By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 12, 2009
PATALIAN, Pakistan -- The body of Mohammed Sajad lies buried in the sandy soil of the village cemetery, beneath a lonely Pakistani flag that flies crisply in the sweltering air.
He died, his father explains, a soldier's death, shot in the back after his Pakistani army unit marched into a trap in the Swat Valley. Recovering the body took four days because of the ferocity of Taliban sniper fire. It will take Sajad's father far longer to understand why Pakistan is waging war with its own people.
"We used to know who the enemy was, and where he is coming from," said Zulfikar Sajad, his eyes vacant and sad as he sat in a mud-brick hut on a desolate plain. "Now, we don't know from which direction the bullets will come."
Unlike in past wars against its archenemy, India, Pakistan is engulfed in a conflict that pits Pakistanis against Pakistanis, Muslims against Muslims. It is a confrontation the army long resisted, and it features an enemy that many Pakistanis would prefer to believe does not exist. For the soldiers who fight, and for the growing number of families forced to bury their sons, the struggle seems to go against their very DNA.
Yet overcoming that deep unease will be critical to Pakistani efforts to win what U.S. officials identify as the central front in the war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other violent Islamist groups.
The conflict in Pakistan is as much about public perception as it is about events on the battlefield, and in recent weeks there have been signs that opinions are shifting. Buoyed by apparent army victories in Swat, and repulsed by extreme Taliban tactics such as beheadings and suicide bombings that target civilians, Pakistanis have rallied around the military as it wages a battle that many here view as a struggle for the nation's soul. What was once seen as a U.S. fight is now being claimed as Pakistan's.
"There has been a palpable change in the public perception of the Taliban," said Rifaat Hussain, professor of defense and strategic studies at Qaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "When the savagery of their rule was exposed, people began to think, 'This is not the kind of Islam that we want in Pakistan.' "
At the same time, Hussain said, the military has navigated its own shift. As recently as six months ago, he said, the Taliban was still seen as "Pakistan's second line of defense against India. Now they're being seen as a very serious threat."
That is welcome news for the Obama administration, which was gravely concerned this spring that the Pakistani government was unwilling or unable to combat a surging Taliban force that was then knocking on the door of the capital. U.S. anxiety has eased somewhat as the momentum has swung back toward the army and the government.
But it remains to be seen whether Pakistan's new attitude will endure through what is sure to be a years-long fight against an enemy its military once nurtured, with U.S. assistance.
"These people were certified as God's holy warriors by the White House itself. Now they've been transformed into the world's darkest villains. That's complicated," said Ayaz Amir, a member of Parliament and a newspaper columnist and army veteran. "But the opinion that Pakistan has no choice other than to fight these people is becoming stronger."
No one believes the fight will be easy. Although the army has made progress in its offensive in Swat, vast swaths of Pakistan's northwest remain locked in the Taliban's grip.
Government critics, Amir among them, only weeks ago had been calling for negotiations to quell the insurgency but now support military action. Private television channels, too, have changed their normally feisty, anti-establishment tone. They broadcast reports from the front lines titled "Pakistan Fights Back" and air funeral services in which parents speak proudly of their "martyred" soldier sons.
The Pakistani military has always been the most influential institution in Pakistan. With 650,000 active-duty troops, it is the seventh-largest army in the world, and it was built to protect this homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims from its larger and more powerful neighbor, Hindu-majority India. Three wars later, Pakistani firepower is still concentrated along the Indian border.
But now the army faces the prospect of a prolonged counterinsurgency against groups it has funded and trained for decades to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
The army has little choice. The groups, led by the Pakistani Taliban, have turned their guns against the state. Last year, about 2,000 Pakistanis died in terrorist attacks, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. The Pakistani military says that since 2001, it has lost more than 1,600 men, more than double the number of U.S. soldiers who have been killed battling Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Here in Pakistan's "martial belt," a crescent of northern Punjab province that has consistently been the military's most fertile recruiting ground, army families are grappling with the idea that Pakistan's gravest threat lies within, not beyond the eastern border.
Zulfikar Sajad, the father whose eldest son was killed in Swat in January, said he remembers telling his son years ago about the Pakistani army's heroic efforts against India in the 1965 war. "When I am old enough, I will join the army," Sajad said his son replied.
Here, there's often little choice. The area is rural -- rolling, yellowish-green plains stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only occasionally by a squat cluster of homes. The land is unirrigated, and the harvests are unpredictable. To guarantee a steady source of income, most families want at least one son in the military -- even though the basic salary is less than $80 a month.
"It remains a peasant army," said Amir, who grew up in the nearby city of Chakwal and represents this area in Parliament. "Americans should congratulate yourselves on the cheapest cannon fodder you can buy."
After Mohammed Sajad's death, the army gave his family a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, four pounds of black tea and about $1,000 as compensation.
Zulfikar Sajad said that he is proud of his son but that he knows little about why he was fighting, and that his son himself did not understand.
"We are common village people. We know nothing of the policies of the government," he said, shrugging, a red kaffiyeh wrapped between fingers worn from a lifetime of hard labor. "We don't have television. We only hear in the newspapers that this is being done because of the United States. God knows what is true."
The Swat Valley, where his son died, is about 130 miles from here, but it might as well be a world away. "I have never visited, but I hear they are poor people, just like me," he said.
Farzana Zonain, who lives in the city nearest to Sajad's village, thinks often of those impoverished Taliban fighters in Swat because one of them nearly killed her brother. Atif Mehmood was shot in the abdomen by a Taliban sniper, lost a kidney and has had two lifesaving surgeries.
Zonain can't help but think this struggle could be worked out, if only the government and the Taliban would talk more.
"It's a fight between Muslims. One Muslim is killing the other," said Zonain, a 29-year-old housewife who favors bright-pink shoes and shawls. "I would be happy if my brother had gone to fight some enemy country and got injured there. But not like this."
And yet, within her family, there's hardly agreement. In the bare, concrete confines of their living room, they play out the debate that is unfolding across the country.
Another brother, Mohammed Asif, scoffs at the notion that talking to the Taliban would do any good. He relates a story that his brother told him before he was wounded: A soldier friend went back to his village for home leave and was kidnapped by the Taliban. Days later, his unit received the man's head, wrapped in a shopping bag.
"This is not Islam. Terrorism is not a religion," said Asif, a restaurant cashier who shares his wounded brother's lanky frame. "Just like with India, we are again facing an enemy that is out to destroy this country and its people."
"But the government could handle it in other ways. Dialogue, negotiations," Zonain interjected, cutting her brother off. "This war benefits no one."
She shook her head, thinking of her injured brother and the games he played as a child. He would gather the neighborhood kids, and they would use the city's sewage-filled streets as their battlefield for a war with toy guns. It seemed very simple then.
"He would tell the others, 'You are America. You are Russia. You are India. I am Pakistan,' " she recalls, smiling. "Pakistan always won."