During his recent address to the Senate on Australia’s challenges in Afghanistan, the Minister for Defence John Faulkner commented on the Taliban’s “repugnant tactics”. Along with beheadings and public hangings, the Minister may well have included the wave of suicide bombers striking in Pakistan. These attacks appear directly proportional to Pakistan Army’s activity in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, driven largely by international pressure. Nowadays, soldiers and police officers working in the western provinces live in constant fear the next person they pat down will detonate on the spot.
But while the Australian government uses these bombings to justify war in Afghanistan and the provision of millions in aid to Pakistan for tackling the insurgency, it fails to understand how the plight of common people underpins this turbulence. Why else would the idea of sharia law and Taliban rule remain so popular among ethnic Pashtuns who are the true victims of the Af/Pak mess?
When it comes to modes of warfare, suicide bombers suffer a distinct image problem, due no doubt to the second Palestinian Intifada. During this campaign that began 10 years ago, Palestinian youth ready for martyrdom targeted buses and cafés, killing more than 1000 Israeli civilians. As a result, international sympathy for the Palestinian cause was at its lowest.
In Iraq, civilians continue to perish in suicide bombings unleashed by instability the invasion created. Unlike Jerusalem and Baghdad, however, suicide bombings conducted in Pakistani cities by Tehreek-e-Taliban have mostly been aimed at military targets. Blasts with high civilian casualties, such as the Bannu attack last month and the Meena Bazaar attack before that, have been adamantly denied by the Taliban, a group never shy to own a bombing. Interior Minister Rahman Malik quickly condemned the Taliban on both occasions despite knowing the Pakistani public rarely fall for official statements of blame.
False-flag operations have been the modus operandi of the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) for decades and much of the population on the frontier suspect the shady organisation is up to its old tricks. Not to mention the many external powers eager to see the Muslim world’s only nuclear-armed nation destabilised to the point of atomic confiscation.
It’s easier to brush these conspiracies aside knowing that Hakimullah Mehsud, head of Tehreek-e-Taliban in Waziristan, readily admits to having 3000 young men standing-by for martyrdom. Many of these candidates are not from madrassas as commonly reported, but are runaways looking for adventure, homeless boys and orphans, their parents killed in military operations. A teenage suicide-bomber-in-waiting from Darra Adam Khel where I shot my film Son of a Lion reckons minimal religious motivation is given to candidates in training camps of Waziristan. The focus instead is on exploiting the anger generated by occupation.
Pakistan Army men breaking down doors, disrespecting women folk, searching rooms even male family members have never entered. This invasion of the sacred is enough for young Pashtun men to sacrifice themselves for their nation. As frightening as the concept of suicide bombing may be, sacrifices for freedom are far more commonly made by men and women of conventional armies, frequently glorified back home for giving their lives.
According to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on suicide terrorism and expert on suicide bombers, 95% of suicide attacks have the same specific goal: to cause an occupying state to withdraw forces from a disputed territory. Nevertheless, politicians selling us war — as Faulkner is paid to do — never fail to throw a spotlight on the inhuman tactics of our enemies. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq are terrorism, even when aimed at combatants and planted by those to whom the land belongs. Beheadings of suspected spies may seem repulsive too, but seen as humane by those who believe that “shooting 60 men will teach one man a lesson; while beheading one man will teach 60”. And when it comes to suicide bombings by the Taliban, these have killed far fewer people than continued missiles hits from US predator drones carried out along the Af/Pak border resulting in more than 700 civilians deaths. As these figures prove, even the US Army’s superior technology cannot distinguish between combatant and civilian, crippling any argument that suicide bombing is somehow more brutal.
When a society’s elite and educated are either corrupt to the bone or have packed up and left, the question arises as to which segment of society is left to lead a revolution. For many in Pakistan the answer is the Taliban. With Saudi funding they have resources the Pashtun tribes can only dream of. Thus, even those who detest what the Taliban stands for, are giving them support. The priority is freedom over dogma. Disagreement on religious interpretation can be ironed out after the occupiers have left. Right now the Taliban is spearheading a movement of liberation.
Yes, Pashtuns are hungry for progress, but never at the expense of their freedom. As history clearly shows, they would rather die than lose this basic human right. They want justice, but they know that joining greater Pakistan in its current condition will never deliver it. The Taliban, on the other hand, is famous for its integrity. In contrast to what we keep hearing, problems Pakistan faces are not derived from extremism, but failure of the state. After all, a government can only oppress its own people for so long before its people bite back.
How long then will Australia support such a government? How long can we delude ourselves that doing this will improve the lives of ordinary Pakistanis when we prop up those who oppress them?
Benjamin Gilmour is a filmmaker and author. www.sonofalion.com