Imran Khan is back in news again and so can Pakistan Army Chief Asim Munir be far behind, considering the onerous role he played in dismantling the Imran empire? But to understand the angularity closely, one has to be transported a fair bit back in time.
The imposing Bala Hisar fort (Persian for 'elevated fort’) on the outskirts of Peshawar affords a commanding presence, also serving as the Headquarters of Pakistan’s Frontier Corp. This paramilitary force is deployed on the restive borders along the invisible and unaccepted Durand Line (demarcating Pak-Afghan border), as also in the vast swathes of the equally fractious Balochistan.
Since the withdrawal of the ceasefire between the insurgent Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani government in November last year, the wave of deadly attacks on the Pakistani 'establishment’ have risen dramatically.
Asim Munir’s Tribute to Pak Tribals
It was ironic that the Pakistan Chief of Staff, General Asim Munir chose the Bala Hisar fort to send a hopeful message of 'regional peace and stability’ when all topical portents suggest otherwise.
Even the purported 2000-year-old history of the said Qila at the opening of the 'Gateway to Central Asia’ has been a witness to the untamed, relentless, and unconquered ravages of time and its people. A plaque commemorating the red brick walls reads, "It was built 2000 years ago and has seen many warriors, conquerors, and kings. The fort was invested, destroyed, and rebuilt many times. It had been the royal residence of Taimur Shah Durrani."
But like the curse of selective history in the Indian Subcontinent, it fails to mention that it also flew the Bhagwa flag of the Marathas (two thousand kilometers away from Pune), the Sikh Nishan Sahib flag by the legendary Hari Singh Nalwa or even the Union Jack of the British Empire – but like the proverbial saying about Pakhtoonistan or in its modern (and limited) form of Afghanistan as the 'graveyard of empires', no foreign power has held it for too long. Not even the so-called Superpowers like the erstwhile Soviets or the Americans.
With the precarious and imploding condition of the Pakistani State, and consequently of its 'establishment’, the ability of Pakistani forces marching under 'Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabilillah’ (A follower of none but Allah, The fear of Allah, Jihad for Allah), seems completely unsustainable, in the face of starkly more puritan forces unleashed by its own creation ie, Taliban.
'Good Taliban, Bad Taliban'
Two years is a very long time in the rumble and tumble of the Af-Pak region and its tribal warlords, whose fickle loyalties were traditionally known to switch sides with the exchange of 'suitcases’, even in the middle of the battle.
In mid-Aug 2021, when the Taliban mujaheddins rolled into Kabul, the Pakistani 'establishment’ gave away its worst-kept secret of nurturing the Taliban with the brazen optics of the then DG ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, seen donning a sharp blue blazer and grey flannels, sipping tea cavalierly with the ragtag Taliban warriors in tow.
The symbolism of cozy familiarity was to convey the imminent fructification of the fabled ‘Strategic Depth’ in Afghanistan, with a beholden Taliban doing Pakistan’s bidding.
Except the script went horribly wrong for the 'establishment’ as it desperately sought to cut its losses, soon thereafter. Lt Gen Faiz Hameed got the literal boot as the Taliban reiterated that their revered code of honour ie, Pakhtunwali, which necessitates concepts like Wapa (loyalty to fellow tribe members), Wyar (Pashtun’s pride) and Hewad (Duty to protect the land of the Pashtuns) ran far deeper than its presumed obligation of taking on its brethren in the Pakistan-facing Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as desired by the Pakistanis.
In a curious case of Frankensteinian redux and karma combined, Pakistan’s malintent and mistakes in believing that they could create and control the terror industry, came back to haunt in the form of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The theory of ‘Good Taliban, Bad Taliban’ has since been, embarrassingly thrashed.
Imran Khan's Fall From Grace
The era of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) regime that was once 'selected’ (not ‘elected’) by the Pakistani ‘establishment’ itself, has also run its course during this time. As if to complete the loop, Imran Khan has emerged as the biggest nemesis to the ‘establishment’, even as he cools his heels in the Attock jail.
That he happens to be Niazi Pashtun clansmen adds to the discomfiture of the moment, as any punitive actions onto him, whilst sparing the more discredited lot of Sharif-Bhutto dynasts, could be seen as an affront to the think-skinned Pashtun sensibilities. Serendipitously, the wily Pashtun from Mianwali has been making accommodative noises onto the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) forces, ensuring that most of the religiously inclined masses, support Imran Khan.
General Munir would be aware of Imran’s increasing popularity (certainly vis-à-vis the other civilian alternatives), hence limited in the extent to which they can muzzle Imran, beyond attempting to disintegrate his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), leadership.
The script has changed so dramatically from just a few years back, that General Asim Munir is no longer alluding to the ‘enemy’ across the Line-of-Control (as the Afghan Taliban have started calling Kashmir an ‘internal and bilateral’ issue), but to the one across the Durand Line!
The Taliban are openly giving it back as good as they get, as their ire and angst are no longer reserved for ‘Delhi’ as might have been believed a couple of years back, but towards ‘Islamabad’. Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, bluntly counter-accused, “Afghanistan is not the center of terrorism. The problem is within Pakistan…..Had terrorism originated from Afghanistan, it would have spread to China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran as well”.
The no-holds-barred animosity had even led Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rana Sanaullah, to suggest that they could consider hitting TTP sanctuaries within Afghanistan – the rebuttal from the Afghan Taliban was immediate and unequivocal, that it knew how to defend its territorial integrity and independence.
Pakistan Must Strike a Balance
History is instructive, that the hardening of stand by the Pakistani ‘establishment’ is not going to go down well with the Afghan Taliban or with the Pashtun sentiment on both sides of the Durand Line. General Munir would be wise to consider that the consequences of dissonance amongst the sizeable Pashtuns in the Pakistani ‘establishment’ (estimated at 20%-25% amongst the rank and file), should they feel that their ‘own’, are getting targeted.
The muscular approach has never delivered against the irascible Pashtuns and unlike the earlier British/Soviet/American assets and wherewithal, which were usually better protected and distant – the targets in Pakistan are low hanging, and the incessant violence perpetuated by the TTP is a sure-sign of the same.
If the TTP’s target was the Pakistani Military base at Zhob last month, it was the deadly attack that killed over a hundred in the mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines earlier, just below the pulpit of Bala Hisar fort overlooking the city – there is simply no stopping of the TTP’s daring audacity and bloodshed. The boomeranged ensconcing of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul has only weakened the hand of the Pakistani ‘establishment’, even further.
Clearly, the prescient saying about the Pashtuns by the resident British garrison leader in the British Raj days, Maj General William Elphinstone, "We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood, but we never will be content with a master”, remained either, unread or unheeded, by the Pakistani 'establishment’. The Bala Hisar fort from which General Asim Munir gave his own sanctimonious and vacuous threat to the folks of the region and to their brethren across the Durand Line, has silently seen a very different reality and inevitable consequence, for over 2000 years.
With Pashtuns from TTP or the likes of Imran Khan breathing down the ‘establishment’, as also, PTI loyalist in the form of President of Pakistan Arif Ali, and Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial, still around, General Asim Munir cannot rely on old-fashioned bravado and cavalier posturing from Bala Hisar fort, anymore.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)