THERE ARE no words of sufficient force to summarize this week’s attempted murder of fourteen year-old Malala Yousafzai, in the northwest Pakistan city of Mingora. Yet as shocking as this savagery is, there is nothing new about it either: depravity is the business of the Taliban franchise. There are however some lessons to be drawn from the years during which the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (abbreviated as TTP and known also as the Pakistani Taliban) terrorized the Swat valley and Mingora specifically.
The rise of the Pakistani Taliban coincided with, but was not an outcome of, the American and British entrance into the Northern Alliance battle against the Afghani Taliban. Here I should remind the reader that the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan share a name and a list of enemies but little else. In structure, interests and objectives they differ, and excepting a short-lived declaration of common purpose — to fight two of the aforementioned enemies, the Americans and British — these outfits have been hostile toward one another.
Lurking in the background of their differences is the role of the Pakistani establishment, some elements of which have been happy to use Afghanistan’s Taliban for sectarian purposes against their neighbours but not so happy to have discovered the righteous rabble of Central Asia pooling within their own borders and drowning chunks of their territory. This process of “Talibanization” gradually occurred in the Swat valley while Islamabad slumbered, gaining momentum in 2004 when the so-called Radio Mullah, Maulana Fazlullah, launched his FM radio broadcasts.
At first appealing to the justified anti-government sentiments of the poor and marginalized, the radio programs soon gave way to an inwardly-focused program of aggression and misinformation. Almost as if grounded in a study of Rwanda, the campaign began with the radio targeting of undesirables and culminated in one of human history’s largest displacements — “one of the most dramatic of recent times,” according to the UNHCR’s António Guterres. The Deobandi reactionaries closed down the girls’ schools (one of which was owned and run by Malala’s remarkable father, Ziauddin), beheaded known and suspected critics, drove out the population, and planted as they always do the landmines which ensure not only present but future death and disfigurement.
Between 2004 and 2008 the distraught government of Pakistan attempted a series of peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban. In exchange for promises of non-aggression against the government and the severing of ties with Arab and Central Asian fighters, the Taliban affiliates were compensated for battle losses and offered other material perks. The prestige attached to negotiating with Islamabad advanced the career of entreprenurial murderers such as Nek Muhammad, and the now-and-then interludes of peace provided welcomed opportunities to recruit and rebuild. Every peace agreement was followed by a new round of Taliban violence, and it was the Swat Agreement of May 2008 in particular which bought Fazlullah the time he needed to overtake Mingora one year later.
In 2009, the journalist Adam B. Ellick met Malala Yousafzai and became a friend of her inspiring and extraordinary family. I highly recommend his reflections this week on the making of a documentary in which he filmed her final day of class before the Pakistani Taliban shut down her school. In the years since, Malala Yousafzai has continued to be an astonishingly courageous girl and her family has continued to support her. This in a city where government officials advertise their resignations in the newspapers to spare themselves a violent end. Also in the years since, we have heard plans to withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan and to begin negotiations for a lasting peace with the Afghanistan Taliban. If there’s anything to be learned from Mingora, it concerns the dead ends to which illusions of peace can sometimes lead.