Living with the Taliban

At my daughter's annual school parents' day in Lahore, the tension was palpable. An innocuous annual event had transformed into a maximum security operation. Parents filed in their hundreds past security guards, metal detectors and bag searches to see their children perform songs. One more year like the last one and next year there will be no parents' day. Another month or two like the previous ones and there might be no school left open. Pakistanis may be scared of a future comprising daily doses of floggings, beheadings, daisy-cutters and drones; but if your children cannot go to school, the future has ceased to be.

Pakistan is facing an existential crisis at multiple levels. The Taliban have already taken over large parts of the North-West Frontier province (NWFP). They have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions - including beheadings - of state officials and political opponents, and intimidation of the population. Girls' schools have been shut down, women are not allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunisation programmes have been halted, and nongovernmental organisations have been expelled. Music and film have been banned, and stores trading in them have been destroyed. All men have been required to grow beards. Bombs go off all over the country.

Class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines run throughout Pakistan. The Taliban and the army's assorted other militant proxies, now acting in a loose coalition, sense an unprecedented historical opportunity to enhance their influence across the country. The overwhelmingly rightwing media continue to deify the Taliban and to present terrorism as a function of the state's failure to reach a compact with fellow Pakistanis. US drone attacks on Pakistan have exacerbated deep-rooted anti-Americanism.

But the dangers outlined above, though serious, present only half the picture. For the Pakistani state, effective or not, is alive and well in much of Punjab and Sindh. Many are obsessed with the "rule of law" and constitutionalism as witnessed in the lawyer's movement to restore deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. While women are shut indoors in the NWFP, there is no prospect of this happening in the urban, industrialised swathe running from Islamabad to Lahore. At the other end of Pakistan, in Karachi, the city's premier political force, the MQM, is spouting venom about the Taliban's "tribal Sharia". Rural Sindh and the adjoining parts of southern Punjab remain under the near-total political sway of the cult of Bhutto.

Which is not to say that the Punjab or Sindh will rise up in arms against the Taliban. The Taliban will continue to wage a terror campaign in mainland Pakistan, and people - particularly in the Punjab - will react by trying to appease them. Yet there are very clear cultural, political and social limits to that appeasement. Mainland Pakistan may well move further towards more overt displays of conservatism and piety. Some will ask if a parents' day with girls reciting only the Qur'an is a better option than living with the fear that your child may return from school in a body bag. But despite the advance of the Taliban, their ideology will need to halt well short of that seen in Afghanistan or the NWFP - not least because the army and Inter-Services Intelligence leaders will be among the first to lose their heads if they let it go too far.

On a political level, the world, and India in particular, must devise measures that will allow the Pakistan army to swap its policy of focusing on India with one that focuses on confronting the Taliban. Until then, Pakistan and the world will remain hostage to Talibanisation and its ugly knock-on effects.

Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.