Can the Taliban Win? Pervez Hoodbhoy in Toronto (back on Oct 6)

On October 6 I was lucky enough to finally meet Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani activist and physicist, who I have long admired and corresponded with a little. He was going to be in Ottawa and on short notice people at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre managed to organize a talk for him. The talk was called “Can the Taliban Win?” As usual with these blogs, I will summarize what he said, and follow with my reactions.

On October 6 I was lucky enough to finally meet Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani activist and physicist, who I have long admired and corresponded with a little. He was going to be in Ottawa and on short notice people at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre managed to organize a talk for him. The talk was called “Can the Taliban Win?” As usual with these blogs, I will summarize what he said, and follow with my reactions.

Pervez immediately answered his own question, can the Taliban win, with: “I don’t know.” He then proceeded to tell the story of the Pakistan Taliban, who emerged suddenly over the past 3-4 years. They are products of the Pakistani Jamiat-Ulema-Islam [CORRECTED: I HAD MISQUOTED PERVEZ BEFORE] madrassas, many educated in the cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. To the middle class in the cities the Taliban were long viewed as something “out there”, in Afghanistan and on the border, but this is a mistaken view – the base areas of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) are just 200 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

In 2004 things started to change. In 2001, afer 9/11, Pakistan supported the US invasion of Afghanistan, knowing there would be consequences, including Taliban anger at their former ally for turning on them. But Pakistan’s establishment thought the Taliban could still be controlled.

Before 1979, US-Pakistan relations were very bad. But the covert war in Afghanistan, the greatest jihad in history, brought Pakistan and the US back together (along with the Saudi regime). After the war was won in 1988, Pakistan saw new uses for the mujahaddin. First, they could be low-cost liberators of Kashmir from India. Second, they could take over Afghanistan and provide a loyal ally and an area to retreat to – the (quite empty from a military perspective) conception that a friendly Afghanistan could provide Pakistan with “strategic depth” in the event of an Indian invasion.

So Pakistan helped the Afghan Taliban come to power and stay in power, until 2001, when the latter were routed – and retreated to the border areas in Pakistan. Because of a series of military mistakes by the US, the Taliban were able to regroup and by 2004 had become a force in the border areas and in Afghanistan. Through 2005, the Pakistan government made a series of ‘agreements’ of coexistence with the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border.

But the coexistence and cooperation between the Taliban and the Pakistan government was shaken with the Red Mosque incident in 2007. From that time until today, the war between the government and the Taliban in Pakistan has claimed 6-7000 lives – civilians, Taliban fighters, Pakistani soldiers and police. Before, it was not such a deadly conflict.

The Red Mosque was (it has been completely destroyed) a mosque in Islamabad whose mullah was appointed by the worst dictator Pakistan ever had, Zia ul Haq. Zia used the mosque as a place to recruit people for the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and generate popular feeling in favor of it. The mullah gave fiery sermons and was very sectarian against Shia. He was murdered, probably by a Shia, and was succeeded by his two sons. In 2007, the mosque was a centre for organizing attempts to defend mosques that were being built without permits around Islamabad, which the government was trying to destroy. The congregation of the Red Mosque started to make its presence felt in Islamabad. The madrassa attached to the Red Mosque, and its girl students, began campaigns around the city to restore morality. The authorities allowed it at first. But in July 2007, the girl students kidnapped some non-Pakistanis, Chinese citizens involved in the sex trade. These foreigners were kidnapped and tried at the mosque. The Chinese embassy got involved, and the Pakistan authorities eventually raided the mosque, killing over 100 people according to the official toll (those who were on the receiving end of the raid say the toll was over 1000).

The Red Mosque became a symbol and has provoked some 118 suicide bombings to date, including the September 20 bombing of the Marriott Hotel. The government’s operations in the border areas are now producing hundreds of thousands of refugees. The situation is close to a civil war.

What do the Taliban want? In their negotiations with the government they make 3 demands. First, the right to fight against the NATO occupation of Afghanistan without hindrance from Pakistan. Second, the imposition of their version of Sharia law on Pakistan, starting with the NWFP. Third, indemnity for their losses in the war.

What is their strategy? It is to destroy the ability of the government to rule. Everything they do is to destroy the writ of the state. They destroy the state’s ability to enforce order and the state’s ability to perform services. They destroy girl’s schools and terrorize teachers. They kill tribal leaders and elders who are local agents of authority. Partly because of the absence of the state and partly because of the chaos they create themselves, their subsequent attempts to restore order are welcomed by a segment of the population who prefers any order to pure chaos and violence. Just as in Afghanistan, the Taliban are growing through the imposition of harsh justice in a place where there is no justice at all. The Taliban also try to divide the forces against them. They have succeeded in dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan, and now they are dividing Pakistan and the United States.

How can they be fought? So long as the war against the Taliban is seen as a war fought on behalf of the US, it will never be popular in Pakistan. But Pakistanis are the victims of the Taliban, from soldiers and police to workers of ordnance factories to terrorized villagers. The outrage at the fate of these victims is muted because the war is seen as a US war.

This is at least partly because of a ‘mindset’ that was instilled during the Zia dictatorship. In 1981 Zia changed the curriculum, ‘Islamizing’ all subjects, to a kind of philosophy that was grounded in hate. Madrassas grew exponentially and today there are 20,000 of them in Pakistan. Today, Pakistan is living the triumph of traditional over modernizing Islam.

What can be done? NATO generals have said openly that the war cannot be won. And it can’t be won by the US/NATO, who are occupiers. But the consequences of a Taliban victory are too horrific to contemplate. Only Pakistanis can stop the Taliban. In some parts of NWFP people have organized themselves for self-defence against the Taliban. The Pakistan state should support this, and extend the writ of the state.


I believe, and hope, the above is a faithful representation of what Pervez said in Toronto. I have a few disagreements, mainly of emphasis, since he said most of the things that I would mention as counterarguments at one point or another in his talk. Also, he is living in Pakistan, is from there, knows far more about it than I do – it’s worth remembering all that when evaluating what follows.

My main disagreement of emphasis is on the roots of the Taliban. While he presents the roots in the US war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, I believe that the role of the curriculum and the textbooks is less important than the role of the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and the encroachments on Pakistan’s sovereignty by the US today. So long as these continue, and especially as they become more indiscriminate and brutal, the Taliban will have ample potential to recruit.

The Afghan and border area economies, to say nothing of Pakistan’s, are in a state of disaster. Because Afghanistan’s main crop has been designated illegal, the profits from it flow to criminal organizations, which sow violence of their own throughout the region.

The other disagreement of emphasis has to do with the nature of the Pakistan state. As Pervez said, the Red Mosque students were tolerated by the authorities for a long time before they were raided violently. The state uses Islamists, like it uses US support, as a tool against the population and their aspirations. The Taliban came to power with state backing – their continued existence points mainly to problems of the state. By the look of it (I haven’t read it yet) Tariq Ali frames things this way in his new book, The Duel.

A totally different kind of state would treat the insurgency very differently, but a program by the current state to support anti-Taliban paramilitaries would probably just end with another brutal armed faction.

The consequence of these disagreements is substantial, in the end. I continue to think, in other words, that NATO, the US, Canada, and others should end the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and leave. I think Pervez might argue the effects of this would be worse than them staying on until the situation changes.

Despite this (possible) disagreement, I have to re-state my immense respect for his efforts to change Pakistan towards more peace, sovereignty, and democracy. I think he’d respect my (humble) efforts to move North Americans toward less imperialism.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

One thought on “Can the Taliban Win? Pervez Hoodbhoy in Toronto (back on Oct 6)”

  1. Pervez Hoodbhoy responds to Podur’s reporting and comments
    The pleasure of meeting Justin Podur was mine. I had often read him on ZNET. His reporting of my talk in Toronto is accurate, except for one minor point – I had said that the Taliban are products of the Jamiat-Ulema-Islam madrassas, not those of the Jamaat-i-Islami.

    Now for more substantive issues where Justin feels there is a disagreement or there may actually be one:

    1. When I displayed those pages out of children’s primers showing the dreadful hate materials that young children in Pakistan are taught, the intent was certainly not to suggest such education as the sole reason behind the great gains Taliban-like thinking has made. However, I would consider this kind of education as an important enabling factor.

    2. I agree with Justin that actions by the US against Pakistani sovereignty and the occupation of Afghanistan are important elements helping Taliban popularity. One could add other elements – the widespread feeling that the US is engaged in a war against Islam, Palestine-Israel, support of every Pakistani military dictator by the US establishment, etc. This too is incomplete because one must include a long list of failures of Pakistani state and society, successive military takeovers and, more generally, a sense of shame at the deep internal failures of Muslim societies over centuries. All combustible stuff. Mix it together and you get today’s explosions. No one ingredient is enough.

    2. Justin does not like my support for the idea that village councils (jirgas) be encouraged to form armed resistance to the Taliban who, as everyone knows, now control the bulk of the NWFP and are poised to take over other villages and towns. Okay, so let’s look at the possibilities. First, one could accept a Taliban victory and all it means, stop fighting, and negotiate. This is what the religious right-wing in Pakistan wants to do, together with political parties like PML(N). This amounts to de-facto acceptance of a horrifically brutal Taliban state. Second, have a combination of Pakistan and US forces fight the Taliban using airpower and artillery. Third, enable tribal people who now hate the Taliban for their fanatical excesses, to fight for their survival under the leadership of their traditional leaders (maliks).

    I can’t think of a fourth option. Of course, there’s the mantra of development and poverty reduction but that’s impossible while the bullets are flying.

    The third option strikes me as being the least worse. Of course it carries the very real danger of armed groups being promoted (once again) by the Pakistani establishment, a favourite past-practice of the ISI for creating assorted jihadist groups for liberating Kashmir and conquering Afghanistan. It is also not an easy option. Suicide bombers have targeted peace jirgas and slit the throats of maliks.

    3. Of course I respect Justin’s plea for displacing Pakistan from the orbit of US imperialism. The question is how. Like many other left-wingers, I am torn between my inherent dislike of all that the US has done to the rest of the world, including its role in creating the jihadist monster back in the 80’s, and the awful realities one would have to face if US/NATO were to suddenly pack their bags and exit Afghanistan tomorrow at 9:00am. Unable to advocate the slaughter of those who cannot live the Taliban way, I know that a better way has to be found.

    In solidarity, yours,

    Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islamabad.

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