Feb 19, 2009

PAKISTAN Swat deal – what next?

The Obama administration has coined a new term "Afpak," essentially highlighting the prevalent thinking that Pakistan is as much a part of the problem as the solution. American drone attacks in Pakistani territory have not only become the norm, but according to someone no less than the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they originate from bases in Pakistan.Strategists, policymakers, think tanks and officials in and outside Pakistan are suggesting an array of military and political options. Whatever suits the stakeholders will be implemented, and to an extent, short-term outcomes predicted and even perhaps achieved. Amongst the mix of policies pursued by the government to address the demands of governance and the expectations of the Americans and NATO to curb the militants, one move has been the acceptance of Shariah law in Swat. However, imposition of Shariah in one part of the state and the government's agreeing to the demands of the Taliban should not be seen only in the context of its bowing down to militants. It also signifies some form of a dialogue between a section of society with the state. This section of society has been rearing its head for quite some time now, and quite visibly so. The Lal Masjid event was an organised effort to put forward the demand for Shariah. Religious radicalism is not limited to militants in the tribal areas but to major Pakistani cities too. This section of society has not been amalgamated or treated more than an anomaly or pliant weapon by successive governments and sections of society. It is an integral part of contemporary Pakistan, and we have been forced to sit up and take notice, even if through the threat and reality of violence. While it is very tempting to caricaturise the Taliban as gun-toting crazy radicals, or consider the government move as a conciliatory move in the war against terror, the arrangement between the Taliban and the government should also be viewed within the prism of state-society dialogue. An armed radical faction of polity has managed to negotiate their demand with the government and agreed to lay down their arms. This is no small feat. The fate of the arrangement would become clearer in the days ahead. What should not be overlooked is the dialogue about imposition of Shariah, a claim if perceived within the official framework of guiding principles of creation of Pakistan, that seems legitimate. It is interesting then that if the armed non-state actor that has turned a bend on the road from being a pliant pawn in the strategic games to an unruly and unpredictable player has managed to highlight the existential dilemma of the contemporary state of Pakistan. The question of where religion sits in the Islamic state of Pakistan has been interpreted and enunciated differently by successive governments. Most notably, during the Zia-ul-Haq years, religion was used and employed to the state's internal and external advantages. However, to-date there has been no clear consensus on the issue. It is not the first time that armed radical Islamic groups/players have clamoured and attempted to have their brand of Islam imposed. However, it is certainly the first time that the government has acquiesced, be it for strategic gains or otherwise.Let us, for a while, not perceive it as a chess move by the government in the war against terror, or the bargaining chip of a radical Islamic group. Let us not predict whether the truce will hold or give way to further violence. Let us not consider it as an anomaly that stays in the tribal areas, as if what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. After all, Swat Valley is not that far away from Islamabadbeing at a distance of just around 100 miles from the country's capital city.What does this portend, then, for a state-society dialogue for the federation of Pakistan? Will the state listen or acquiesce to only armed factions that do not care for loss of lives or the education of girls or boys, but rather their single-minded agenda that precedes everything else? If the state will listen to the militants, will it listen to the demands of other sections of society too and act in accordance with them? Does Swat hold the potential of turning a problem into an opportunity?Rather than feeding on fantasies of Taliban taking over the state of Pakistan, which is a simplification, or considering the situation in terms of casualty figures on both sides, or viewing the conflict in tribal areas in terms of war against terror alone, it is time we, as Pakistanis, take stock of the situation as something that can no longer be swept under the carpet. The armed radicals have negotiated on behalf of the people of Swat through their violence-driven mandate; according to the government spokesperson, the will and interests of people of Swat is central in this arrangement. The Taliban have won this round. Time will tell if they won the battle but lost the war. On the other hand, precedents will be set regardless of whether the government wins or loses the gamble. If the government delivers its part of the deal by imposing Shariah, an issue that does not have a very successful track record, it will be successful in taking the sting out of the militants' call for promulgation of Islamic laws. There will be limited justification for a rising against the government. By that stratagem, the government is placing the people (even if they are militants, they are still part of the Pakistani populace) as an important variable in decision-making. Furthermore, preventing further dislocation of the local population as well as saving lives in Swat and hopefully the tribal areas is another win-win for the people and the government. It would also help the government concentrate on development-related policies for the uplift of the tribal areas and stem the swelling tide of new recruits for the Taliban.Following that very rule, the government should sincerely consider the demands of the peaceful movement of the lawyers, and resolve the judicial crisis amicably. On that account, the government could defuse tensions and convert the disenchanted sections of society on its side. Restoration of the judiciary had been one of the promises made to the people by political leaders. Failure to respect that promise has not only galvanised anti-government sentiment but also presented the sitting government in a bad light. If the government holds a dialogue with the leaders of the lawyers' movement and reaches some kind of rapprochement, popular sentiment could certainly sway in favour of the government. If the government can hold dialogue and take a step in resolving differences in the tribal areas, surely it could sit and create working space with the legal community. The lawyers' movement could also take a cue from the Taliban and agree to hold fruitful and flexible talks with the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan. In any case, resolving the judiciary issue successfully would help the government win confidence of the dissonant sections as well as the silent majority.After all, it is the people who are in the center of the action. Governments come and go. The language of policy experts changes conveniently to suit the dominant rhetoric at home and abroad. The people of any country are the main variable that can stand behind a government or leader as well as turn tables through discontent, protest or even failure to participate in even well intended policies regarding governance.

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