Sufism revered by the Aalmi Tanzeem-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat.

The leaders of this group and its allies are now planning countrywide anti-Taliban protests. "Our demand is that the government should ban these terrorist militants with immediate effect," says Shafiqur Rehman Qadri, a key leader of the group. "They are agents of America. They should be wiped out. The government should also punish them for martyring innocent people."

The statement is revealing in that Pakistani public opinion remains largely anti-American, even as it turns on an enemy the United States is working with the Pakistani government to fight. But in Pakistan, some within the armed forces are steadfast in the belief that the powerful military should be focused on India as its main enemy.

According to media reports, the Pakistani government is now considering inviting prominent international Islamic leaders, including the prayer leader of Islam's most sacred mosque -- the Kaaba in Mecca -- to mobilize Pakistani public opinion against suicide bombings and other Taliban tactics.

Khan, the academic in Peshawar, says that this effort could succeed.

He predicts an all-out war between the Taliban and the military in Swat, and says that a Taliban victory there would only hasten their march on the rest of the country. And this, Khan says, is not acceptable to Pakistan's civil and military leadership.

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