March 18, 2014 9:07 am

Pakistan’s Sharif urged to open second front against Taliban

Urged to act: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif©Getty

Urged to act: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Usman Khan is a victim of the Taliban. The seven year old was not caught in one of the militant Islamist group’s deadly bomb attacks or fire fights that have left thousands dead in Pakistan but was hit by what his mother calls the “deadly influence” of the group.

Usman has polio, contracted after Taliban-linked preachers warned Muslims in the local area not to vaccinate their children against the crippling disease. He is part of the collateral damage from the group’s effort to spread its influence over Pakistan society.

“For the sake of God, please give charity to my son,” pleads Zaitoon Bibi, a widow and mother of five, holding on to Usman as pedestrians walk by her in the northern city of Peshawar. “He has no future. He is crippled.”

Peshawar is a city under assault by the Taliban. In recent weeks, cinemas have lost much of their business after attacks targeted so-called symbols of anti-Islamic values. As the number and intensity of attacks in the city grows – there have been more than 12 attacks since the start of 2014 – it has become increasingly difficult for Pakistan’s security officials to act against Taliban militants.

Since the most recent round of peace talks between the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Taliban broke down in February the calls to prevent Pakistan society being “Talibanised” have become louder. Analysts warn the Pakistani leader must tackle the group, not just militarily, but also in terms of how it has penetrated society, to permanently beat it back.

“The fight has to go to the finish line, which includes using the military and also stopping them [Taliban] on other fronts,” says a senior western diplomat in Islamabad. “Otherwise, this danger will keep on growing for Pakistan.”

For years, Islamic mullahs including those with known links to militants such as the Taliban, have sought to tighten their grip on Pakistan’s society. Several have campaigned against the anti-polio vaccine given in the form of drops to children under five. Islamists claim, though without any verifiable scientific evidence, that the drops contain substances which will make boys impotent.

In January, the World Health Organisation declared Peshawar to be the world’s largest reservoir of the polio virus. It also revealed that more than 90 per cent of the current polio cases in Pakistan were linked to Peshawar.

The danger is that they [the Taliban] are trying to buy time and reorganise in areas from where they have been uprooted

- Major General Athar Abbas (retired)

In spite of these health warnings, opposing the anti-polio vaccine has become central to the Taliban campaign and teams of polio workers have been attacked all over the country to stop them from giving the drops.

“For the Taliban, opposing the polio campaign in fact puts their stamp on society. It is meant to prove that they will direct the future of Pakistan,” says a Pakistan intelligence official.

In the case of Zaitoon, her ordeal began six years ago when her late husband stopped her from taking Usman to a government clinic dispensing the anti-polio drops.

Citing her husband’s words following a sermon by an Islamic mullah, Zaitoon remembers: “Polio drops are haram [illicit]. They [polio drops] contain alcohol [banned for Muslims]j and other bad ingredients. We must never commit this mistake [of giving polio drops to the children]. Our boys will not be able to have children.”

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Mr Sharif won the 2013 election on a promise to reform the Pakistan economy and make peace with the Taliban in a country exhausted by years of fighting. But the collapse of February’s peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella-like coalition of pro-Taliban militant groups has raised a question of whether the prime minister is being strung along.

“It is wishful to think that the TTP will give up arms,” says Major General Athar Abbas, a retired former army commander. “The danger is that they [the Taliban] are trying to buy time and reorganise in areas from where they have been uprooted”.

Others warn that Mr Sharif appears caught between seeking a negotiated settlement on the one hand and responding to calls for an all out military attack against the TTP’s stronghold in the north Waziristan region along the Afghan border.

In recent weeks, the Pakistan military has carried out a series of aerial attacks on suspected Taliban sanctuaries in the area using helicopter gunships and fighter jets. A large-scale ground assault is yet to take place but western diplomats warn that without a large deployment of troops the Taliban may believe Mr Sharif lacks the determination to wipe them out.

“The Sharif government is seen to be big on rhetoric though many people are still waiting to see evidence of action on the main fronts,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator on Pakistan’s security and military affairs. “This gap between rhetoric and performance is undermining the government’s ability to take charge”.

For Usman’s mother the damage is already done, though she is keen for leaders such as Mr Sharif to confront the militants. “My son will never be able to walk properly. But at least the sons of other people can be saved from the curse that I am living with.”


Voices from the front line

Mother of a polio victim ‘For the sake of God, please give charity to my son. He has no future. He is crippled’

Her husband’s view on vaccine ‘Polio drops are haram. They contain alcohol and other bad ingredients . . . Our boys will not be able to have children’

The intelligence official ‘For the Taliban, opposing the polio campaign in fact puts their stamp on society. It is meant to prove they will direct the future of Pakistan’

The former general ‘It is wishful to think that the TTP [Taliban] will give up arms. The danger is that they are trying to buy time and reorganise’

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