Battleground Lahore: Taliban in the City

06/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was not so long ago that Lahore was the safest major city in Pakistan.

Its ancient status as the literary and cultural capital of Northwest India yet lingered in the decades after its name was changed to Pakistan. The architecture, the Shalimar gardens and all the rest were a reminder of its imperial past, as the southern port of Karachi fended off bombings and random violence.

Today, that illusion has distinctly faded away. A brief indiscriminate firing session was followed rapidly by the main event: a suicide car bombing that ripped apart a major office of the Pakistan security forces in the heart of Lahore, causing damage to its nearby buildings and tremors across the opposite sides of town.

The unofficial estimates range from 9 to 45 dead, but official reports indicate that so far it's 23. Whatever it is, the figure is high and it puts no doubt in the minds of skeptical Lahori residents that this time, Lahore was not an exception. There will be more to come now, one defense analyst said on Dawn television news.

It is not the first attack on Lahore in the last few years -- the random attacks have been dousing the public's sense of safety for a couple years now.

It is the latest escalation in a series of attacks that have worsened since the surge in U.S. attacks against the Taliban. The Lahori people were minding their own business when they got caught up in the U.S. attack on Taliban insurgency. Today was Lahore's first suicide bombing since President Obama took office.

In the aftermath, the most memorable images will no doubt include the bizarre footage and images of a clean cut, trimmed-beard man in black who snickered as he ducked from the public's beatings. Bigger and lighter-skinned than the handful of men who were handling him, he seemed almost amused by the attention. The suspect -- ever lost in the mire of semantics -- was called a terrorist by some and no doubt an ideological soldier by others. If it is true that he was involved in the attack today, the word criminal would also apply.

One thing was for sure, he looked and carried himself much like the quintessential Pashtun.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but most Pakistanis and defense experts can take a wild guess. The Taliban, as they are referred to in the Western press, are apparently a rabid group of militants intent on taking the world back a few millennia.

Not quite.

The insurgents that the Pakistani army and the U.S. forces are battling are not an organized group or a united front -- they are various fronts of poor, largely uneducated men of Pashtun (or Pathan, as it's referred to in Pakistan) origin who are doing what their ancestors have done for centuries: defending the Pashtun way, or Pashtunwali, as it's called. It is comprised of a fundamental interpretation of Islam and a few basic sets of values: if you're my guest, I will host you to my death; if you're my enemy, your death will come before mine.

Ultimately, however, the Pashtuns are just an easy target in America's post 9-11 interest in Pakistan: they are poor and religious in a way that most non-Pashtuns cannot relate to. In fact, it is quite likely that the poor, fundamentalist Pashtun is just another pawn in the midst of the Hot War: a cheap recruit of all the world powers who oppose the United States and would love this to be another repeat of Vietnam.

The trouble is, Pashtuns aren't your run-of-the-mill poor, easy targets. Nobody has beaten the Pashtuns for centuries. Even a defeat is not a true victory. If the Pakistani-American alliance manages it, it will be short-lived, because another important element of Pashtunwali is that a Pashtun never forgets.

It begs the question: what exactly does the alliance think it is doing? The millions of Pashtuns and their children who have fled the fighting zones will not forget how their land and their people were forsaken. The thousands of Pashtun fighters who will escape with their lives, will only have more reason to defend their way of life.

The only solution for combating Pashtunwali is incorporating it into a healthy lifestyle: an opportunity for these people to acquire long-term education, employment, health and livelihood. The British Raj didn't care to address these issues, and neither has the Pakistani government. The Americans don't have a remarkable track record of caring either -- just ask Charlie Wilson.

Unless a massive amount of resources and efforts are put in to give these people the kind of life everybody wishes they would lead, the only life they have is the one they will continue dying to defend.

In the meantime, the Pakistani public must suffer the consequences, too.

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