Nicholas Schmidle, who is sort of like the Pakistan/Afghanistan equivalent of a blond-haired, roving Lawrence of Arabia, has written a fascinating, detailed account of some of the emerging conflicts between various Taliban leaders and Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalist leaders.
Schmidle suggests that Bhutto’s death may spark division and tension within the fundamentalist camp, but that these tensions could still tear the country apart no matter how Musharraf responds.
Schmidle’s article, “Next-Gen Taliban“, will appear next week in the New York Times Magazine. Here is a clip:
Maulana Fazlur Rehman is exactly the sort of “political mullah” whom [Maulvi Noor] Muhammad portrayed as running scared. In the past year, the J.U.I. chief has tried to disassociate himself from the new generation of Taliban wreaking havoc not only across the border in Afghanistan, as they have for years, but also increasingly in Pakistan.
At the same time, Rehman has been trying to persuade foreign ambassadors and establishment politicians here that he is the only one capable of dealing with those same Taliban. (Rehman told me that he never offered Muhammad a chance to enter the election; he even added that the J.U.I. had already expelled the Taliban guru “on disciplinary grounds.”)
In the process, some Islamists maintain that Rehman has sold them out. Last April, a rocket whistled over the sugarcane fields that separate Rehman’s house from the main road before crashing into the veranda of his brother’s home next door. A few months later, Pakistani intelligence agencies discovered a hit list, drafted by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with Rehman’s name on it.
“The religious forces are very divided right now,” I was told by Abdul Hakim Akbari, a childhood friend of Rehman’s and lifelong member of the J.U.I. I met Akbari in Dera Ismail Khan, Rehman’s hometown, which is situated in the North-West Frontier Province.
According to this past summer’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, approved by all 16 official intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has regrouped in the Tribal Areas adjoining the province and may be planning an attack on the American homeland. “Everyone is afraid,” Akbari told me. “These mujahedeen don’t respect anyone anymore. They don’t even listen to each other. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a moderate. He wants dialogue. But the Taliban see him as a hurdle to their ambitions.”
Rehman doesn’t pretend to be a liberal; he wants to see Pakistan become a truly Islamic state.
But the moral vigilantism and the proliferation of Taliban-inspired militias along the border with Afghanistan is not how he saw it happening. The emergence of Taliban-inspired groups in Pakistan has placed immense strain on the country’s Islamist community, a strain that may only increase with the assassination of Bhutto. As the rocket attack on Rehman’s house illustrates, the militant jihadis have even lashed out against the same Islamist parties who have coddled them in the past.
Western audiences might find news about Islamists fighting among themselves rather appealing. But jihadi wars, at least since the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan, have tended to spill over borders, all the more so since Sept. 11, 2001. And within Pakistan, the struggle for supremacy between those Pakistani Islamists who want to gain power democratically and those who want to abolish democracy altogether could well tear the country apart.
This is a detail-rich, personal essay of Schmidle’s on site reporting. I recommend the entire article — his first for the New York Times Magazine.
— Steve Clemons