Friday, May 8, 2009

The Taliban in Pakistan - Questions and Comments

Who are the "Taliban" in Swat?
By Humeira Iqtidar, Open Democracy, April 30, 2009

Quick Comments:

The above piece complicates the simplistic narrative often presented in the mainstream media by highlighting the dimensions of inequalities and injustice. However, as the author also acknowledges, the timing of their (Taliban's) moves cannot be understood by simply pointing to long held grievances.

The role and politics of the 'establishment' need to be factored in to address how within the multitude of factions - who have been violently opposed to each other - we see a somewhat coherent expansion of the "Taliban" outside of the FATA (see NYTimes April 14, 2009 for a recent agreement between some Taliban factions and the Punjab-based militant groups. The connections of the SSP with the security agencies are well known). Along the same line, the role of continuous US bombardment should be taken into account to understand people's sympathy toward those who have supposedly taken up the "cause" of resisting foreign intervention.

'No foreign intervention' - whether from the Pakistani state or Afghan or the US - has been a major priority of many in the Pashtun dominated region of the FATA. It's an issue of honor and sovereignty. Each time an innocent civilian is killed by US drone attacks fuels anger and revenge, and there have been just too many instances of such killings as we know. The Pashtun identity is also a major factor in this equation. All of these factors may explain why "Taliban" are mostly a Pashtun phenomenon, and why - if only in some less significant aspects - the secular, Pashtun-nationalist party, ANP decided to sign the peace-accord (the nizam-e-adal regulations) with the so-called Taliban/Mujahideen recently: To save the same blood from spilling. However, the ANP is probably bidding time for a more opportune moment to show its cards. From what appears, the ANP seems to be moving in the direction of a more pronounced ethnic politics. In the event of a civil strife (khana jangi) in Pakistan, the ethnic solidarities are bound to become more prominent.

Some commentators are comparing the Taliban movement with those in Palestine (Hamas), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood), and Lebanon (Hezbollah). There are two distinctions however. One, the Taliban is Pakistan cannot be considered a social movement comparable to others. The Talibans do not have a comparable mass support. Their ideological program is not clear either. They have not engaged in any detailed and systematic social reform program, other than making a few regulations in the name of 'nizam-e-adal'. While these reforms may have benefitted the locals, they have also bolstered and expanded Taliban's financial resource. Some factions of these Taliban-s are actively involved in abductions and ransom business. So it would be an exaggeration to think that these Taliban-s have a mass social base and support, and that they are a social movement.

Two, the questions of temporality and efficacy. This is where the question of 'timing' becomes important along with the question of 'somewhat coherent expansion' as stated above. Because these questions point to the role of the establishment and their connection with these Taliban factions (through the security agencies). This issue has been discussed many times in this forum, so I won't rehash that again. But the implication is that although what we are seeing is definitely alarming, it is not totally chaotic. There are larger strategic interests at stake here.

Within this framework, the Army and the US are the actual players in the game. And the militants are mostly pawns - voluntary or otherwise. (In the media, both sides accuse each other of supporting them. The Army also adds India and Israel to that list and claims the three powers want to destabilize Pakistan to the extent that Pakistan's nuclear assets would be considered dangerous and require an outside intervention). Commentators also point to the utility of violence for legitimizing the US presence in the region. The increasing US presence, quite predictably, is alarming the regional powers. The rapid expansion in Taliban-s movement (from Swat to Buner and to Southern Punjab and possibly Karachi) also suggests that the larger players (whoever they are) want to see their desired outcomes very soon.

Whether the Zardari regime is going to last in the next two-three months largely depends on the outcome of the tussle between the two major players. (Are the two seeing Sharif as a compromise?) The contentious issues are Pakistan's nuclear assets, the border concerns, and the Army's desire to remain the most powerful actor in the country and that all resources and decisions from the US should be channeled through them rather than through the civilian government (the latter case, the Army thinks, would undermine their power).

For the past two or so years, the Pakistani newspapers are increasingly citing incidents where individuals would sell their organs or commit suicide because of hunger and poverty. Sugar, wheat, and other basic supplies are getting too expensive to afford even for the middle classes. The foreign reserves are already close to nil. Considering the performance of the civilian government in the last year, the budget is probably not going to make any exceptional improvements. If the downward spiral of political and economic conditions continues, it's going to be a terrible summer for Pakistani people.

ab bue gul na baade saba maangte hain log
woh habs hai ke loo kii dua maangte hain long
- Josh

No more scent of flower or morning breeze that people pray for,
In this suffocating stillness, even a blast of summer’s blazing wind will suffice.

What is that "summer's blazing wind" is precisely the dividing issue for many in Pakistan: should it be the US (through the corrupt government it has been supporting), the Army, or the Taliban-type to rescue Pakistan. How unfortunate that those that are part of the problem are also being seen as its solution.

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