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PESHAWAR, Dec 2 2011 (IPS) - Religious and political forces in Northern Pakistan, which hitherto drew strength from their association with the Taliban have begun to distance themselves from the militants, as the latter’s legitimacy plummets in the border regions.
As the Taliban’s ship sinks, actors who had benefitted from the group’s popularity are increasingly wary of expressing their allegiance to the militants.
“The religious forces’ unflinching support for the Taliban was the only reason (the latter) won a sweeping victory at the 2002 polls,” Mian Iftikhar said.
“At the time, the Taliban enjoyed massive public support in the areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan and the adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” he added.
After the U.S-led allied forces dismissed the militants’ government in Kabul towards the end of 2001, the Taliban were warmly welcomed in the tribal areas, where they were “revered as ‘true jihadists’,” according to Muhammad Nasir, a student of Peshawar University.
The first signs of the group’s waning popularity came on May 2, when Osama bin Laden’s assassination by U.S. forces in Abbottabad failed to draw a single protest or demonstration condemning the action as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“This was clear evidence that the Taliban have moved from ‘hero to zero’,” Nasir added.
A slew of attacks against various scholars and public officials over the last half-decade have also contributed to the group’s fall from grace.
Maulana Hassan Jan, a lawmaker and revered religious scholar, was shot dead by terrorists near Peshawar on Sep. 17 2007 for his opposition to an alleged Taliban-orchestrated suicide bombing.
The Taliban later claimed responsibility for Hasan Jan’s death, as well as for the assassinations of two other prominent religious scholars – Muhammad Farooq Khan, vice-chancellor of Swat University who was killed on Oct. 2, 2010 and Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi, who was killed in a suicide attack in Lahore on Jun. 13, 2009.
All three scholars had condemned the Taliban’s suicide missions as ‘haraam’ (or ‘forbidden’ under Islamic law), a criticism that infuriated the Taliban who have always defended their operations and actions as being perfectly in line with their religious beliefs.
Even Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulemai Islam (JUI), who had maintained close ties with the Taliban’s leadership over the years and offered on several occasions to facilitate government-Taliban dialogue, has recently taken a much harder line on the militants.
Back in March he survived two suicide attacks within two days of each other, one in Swabi and the other in Charsadda.
Last month Fazlur Rehman stressed that he only supported the Taliban’s struggle against the U.S. occupation in neighbouring Afghanistan, but did not “recognise” the group’s existence on Pakistan’s soil.
Police officer Owais Shah, who investigated all of the aforementioned suicide attacks, said they were identical to those being launched throughout the country.
“The Taliban are trying to convey a warning to religious parties about taking a (critical position),” Shah told IPS.
Last year, Dost Muhammad, city deputy chief of Jamaat Islami for Peshawar, was killed in a suicide attack on its party rally.
He had been a big supporter of Taliban in the past but his party had recently voiced strong condemnations of the Taliban’s suicide attacks.
“We don’t support armed struggle by any force,” said Shabbir Ahmed Khan, a former lawmaker of Jamaat Islami, who survived the attack on the rally. “We want everyone to struggle for a change but through legal and constitutional means.”
Sikandar Khan, a member of the Swat Peace Committee, told IPS that the Taliban has achieved record- breaking levels of barbarism and brutality and don’t stand a chance of regaining their lost support.
“When the Taliban killed Pir Samiullah, one of their opponents, his body was exhumed and displayed for the public in Swat, (an administrative district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province). It was an act the people could not have conceived of.”
He added that similarly horrific incidents, like the execution of the celebrated female dancer Shabana whose body was found hanging from an electric pole, are still fresh in people’s minds.
The militants’ attacks on the army and police are increasingly being viewed as attacks on “civilians’ safety”, since the armed forces are largely deployed in a civilian capacity in the border regions, further eroding the Taliban’s popularity.
In the past, ordinary civilians donated money to the Taliban, but the group’s involvement in various kidnappings for ransom and the senseless murders of innocent people have disappointed the people, whose sympathies are growing thin.
Quoting data from the country’s interior ministry, Sikandar claimed that more than 23,000 civilians and 5,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the ‘war against terror’ since 2005.
“Only a few years ago, the local population gave the Taliban sanctuaries, which enabled them to escape arrests. Now local people in the tribal areas have formed anti-Taliban committees who work with the army,” he added.
In Bajaur Agency alone, about 2,200 militants have surrendered before the army in the past two years, he said.
Hasam ul-Haq, professor at the Government College of Bajaur, told IPS the Taliban’s practice of claiming responsibility for every act of terror taking place around the globe further eroded their integrity since many deplore the targeting of mosques and civilians.
“Islam doesn’t allow armed attacks – but the Taliban continue to use weapons, bombs and suicide bombing as their modus operandi,” he said. Once considered the defenders of Islam, the Taliban are now regarded as oppressors.
Ul-Haq also believes that the Taliban made a grave tactical error by releasing a video on Jul. 18 containing footage of 16 Pakistani policemen being executed by the group’s militants in the Dir district.
This, coupled with the kidnapping of 25 children from Bajaur two months ago, only to release four of them after payment of a ransom, is indicative of the Taliban’s crumbling moral and religious framework, he added.
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