A New Evil Face

Nicholas Schmidle acquaints readers with Maulana Fazlullah, the new head of the Pakistani Taliban:

Fazlullah was an inspired choice, by the Taliban’s warped standards. He is young and ruthless, and has taken responsibility for a panoply of barbaric acts over the years: floggings, suicide PAKISTAN-UNREST-TALIBANbombings, even the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, a teen-age girl who survived gunshots to the head and neck, and who has become an even more driven advocate for girls’ education. (She recently addressed the United Nations and appeared on “The Daily Show.”) Last summer, his men kidnapped and beheaded seventeen Pakistani soldiers.

But what distinguishes Fazlullah from his predecessors is his evangelism. He is as much a rebel and a crusader—bent on imposing his harsh interpretation of sharia on others – as he is a terrorist. He was perhaps the first militant leader to declare jihad against the Pakistani government. When the Pakistani Taliban announced their existence a month later, they turned their guns on the state, toppling a long-standing relationship between elements inside the Pakistani government and jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Compared to their Afghan counterparts, the Pakistani Taliban have turned into a sophisticated group with global reach—they planned the failed attack on Times Square, in 2010 – as a result of their alliance with Al Qaeda. Still, some members are reportedly amenable to peace talks with officials in Islamabad. Fazlullah is not one of them.

He has not received a wholly warm welcome from the group; “several furious commanders from a rival clan stood up and left” when he was named the new leader. Colin Freeman considers the implications:

Fazlullah, despite his reputation as a hardliner’s hardliner, is considered a relative outsider within the ranks, as he hails from the Swat Valley rather than the Taliban’s traditional strongholds in Pakistan’s tribally-administered region. … “There are reports of serious infighting among them that might come to the fore in the near future,” said Saifullah Mahsud, director of the FATA Research Centre, a Pakistani think tank. While a failure to agree on a new leader could compromise the group’s operation effectiveness, it could equally lead to even more bloodshed as different commanders and factions embark on their own rampages. The group already stands accused accused of killing thousands of Pakistani civilians in recent years, as well as trying to impose sharia law in places like Swat.

Meanwhile, Karachi-based novelist Mohammed Hanif argues that Pakistan “seems to have lost the will to fight its old foe, Fazlullah, and his followers”:

When [Fazlullah’s predecessor Hakimullah] Mehsud was killed, instead of celebrating or letting out quiet sighs of relief, politicians and journalists reacted as if they had lost a favorite son. He had killed many of us, but we weren’t craving vengeance; we were ready to make up and cuddle. Why does Pakistan’s political and military élite celebrate the very people it is fighting? The logic – or its absence – goes like this: Hakimullah Mehsud was our enemy. But the United States is also our enemy. So how dare the Americans kill him? And how dare they kill him when we had made up our minds to talk to him?

The popular narrative in Pakistan holds that the Taliban’s fight is simply a reaction to American drone strikes: it’s a war between American kids sitting in front of LCD screens eating their TV dinners and our own men in the north, who are better Muslims than we are. The Pakistani logic seems to be that if America stops killing them, they’ll stop killing us. But the truth is that the Taliban leadership has made no such promises. They have only said that if the government stops drone strikes, and stops coöperating with America’s war in Afghanistan, they would be willing to talk. But what would they talk about? The little problem they have with Pakistan is that it’s an infidel state – almost as bad as America, but with some potential; they believe that they can somehow make us all better Muslims. Our Taliban are simply saying, “Save us from the U.S. drones, so we can continue to kill you infidels in peace.”

Pakistan’s rulers have developed a strange fetish for lionizing its tormenters. Watching the proceedings in Pakistan’s parliament last week, after Mehsud’s murder, you could have mistaken it all for a Taliban meeting. “This is not just the killing of one person,” Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said. “It’s the death of all peace efforts.” It was mentioned, but only in passing, that since Pakistan had proposed talks with Mehsud in September, the peacemaker and his allies had killed an Army generalblown up a church filled with worshippers, and killed hundreds of other civilians. … In their collective hankering for one true Sharia, the leaders of Pakistan’s political and security establishment – and their American backers – have long since lost their bearings.

(Photo by Thir Khan/AFP/Getty Images)