The Pakistani Taliban caused widespread revulsion when it recently gunned down 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose "crime" was to ask for an education. Although assassinations and terrorism are common in Pakistan, what provoked such outcry is that Yousafzai was targeted because of her background as a campaigner for women's rights.
Yousafzai lives in the Mingora area of Swat in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where scores of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have taken refuge. Yousafzai first captured their attention after launching a campaign against attempts by the Taliban to impose their version of Shariah law in the region, whereby men were forced to grow their beards and girls were prevented from attending school. She has campaigned against these demands since the age of 11.
For her efforts, Yousafzai was given a bravery award by Pakistani President Yousuf Raza Gilani last year. She was rightly celebrated and championed by politicians from across all sides of the political spectrum. Yet, not one of them ever bothered to question why a teenager needs to campaign for her right to an education. No one thought to question who would fear a small, young girl.
Herein lies the problem in Pakistan. The political class is simply unwilling to confront the Taliban which operates freely across much of the FATA region. Instead, they make political capital from criticising the drone program operated by the United States which targets terrorists in FATA. It is true that drones can sometimes be a blunt and clumsy tool, but in the absence of any will by Pakistani authorities to chase down the terrorists operating in FATA, this program is the only lifeline available to residents there who oppose the Taliban.
Two weeks ago the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, vowed to lead a "peace convoy" to Waziristan, another Taliban hotbed in FATA. Khan said he wanted protest drone strikes but, in the end, stopped short of entering FATA after the Taliban threatened to attack him. Without a hint of irony, Khan continued to blame the United States for the problems in Pakistan.
After the attempted assassination of Yousafzai, Khan was again directing his rage at America – rather than those who pulled the trigger. He told a press conference (available in Urdu here) that the Pakistani government has antagonised the Taliban by launching a crackdown in the tribal areas. Worse, he said that Taliban fighters who targeted coalition forces in Afghanistan are fighting a "legitimate jihad."
The Afghan government reacted angrily to these comments, telling the Guardian:
Either [Imran Khan is] profoundly and dangerously ignorant about the reality in Afghanistan, or he has ill will against the Afghan people.
Our children are killed on daily basis, civilians killed, and our schools, hospitals and infrastructure attacked on a daily basis. To call any of that jihad is profoundly wrong and misguided.
Although Yousafzai was shot in the head she has survived the Taliban's attempts to kill her, and is now in Britain where she is receiving special medical attention. Yet the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ehsanullah Ehsan, has vowed to try again to kill her.
He has branded Yousafzai an "American spy," who spread "Western ideas." In a statement to the Pakistani press, Ehsan said:
She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol. She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas.
In a subsequent statement, he added:
In Islam and Pakhtun traditions there is absolutely no room for an attack on a woman of pure virtues. But in cases where a woman is seen as a clear sinner who stands in defiance of Shariah, such a woman is not only allowed to be attacked but there is an obligatory instruction for such an action.
She not only spied against Mujahideen but also created propaganda against them. The Gul Makai diary [an online diary Yousafzai wrote for the BBC about life under the Taliban] is an embodiment of anti-Taliban views. She has received the punishment for her sin.
The attack on Yousafzai perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with Pakistan today. The Taliban arrogate for themselves the role of arbiters of public morality and conduct. They kill anyone who disagrees with them and are allowed to operate with impunity.
Instead of the Pakistani government moving against these forces, they prefer passivity. Their reasoning is that once American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, the antagonisms with the terrorists will decrease. All this overlooks the fact the Taliban have entrenched themselves in Pakistani territory by killing their opponents. They have, in essence, created a mini-Taliban state within Pakistan itself.
In the meantime, the government betrays the very people in whose defence it is obliged to act. Ordinary citizens in FATA are being surrendered and betrayed to the Taliban's murderous rage so long as it does not rock the status quo in Islamabad.
More than 30,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks since 9/11. None has captured the popular consciousness of the nation in quite the way the shooting of Yousafzai has. One hopes this could prove to be a tipping point, finally stirring into action a political class mired in its own comfort.