There is nothing called the 'moderate Taliban'
By M J Akbar
If necessity is the mother of invention then politics is often the father. Barack Obama has invented a phrase that did not exist on January 20, the day he became president. Anxious to win a war through the treasury rather than the Pentagon, he has discovered something called the "moderate Taliban" in Afghanistan. Joe Biden, his vice president, has found the mathematical coordinates of this oxymoron: only 5% of the Taliban are "extremists".
Welcome to Obama's first big mistake.
The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not simply against some bearded men and beardless boys who have been turned into suicide missionaries. The critical conflict is against the ideology of a chauvinistic theocracy that seeks to remould the Muslim world into a regressive region from which it can assault every aspect of modernity, whether that be in political space or the social sphere.
Washington has a single dimension definition of "moderate": anyone who stops an active, immediate war against the US is a "moderate". Let me introduce him to a couple of "moderate Taliban". They are now world famous, having been on every national and international news channel these past few days, stars of a video clip from Swat. Two of them had pinned down a 17-year-old girl called Chand Bibi, while a third, his face shrouded, lashed her with a whip 37 times on suspicion of being seen with a man who was not her father or brother.
Obama should record the screams of Chand Bibi and play them to his daughters as the "moderate" music to which he wants to dance in his Afghan war.
These Taliban are "moderate" by the norms of the Obama Doctrine: they have come to a deal with America through Islamabad. Pakistani troops are not engaged in their medieval haven, nor are American Drones bombing their homes. All that remains, one presumes, is that they are placed on the Pentagon payroll as insurance of their ceasefire.
Perhaps, in their desperate search for moderation, Obama and Islamabad will promote the denial being manipulated into public discourse. The unbearable Swat-lashing video is now described as fake. It would be nice to know the names of the actors who played such a convincing part in the filming of this 'fake'. Chand Bibi has "denied" any such incident. Sure: but was any doctor sent to check the scars?
Such compromise with 'moderation' has also taken place next door, in Afghanistan, under the watchful eye of American ally Hamid Karzai. He has just signed a family law bill which compels Afghan women to take permission from their husbands before going to a doctor, seeking education, or getting a job. The husband has become complete master of the bedroom. Custody of children can only go to fathers or grandfathers; women have no rights. A member of Afghanistan's upper house, Senator Humaira Namati, has called this law "worse than during the Taliban (government). Anyone who spoke out was accused of being against Islam". It makes no difference to the Taliban, of course, that the Quran expressly forbids Muslim men from forcing decisions on their wives "against their will". Karzai's justification is the usual one: politics. He wanted the support of theocrats in the election scheduled for August this year. Under pressure, there is talk of a review but no one is sure what that means.
If it's democracy, it must be "moderate", right?
One can understand a post-Iraq America's reluctance towards wars that seem straight out of Kipling. But we in the region have to live with the political consequences of superpower intervention, and the casual legitimacy that Obama is offering to a destructive ideology will create blowback that spreads far beyond the geography of "Afpak".
Benazir Bhutto and the ISI did not create the Taliban in the winter of 1994 for war against America. Its purpose was to defeat fractious Afghan warlords, and establish a totalitarian regime that would equate Afghanistan's strategic interests to Pakistan's. The ISI conceived an "Afpak" long before the idea reached the outer rim of Washington's thinking. Pakistan worked assiduously to widen the Taliban's legitimacy and would have drawn America into the fold through the oil-pipeline siren song if Osama bin Laden had not blown every plan apart. In some essentials, things have not changed. Pakistan's interests still lie in a pro-Islamabad Taliban regime in Kabul. The "moderation" theory is a ploy to provide war-weary America with an exit point. India's anxieties will be offered a smile in public and a shrug in private.
History is uncomfortable with neat closures. Neither the Taliban nor Pakistan are what they were in 1994: the former is much stronger, the latter substantially weaker. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban this time could be a curtain raiser to the siege of Islamabad.
There is nothing called a moderate lash, or backlash, President Obama.