FaithWorld

from The Great Debate:

Risky business: Talking to the Taliban

If one event crystallizes Pakistan’s helplessness in confronting its political future, it is the recent assassination-by-American-drone of Hakimullah Mehsud, erstwhile leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad had only just acknowledged its plan to hold “peace talks” when Mehsud was killed. Mehsud -- with a $5 million bounty on his head, and thousands of civilian deaths to his movement’s credit -- was immediately eulogized as the key to peace in Pakistan.

Or so it had seemed to the wishful among Pakistan’s politicians. But the country’s labyrinthine military and political makeup and its often opposing foreign and domestic interests make it difficult to imagine how any Pakistani government can negotiate a deal that brings peace to a time of many terrors. If it is unclear what it means for Pakistan to negotiate its political compact with the Taliban, it is also unclear what it would take to make any deal stick.

To the unwary, this would seem to be the Taliban’s moment.

More than 12 years after the fact, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, has concluded that ignoring Afghanistan’s Taliban post-2001 was a mistake -- an observation that others, including United Nations Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, reached a decade ago.

Dobbins is looking for a way to negotiate an agreement so that the 2014 U.S. military withdrawal can look like a vote for harmony and stability. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is searching for ways to limit a crisis that is pitting majority pro-negotiation parties against minority, secular parties who see the Taliban as an unparalleled threat to society and security. Now, with Mullah Fazlullah, the new Taliban chief, opposed to negotiations, Sharif needs a new partner.

Pakistan’s patchy fight against Islamist violence sows confusion

(A man takes a nap next to a poster of Osama bin Laden at the Chauburji monument in Lahore May 13, 2011. The message written on the posters read: "The prayer absentia for martyr of Islamic nation is a duty and a debt"/Mani Rana)

At the rehabilitation center for former militants in Pakistan’s Swat valley, the psychiatrist speaks for the young man sitting opposite him in silence. “It was terrible. He was unable to escape. The fear is so strong. Still the fear is so strong.” Hundreds of miles away in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, a retired army officer recalls another young man who attacked him while he prayed – his “absolutely expressionless face” as he crouched down robot-like to reload his gun.

Both youths had been sucked into an increasingly fierce campaign of gun and bomb attacks by Islamist militants on military and civilian targets across Pakistan. But there the similarity stops.

Family, Taliban scare off actresses in Afghan film industry

(Afghan film actress Nafisa Nafis puts on make-up at the sets of a television series directed by Saba Sahar in Kabul June 7, 2011/Ahmad Masood)

A young bride silently sobs on the floor watching her mentally disturbed husband gorge on chicken, rub his greasy hands through his hair and scream at her for more, just another chapter in the couple’s violent life together. Film director Saba Sahar anxiously watches the scene by the cameraman, squatting in blue jeans and wearing a bright pink headscarf. “Cut!” she calls.

The first Afghan female in her profession, Sahar, 36, has become a household name after acting and directing for more than half her life. She is adored by Afghan women. Like other Afghan directors, Sahar says finding actresses is her top challenge in an ultra-conservative Muslim country where many view acting as un-Islamic and inappropriate for women.

Q+A: Women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban

(Afghan men and women teachers attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul March 30, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

Women have won hard-fought rights in Afghanistan since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. But gains made in areas such as education, work and even dress code look shaky as the government plans peace talks that include negotiating with the Taliban.

Reuters Kabul has produced a Q+A to accompany the feature How will Afghan women fare in Taliban reconciliation? by Amie Ferris-Rotman. Click here to read it in full.

How will Afghan women fare if Kabul and the Taliban reconcile?

(Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul March 23, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan’s cities have become symbolic of how far women’s rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago. While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.

The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, which says the two sexes are equal. But President Hamid Karzai’s reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects of equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.

Women brave social barriers to join Afghan police force

(Afghan policewomen search women at a polling station in Herat, western Afghanistan September 18, 2010/Raheb Homavandi)

Married off at 12 years old to an abusive husband more than four times her age, Maryam wanted to join Afghanistan’s police force to help others avoid an all-too-familiar plight in a country where women’s voices often go unheard. A mother of three, Maryam is one of the women who make up less than one percent of Afghanistan’s National Police. They wear knee-length olive green skirts over thick trousers with navy hijabs.

The 22-year-old’s eyes light up when she talks about her job, one widely viewed in deeply conservative Muslim Afghan society as off-limits for women. This sentiment is shared by her father, who has stopped speaking to her and moved out of the family home because she works in an office with men who are not relatives.

Even without bin Laden, Pakistan’s Islamist militants strike fear

(Supporters of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden shout anti-American slogans, after the news of his death, during a rally in Quetta May 2, 2011/Naseer Ahmed)

The death of Osama bin Laden has robbed Islamist militants of their biggest inspiration and al Qaeda itself has dwindled to a few hundred fighters in the region, but Pakistan remains a haven for militants with both ambition and means to strike overseas. Worse, there are signs that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), nurtured by Pakistan’s spy agency to advance strategic interests in India and Afghanistan, are no longer entirely under the agency’s control.

Even if the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), under intense pressure following the discovery of bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, sought to roll up the groups, it may not be able to do so without provoking a major backlash. In Lashkar’s case, according to experts, it is not even certain if it is under the control of its own leadership, with many within pushing for greater global jihad. Several others are spinning off into independent operatives which makes it harder for security agencies to track down.

Taliban suicide blasts at Sufi shrine in Pakistan kill 41

()

(Bodies of victims lie at the site of a Sufi shrine hit by Taliban suicide bomb attacks in Dera Ghazi Khan April 3, 2011/Sheikh Asif Raza)

Two Taliban suicide bombers caused carnage on Sunday at a Sufi shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan in eastern Pakistan, killing at least 41 people and wounding scores in the latest bloody attack on minority religious groups. Police said some 65 people were wounded. They said the attackers struck during an annual ceremony for the Sufi saint to whom the shrine is dedicated.

“I was just a few yards away from the place where the blast happened,” said witness Faisal Iqbal. “People started running outside the shrine. Women and children were crying and screaming. It was like hell.”

Factbox on Pakistan’s emerging anti-U.S. Islamist bloc

pakistan islamist

(Supporters of religious parties burn a U.S flag during a protest in Lahore February 18, 2011/Mohsin Raza)

Pakistan’s religious parties are growing stronger, riding a tide of growing anti-Americanism and outrage over blasphemy cases that has led to the assassination of two government officials. Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were both killed this year for their support for changing Pakistan’s harsh anti-blasphemy law, a move opposed by Pakistan’s religious parties.

These parties in Pakistan are beginning to set aside sectarian differences that have divided them for years to coalesce around an explicitly anti-American agenda, creating a political bloc that could challenge the ruling parties and ultimately weaken Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. See our analysis Pakistan’s Islamist parties challenge weakening government here.

Pakistan’s Islamist parties challenge weakening government

jamaat

(A supporter of Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami backs Pakistan's blasphemy laws during a rally in Peshawar January 23, 2011/Fayaz Aziz )

Pakistan’s disparate Islamist political parties are uniting behind their hatred of the United States, emboldened by a weak government that looks increasingly reluctant to stand up to extremism and a society where radicalism is widely tolerated. The prospect of these parties gaining strength in this nuclear-armed nation is a nightmare for its ally the United States and neighbors including India and Afghanistan, which are already fighting Islamist insurgents based in Pakistan.

But while there is little chance Islamist parties will be able to take power outright, they are becoming more prominent as anti-Americanism grows among ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom also reject attempts to soften a blasphemy law that has claimed the lives of two senior officials this year alone.