Taliban represent a present and clear danger to Pakistan. This is because, firstly, they seem to have finally lost faith in Pakistani commitment towards their cause and are not willing to accommodate any more its policy of running with the Talibani hare and hunting with the American hound. Pakistan’s continuing failure to either come out of the US-led ‘War on Terror’ or at least prevent drone attacks from its soil, has convinced the Taliban – Pakistani as well as, perhaps, Afghani ones – that whether under a military regime like that of Musharraf’s or under a civilian set-up like the present Zardari/Gilani one, Pakistan has no desire to give-up the American financial and military goodies for jehad. Jehad, they seem to have concluded, is an expendable commodity for the Pakistanis. It is no surprise that Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, alias Abu Saeed al-Masari, al-Qaeda Commander in Afghanistan has recently spoken of his hope that “Pakistan Army would be defeated (in Swat) and that would be its end everywhere.”
Secondly, Taliban, and the al-Qaeda, have a clear Islamist agenda, which is to introduce a strict Shariat-based order. It spares no quarters for such hybrid Pakistani ideas as ‘Islamic democracy’, exemplified by concepts like Nizam-e-Mustafa. They seem to have assessed that a large number of Pakistanis support their call for a strict Shariat-based Islamic order and that those who oppose it could be tamed. Therefore, they have begun to call their current conflict with the ‘oppressor Pakistani Army’ a ‘jehad’.
This, however, does not mean that Taliban are about to over-run Pakistan. Support for Taliban or their concept of Shariat-based Islamic order comes only from Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadis quarters. These elements are quite numerous and are well organised as irregular militias. They have amply demonstrated their strength by staging siege to cities like Peshawar and Islamabad in the past. The Lal Masjid incident also showed their armed capabilities and fanaticism. However, these elements neither constitute an overwhelming majority in the country, nor is their geographical spread uniform all-over. Sunni Barelvis, Shias, Ismailis, ethnic Sindhis, Baluchs and Muhajirs put together might constitute the majority in the country and are quite strong in their respective pockets.
Militarily, despite, being stretched, the Pakistan Army is not showing any signs of undue stress in the short run, and can force the Taliban on the back-foot wherever they surface in the country. Although there seem to be some ethnic strains in the Pakistani military establishment, sentiments for a pro-Islamic uprising in the ranks do not seem to be festering, at least for the present.
Therefore, the Taliban have merely created a serious problem for the Pakistani establishment which may further aggravate over time. For the foreseeable future, however, the scenario appears to be that the Taliban have already expanded the zone of conflict from Swat to Dir and North Waziristan. As the Pakistan Army moves into these areas, they may re-surface in other new areas of NWFP and adjoining Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), forcing the Pakistan Army to expand its area of operation to those areas and further stretch itself. Simultaneously, Taliban inspired terrorist incidents, or even large scale sectarian conflict, could be triggered outside NWFP, particularly in Punjab, forcing the Pakistani establishment to stretch its already extended military strength to nearly breaking point. Perhaps, the final showdown between the Pakistani establishment and Taliban may come then.
In this scenario, the probability of Taliban activities surfacing in POK is very high. Till recently, POK had not seen any suicide bombing, or even a hit-and-run attack on the Pakistan Army. However, on June 26, this threshold was crossed when a pro-Talibani suicide bomber blew himself-up in Muzzafarabad’s Shaukat Lines, killing two Pakistani soldiers and wounding three others. Hekimullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader claimed responsibility for the attack. Apparently, Pakistan Army establishments in POK are ‘soft’ targets for Taliban and one may expect an increase in the number of such attacks on them in the days to come, in tune with the Pakistan Army’s increasing pressure on Taliban in FATA and other areas.
An increase in Taliban activity in POK also raises the prospects of Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri jehadi groups based there gravitating towards Taliban and joining hands with them. Apart from stepped-up infiltration into Jammu & Kashmir from POK, the strategy of these groups could also be to trigger incidents on the LOC that may drag Indian and Pakistani forces into a confrontation, forcing the Pakistan Army to reduce pressure on Taliban in NWFP.
There is yet another possibility that also cannot be ruled out totally. Between 2001 and 2007, there have been many ‘confrontations’ between Taliban and the Pakistan Army. On many occasions, the Pakistani media showed ‘columns’ of Pakistan Army moving into FATA areas to ‘quell’ the Taliban. However, nothing much was heard of those operations subsequently and there invariably were truce deals brokered by one or another mediator between the two sides. Then there was also the case of Maulana Akram Awan of Chakwal, Shiekh of the Naqshbandiah Owaisiah order, threatening to lay siege to Rawalpindi in April 2001, demanding the imposition of Shariat in Pakistan. He was also supported by some former Army officers. General Musharraf had to negotiate with the Maulana and assure him that he would try to accommodate his demands in return for the former pulling out his men from Rawalpindi.
The possibility of a similar deal being hammered out between the Pakistan Army and Taliban at the present juncture can also be not ignored. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) could be expected to simultaneously work its old contacts in Taliban not only to accentuate intra-Taliban differences, but also to look for a face saving peace deal. Under such a deal, the Pakistan Army and Taliban could well agree that the latter would shift base to POK from FATA with a view to creating an ‘independent Islamic Kashmir’, while the former simply looked the other way.
There have been reports in the past about the presence of Pashtun gunmen in various parts of the Kashmir Valley along with local militants. An ‘al-Qaeda Jammu & Kashmir’ materialised after the July 2006 Mumbai train attacks. Taliban coming into J&K is not unthinkable. Whether they come or not, India has to gear itself up to deal with the situation by encouraging a build-up of Kashmiri Sufi sentiments – the Kashmiriyat – as an antidote to religious radicalism of Taliban variety. This exercise, if successful, could pay rich dividends by strengthening Kashmir’s bonds with the rest of the country, whether Taliban come or not.