The Boy Who Fnally Made It.
Ayaz Amir on Shahbaz Taseer…..
Had he not been plucky and courageous Shahbaz Taseer would never have made it. He endured brutal torture at the hands of his Uzbek captors – fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, even in jihadi ranks a dreaded lot because of their ruthlessness and taste for brutality. They plucked out his nails and sent them in a packet to his family. The family thought these were pressure tactics. Now they know it was no drama.
If Operation Zarb-e-Azb hadn’t happened the Uzbeks would have stayed put in their North Waziristan haven, the village of Dande Darpa Khel, the same place where the Haqqanis had set up a seminary and where Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike. Everyone knew what Darpa Khel was about and Shahbaz’s presence there was common knowledge. But no one ventured near the place.
That’s what North Waziristan was like in the pre-Zarb-e-Azb days – inviolate and out of bounds for army, ISI, indeed anything to do with the authority of the Pakistani state. The Uzbeks were untouchable. The man who on behalf of the Taseer family was speaking to the captors managed, through the good offices of Maulana Samiul Haq, to get in touch with a Haqqani elder. The Uzbeks were deferential towards him but they brooked no cajoling or pressure. They were their own masters.
That was the rule in the rugged spaces of what for all practical purposes was the independent and sovereign Islamic Emirate of North Waziristan…you kept what you took. You perhaps paid a tribute, a share of the spoils, to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) but your extortions and kidnappings were yours to handle the way you thought best.
So the Uzbeks, cruel and doughty fighters as everyone agrees, were under no obligation to listen to anyone. They stuck to their demands – the release of a list of prisoners, about 10-13, and ransom money. But the money always came later…first were the prisoners.
And that was the rub – the Taseer family could do nothing about the prisoners. So the negotiations went on and on and the torture and the nails, even occasional slashing by blades, occurred to pile on the pressure.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb changed everything. The sovereign and inviolate territory of the virtual Islamic Republic of North Waziristan came under sudden and ferocious assault and places like Darpa Khel – hitherto attackable only by drones – were no longer safe. The Uzbeks had to pull out and rush headlong towards the relative safety of Afghanistan, their prisoner with them.
In Zabul province they halted but they had committed a strategic error, falling out with the Taliban, now headed after the death of Mullah Omar by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. And they had come under suspicion that their sympathies lay with the Islamic State (Daesh) which was vying to get a foothold in Afghanistan and on that account was in conflict with the Taliban.
So it happened that the Zabul camp of the Uzbeks came under attack from the Taliban and there was a fierce fight in which the Uzbeks took heavy losses. Taking advantage of the tumult and catching a favourable moment Shahbaz ran for his life, only to fall in the hands of the encircling Taliban. Many Uzbeks were taken prisoner and they thought Shahbaz was an Uzbek too. He remained a prisoner of the Taliban for 3-4 months, locked up in two small rooms with 70 Uzbeks, the conditions so cramped they could hardly sit or stand.
He tried telling the Taliban who he was but they wouldn’t believe him. At his wit’s end he mentioned the name of the Haqqani elder who had tried to intercede with the Uzbeks on his behalf. That seemed to catch the Taliban’s attention. Three or four days later he was taken out of his cell. They gave him 15,000 rupees and pointed to a nearby village where they told him local Taliban could help him cross the border.
Motorcycle riders, happy with an offering of 5000 rupees, took him across and left him at Kuchlak. We know what happened afterwards. This at least is the story and it reads better than most thrillers. If Shahbaz has half his late father’s gift as a writer a gripping bestseller is waiting to be written.
This is the ordeal of a young man but it says a lot about Pakistan, especially the Pakistan which existed not long ago. Shahbaz was kidnapped not on a lonely road but in the heart of Lahore, in broad daylight and for two days if not more kept in Lahore before being taken by road to the tribal areas where in and around scenic Darpa Khel, nominally territory of Pakistan, he remained for over three years…and no law-enforcing arm of Pakistan could reach him.
Those who had picked him up from Gulberg were part of a Punjabi gang from Lahore, the same gang which some days earlier had abducted the American aid worker, Warren Weinstein, from Model Town. And these guys were operating with virtual impunity, right in Lahore, the Paris of the East, over which the Khadim-e-Aala has long held benign sway. Such things were supposed to happen elsewhere. Shahbaz’s ordeal tells a different story.
There’s also Ali Haider Gilani, son of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, kidnapped in Multan again in broad daylight, bodyguards by his side. His distraught family no doubt awaits a miracle similar to that experienced by the Taseer family.
Usman Basra, the leader of the gang that picked up Shahbaz, is still in custody. But it says something about the state of investigation/prosecution here that one of his leading accomplices, Farhaj Butt (if I’ve got the name correctly) has succeeded in getting bail and is now said to be in Dubai.
What do you then do in this climate? The intelligence agencies go after suspects and are then afraid of handing them over to the police for fear of similar outcomes. The National Action Plan was supposed to change all this. Brave things were said and braver things promised. The truth is more sobering. The army is on its own, fighting a lonely war. The civilians are not really interested. Their hearts are not in it. They are more into other things.
But let’s be thankful for small mercies. At least, we’ve pulled away from the precipice. It takes an effort to recall how things stood just a year and a half ago. We still had our planes and tanks and missiles. It was the same army, same colour of uniform, same marching style. But the TTP seemed to have the spirit and the initiative. The army commanded no respect and inspired no confidence.
A year and a half’s hard-fought battles have changed this entire picture. No-go areas such as Darpa Khel have been penetrated and Uzbeks and other warriors have been forced to flee. Fata and Karachi were standing rebukes to the notion of Pakistani sovereignty. That slide has been checked.
I wish though the ISPR had not said some kind of a James Bond operation freed Shahbaz. When something good happens, the bare facts are often more eloquent than any make-believe.