Westerners can be forgiven if they were by surprised by Pakistan's groundswell of outrage towards the apparent public flogging of a seventeen-year-old girl in the Swat Valley. The Taliban or its allies have, after all, thrown acid in the faces of young girls while walking to school (that was their offense); bombed schools, killing or maiming the young occupants inside; beheaded those they have suspected of collaborating with NATO forces without even the pretext of a trial; and slaughtered police cadets training to enforce the rule of law of their own country. Given this heritage of barbarity, the flogging of the girl carried out by three adult males in front of a semicircle of unmoving men is indeed chilling, but not especially surprising compared to other acts by the Taliban or the Talibanalized.
As evidenced by its statements, the Pakistani Taliban was also taken off guard and badly misjudged the public mood. Initially it acknowledged and by and large defended the flogging, quibbling with a few points of process and form in the way a proper Islamic flogging should be meted out. Later it significantly revised its message, directing the public's attentions towards the brutality of U.S. drone attacks and denying its authenticity. The girl in the video, identified as Bibi Chand, has denied the flogging, possibly due to a well-founded fear of retribution. If she is to be punished again, though, the Taliban will surely take pains she is flogged pro forma. But more important than the authenticity of the video is the impact of the event in Pakistan. The reaction to the flogging is nothing short of a phenomenon, revealing the complexity of Pakistani society and bureaucracies; the Taliban's incompetence in delivering a message; and the dependence of the insurgency on continued U.S. drone attacks for PR purposes.
After the flogging was aired, women across Pakistan took to the streets in large demonstrations, congregating in billowing masses of veils and burkas. Despite the traditional dress many were wearing, the women clearly saw it within their rights not only to protest, which was noteworthy enough, but to do so in support of a women's cause. The unlikely protesters seemed somewhat reminiscent of the lawyers that first took to the streets in their business suits to protest the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from Pakistan's highest court during former President Musharraf's rule. Those garbadine-clad protesters did not stage dutiful and polite demonstration to register their distaste for Chaudhry's removal but rather challenged police in riot gear. As a result, they faced beatings with billy clubs and, subsequently, incarceration.
More recently, pro-Chaudhry demonstrations took a more Islamic tone, due to the support of Nawaz Sharif, head of the Muslim League. But that was not the thrust of the early, lawyer-driven protests. The protests by women and lawyers suggest that, despite the many shocks and affronts to rights and process, factions of Pakistan's population are still willing to take their demands and anger to the streets. Demonstrations have had great impact in the country, having been a factor in President Zardari's decision to reinstate Chaudhry and even Musharraf's departure from public office.
Chaudhry, by the way, is also part of the post-flogging phenomenon, having dramatically summoned high-level government officials to answer questions regarding the event and then castigating them for their lack of timely action. He has ordered an investigation into the beating. Chaudhry's integrity and clout has few equals, given the chief justice's challenges to former and current governments. Taliban members were apparently rattled by Chaudhry's calls for an investigation. Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the banned militant organization Tehreek-e-Taliban, otherwise known as Swat Taliban, said Chaudhry should instead focus on U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil.
Indeeed, perhaps the most interesting reaction to the flogging has been that of the Pakistani Taliban itself and some of its political and clerical comrades. As demonstrated by their statements, the insurgents think the most reliable strategy for diverting a torrent of anger and indignation is to point to the brutality of U.S. drone attacks. The Obama administration should think seriously about whether it wants to keep providing the Taliban & Co. in Pakistan with such a convenient diversion.
The Taliban holds sway in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan in large part by terrorizing the population. In the Swat Valley, Islamic clerics allied with the Taliban now have license to administer shariah law at will, given a so-called peace agreement with the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But the Taliban also depends on the effective promotion of a belief system, which has successfully revolved around armed resistance to an occupier-first the Soviets and now the Americans and NATO allies. In recent days, when facing an upset to that belief system's marketability, the Taliban has tried to rally opposition to that occupier. If those attacks and the military campaign were to stop, the Taliban would have to rely on sharia (floggings included) to buttress its belief system. The Chand phenomenon has convincingly revealed the vulnerability of that approach.
The discordant statements on the flogging also reveal a lack of coordination among allied groups, and even a single speaker, to deliver a coherent message. Muslim Khan, the spokesman for Swat Taliban, said the lashing should not have been delivered publicly, but that the girl had been duly punished for living for three years with her father-in-law instead of her husband. Khan added that the two men who gripped the hands and legs of the girl were her relatives. He said the local Taliban awarded the punishment after receiving a verdict from a religious scholar. The flogging occurred, he added, at a time when the military operation was being conducted in Swat and a peace deal had not yet been reached. Khan also said the actual punishment for adultery was stoning, but given the lack of Qazi courts (which combine traditional and shariah law), the girl was sentenced to (only!) forty lashes.
Khan also gave a wholly different account of why the girl was flogged, more in line with the reports locals have given to news outlets. "She came out of her house with another guy who was not her husband, so we must punish her. There are boundaries you cannot cross." Surely, coming "out of her house" with another man does not sound as dramatic as adultery, but it is in line with locals' accounts of what occurred.
In yet another account, Khan sought to distance the Taliban somewhat from the flogging, "It was not officially done by the Taliban, but some Taliban did that in their private capacity." And in another statement, Muslim Khan said that the public nature of flogging was not the only violation of form, and that the girl should have been punished by a small boy. Khan later called on Chaudhry to investigate drone attacks and said the video was a fake.
Meanwhile, the leader of a political party allied with the Taliban has been more effectively on message. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), said in a single statement that the protests against the flogging were legitimate, that the flogging itself was part of a conspiracy to derail the Swat agreement and shariah law, and that the protests should instead focus on U.S. drone attacks. Another JUI official further finessed the message. Senator Azam Khan Swati said the flogging was a Jewish conspiracy, condemned the drone attacks and then added his concern that the United States might target Pakistan's nuclear installations.
President Obama's new strategy for South Asia will hinge in large part on a planned advance on the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the United States cannot robotically secure a victory against the Taliban from the air. The Taliban and its allies have significantly strengthened their grasp over key areas of South Asia in wake of the U.S. and NATO military campaign. The Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns are incensed by the killing of civilians in their area and the influx of U.S. aid dollars is unlikely to blunt the anger. Obama's new offensive will deepen hostility and harboring of Islamic fighters. It is highly improbable that the battle-hardened inhabitants along the border will bemoan the death of relatives, but turn affable with new aid. And if locals continue to support the Taliban and its affiliates, American forces cannot make even tactical progress against the group. Meanwhile, the U.S. drone attacks (one of which occurred virtually in tandem with televised airing of the flogging) will remain a key talking point for the Pakistani Taliban and its allies.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.