May 29, 2023

‘Taliban Khan’ at the helm: How Imran is fanning Islamist radicalization in Pakistan

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s open support to Taliban regime could be bad for women rights.

Emirate Islami (Taliban) Flag on the wall of US Embassy near Massoud square beside ministry of health Kabul Afghanistan. Courtesy: Ahmad Elhan

One of the few people to celebrate Kabul’s capture by the Afghan Taliban, this August, was the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Not only did the former cricketer welcome the arrival of the Taliban regime – which threatens to throw the country back twenty years along many fronts, but especially when it comes to women’s rights – the country’s premier even clapped from the sidelines commenting that the people in Afghanistan have ‘broken the shackles of slavery’, in overcoming the US regime.

Khan has always been known to have a soft spot for the Taliban. His long-term stance on holding talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – the Pakistani counterparts of the Afghan Taliban – even as they displayed the deadliest of their violence and attacked APS-Warsak killing over 130 children, had earned him the nickname of ‘Taliban Khan’.

The Taliban, too, returned him the love, once demanding his name to be on a committee – alongside the likes of Lal Masjid’s Abdul Aziz and the so-called ‘Father of the Taliban’, Samiul Haq – that was to hold peace talks with the Pakistani government, in February 2014.

Khan’s life choices have also hinted at his growing fondness of a stringent interpretation of Islam, with his choice of life partners becoming increasingly conservative with the passage of time. Khan’s third wife, Bushra Riaz Wattoo, who is believed to be the country’s first, First Lady to sport a veil and a burqa, is also presumed to have religious ‘superpowers’, giving her the ability to control supernatural beings, the djinns – hence, her nickname, ‘Pinki Peerni’.

Therefore, for Khan, August 2021 and the overtake of the Taliban in Afghanistan should’ve been Christmas – irony intended – shouldn’t it? Except, that it had implications back home that he really wasn’t in the mood to deal with.

With the rise of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan came the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan, all guns blazing and all bombs blasting. Reports from Orakzai District – part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s tribal belt that has seen the most upsurge in Taliban violence – suggests that the TTP carried out as many as 95 attacks in Pakistan in the previous year, and 44 in this year’s first six months.

Escalation in TTP’s activity can be observed by its growing number of attacks since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan. The proscribed outfit claimed responsibility of as many as 32 attacks in the month of August alone, 37 in September, and 24 in October, mostly targeting FC, police, and Pakistan Army personnel.

A TTP fighter confirms the boost in their confidence to be rooted in the Afghan Taliban’s rise: “The (fighters) feel most comfortable after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban,” He says, “They can now move freely in Afghanistan. They have no fear of drone strikes and they can meet and communicate easily.”

It is further suggested that, following Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which concluded in 2017, TTP fighters were dispersed with many of the remaining four to five thousand finding refuge on the other side of the Durand Line, in Afghanistan. Therefore, the arrival of the Taliban government in Afghanistan would have given them an unprecedented assurance of their safety, leading them then to conduct their activities freely.

The TTP’s growing insurgency in Pakistan came at the worst possible time for Imran Khan and his government, as he was already dealing with a militant Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or TLP, in Punjab. However, Khan’s wishes for talks with the radical far-right came true as he brought both TLP and the TTP to the table in the month of November.

To the government’s satisfaction, following their respective agreements, TLP was sent back to their barracks in the eastern city of Lahore, and a one-month-long ceasefire, starting on November 9, was agreed to with the TTP in the northwest. While Khan has been brought under severe fire for conducting talks with a terrorist organization – with the country’s own Supreme Court grilling him for negotiating with the murderers of school children, and the Sindh Assembly rejecting the talks altogether, terming them ‘unilateral’ – nevertheless the much-needed ceasefire that the talks have achieved has proven to be valuable for the country.

At the time of the conclusion of the agreement with the TTP early in November, most across the globe were skeptical of the banned outfit’s commitment, doubting their adherence to the agreement’s terms and, hence, the truce’s effectiveness. However, the sharp decrease in the insurgency in the northwestern tribal belt of the country following the agreement is an indicator of the TTP’s adherence to the ceasefire.

Khan may have thus far justified his strongly-criticized decision to negotiate with the TTP by achieving temporary peace, however, the month-long ceasefire was only the beginning: a strategy to buy time and afford the country some quiet before it entered into a longer haul of talks with the hardline, Islamist group. With the radical Islamist outfit’s chief demand being the imposition of sharia across the country – like its neighbors, Afghanistan – how far would the PTI government be able to continue to negotiate the militant outfit into temporary ceasefires, before having to face their demands? And, the more critical question is: would it even want to?

With sharia already imposed within his household, his mind, and even in the country’s curriculum, it would not come as a surprise if ‘Taliban Khan’ decided even to implement it across the country, or, at least in a part of it – a decision that might potentially not go down well with the country’s chief ally, China, but would the Chinese really care?

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