Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pakistan Vacuum, Taliban March

Abdur-Rahman Abid's recent piece in DAWN (one of Pakistan's most respected English-language newspapers) bears the headline "Buner Falls to Swat Taliban". If anything, the actual article is even more worrying, referring as it does to Taliban gains in towns as "settled" (i.e., not part of the frontier agencies, and administered as "ordinary" parts of the North West Frontier Province ("NWFP")) as Mardan; and more than one media report confirms that the district of Buner -- approximately 60 kilometers from Islamabad -- is indeed in Taliban hands. While it is important not to ring the alarm bells too soon -- for instance, I do not believe the Punjab is on the verge of a Taliban take-over as a recent article in the New York Times suggested, and, more broadly, do not believe that Pakistan is in any way close to a Somalia-style implosion -- it seems plain as daylight that the so-called peace deals with the Taliban are not working.

Away from the unhelpful rhetoric that perennially raises the specter of "appeasement" and Munich 1938, it is clear that the peace deals do not represent a durable or stable solution to the political crisis in large parts of Pakistan's Pashtun areas, not solely (or perhaps even principally) because the Taliban are using the peace deals to extend their sway, but because these sorts of pacts cannot rescue the legitimacy of the Pakistani state in those Pashtun areas. That is, the peace deals cannot be said to have caused increasing Taliban sway, because these deals are a consequence, and not a cause, of the bankruptcy of the state in its Pashtun areas (the latter qualification is important: as yet there is no evidence that the state's legitimacy has dissipated in Punjab, or Sind; and, consequently, that the Pakistani state faces an existential crisis in those provinces, which together constitute nearly nine-tenths of the country's population). Taliban influence in the Pashtun areas has been on the rise in recent years, with or without peace deals. Conversely, however, it would be a mistake to conclude (as the Pakistani state increasingly appears to have done, based on its lack of success) that military force ought not to play any role at all in countering the Taliban's rise -- the rather autonomous militias grouped under that umbrella term are unlikely to allow the sort of political or cultural space that one might ordinarily count on peace to open up, and, ultimately, to undermine the Taliban's ethos. Some force is going to be necessary to dislodge them. But the problem is that the central government has as yet offered no idea to accompany either military force, or its opposite strategy of pursuing peace deals with the Taliban. By now, it is patently clear that the Indo-centrism of the two nation theory upon which Pakistan is founded, has very little relevance in the context of the contemporary geo-political situation of the Pashtuns.

The question need not have been raised at all, had the state "delivered" in places like Swat; but the confluence of multiple factors, such as the alienation of areas like Swat from the national mainstream; the reality of the state and its military as guardians of a status quo that has not proven willing to take even elementary steps towards economic re-distribution; and the stresses of the war in Afghanistan; has quite overwhelmed the idea of Pakistan in these areas -- increasingly, that foundational idea seems irrelevant to the people of the region, and until this ideological and political vacuum is addressed, it will make little difference whether the central government makes peace with, or wages war on, the Taliban: either way, the militants appear to be the only ones on the ground with a governing ideology, the only ones who can lay claim to legitimacy -- their politics claim Islam as the source, and since the central government can itself not disavow the notion of a politics premised on Islam, it is left to argue simply that the Taliban's Islam is wrong-headed. This is not adequate -- not least because the government (and indeed, most of the country's urban well-heeled classes), implicitly maintain the fiction that there can be a single, authoritative view of what is or is not Islam, a view that ought to be accepted by all as "correct," essentially concedes the field to the likes of the Taliban. If it boils down to that, the government and the urban elites simply lack the cultural authenticity, and are simply too wedded to the status quo, to ever get the better of the argument -- and aren't clear on what the argument even is. But absolutist Islam needs to be jettisoned before the Taliban can be challenged -- it won't do to say that "good" absolutist Islam should replace the vision offered by the Taliban -- and the state needs to be recast into a more pluralistic, democratic polity. The latter cannot happen without the former; achieving a more relativistic, more just polity, is not only the right end to strive toward, it is the practical thing to do as well: it is the only way "Pakistan" can ever mean something concrete for the people of Buner and Swat. Faced with a meaningful choice, who would put money on them choosing the Taliban? Not I.

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