May 1, 2009

Alarmism does not help

The Taliban's accession to the position they occupy today is a logical culmination of the Pakistani state project as it has been executed since 1978
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Over the last week or so, alarmists have succeeded in creating a sense of imminent doom within the country's liberal elite. I have been astonished at how many columns and conversations are obsessing about the Taliban's impending takeover. Needless to say, the media has played a big part in spreading panic, but it is also important to recognise that the elite is genuinely worried and that the force of its reaction is likely to have significant consequences.
The immediate cause of concern for the elite is the 'surrender' represented by the Nizam-e-Adl agreement. It is argued -- and not necessarily incorrectly -- that the Taliban will be emboldened by the government's accession to its demands in Swat. This apprehension has been borne out by the Taliban's unchallenged march into Buner. As if all of this were not enough, Maulana Abdul Aziz has been released and restored to his position as chief advocate of Islamic revolution in the federal capital, all in a very dignified manner.
The liberals' worries are obviously shared by many important actors in the Great Game that is unfolding in the region, including the most powerful of them all. Nawaz Sharif has acknowledged that things go could very awry very quickly if they were allowed to continue as they have been doing. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made an impassioned plea to all (presumably civilised) elements to recognise the need for urgent and unified action.
Given that all of these frenzied developments have taken place in the last week or so, it is hardly surprising that even those who are not prone to alarmism are starting to wonder if the entire house of cards is indeed about to come crashing down. But even while everyone is up in arms about what is about to happen, there is an increasingly open acknowledgement that the security establishment retains some links with the Taliban and others of their ilk. In other words, at least, as far as GHQ is concerned, things are not spiralling out of control like everyone seems to be suggesting they are.
Now there is no guarantee that the great military strategists who have gotten us into this position are not thoroughly deluded about the extent to which they can actually manipulate militancy in their own (perceived) favour. Besides, if the situation is not totally irretrievable at present, it may well be in some months or years if the existing course is not dramatically altered. And this is the crux of the matter. In short, I think the seemingly inexorable march of the Taliban must be understood as a structural phenomenon, and the alarmists are likely to simply exacerbate the problem by calling for immediate action.
When I say structural phenomenon, I am referring not only to the state's continuing commitment to jihad as a strategic policy tool, but also to the fact that the jihadis have cultivated significant pockets of support (even while employing outrageous brutality and coercion at the same time) by representing themselves as an alterative to incumbent state and class power, throughout invoking a divine mandate. Trying to bomb them into submission will serve only to make their millenarian mission into a self-fulfilling prophecy and increase their popularity.
Then there is the question of who exactly is being invoked to rid us of the Taliban. If it is true that the army is compromised, then the alarmists are all directly or indirectly asking Washington to take the bull by its horns, so to speak. But that too seems disingenuous given that the Pentagon remains the Pakistan army's biggest benefactor. And it does not appear as if that relationship is about to be severed any time soon.
Besides, any objective observer has to acknowledge that until the Americans leave Afghanistan things are not likely to improve. And even while Hillary Clinton waxes lyrical about the Taliban representing an existential threat to Pakistan, American military commanders are talking up a 'surge' and admitting that the insurgency in Afghanistan is going to get worse in times to come.
It is impossible to do away with the Taliban now just because we are worried that they may soon encroach into our own spaces. It is necessary instead to recognise that the Taliban's accession to the position they occupy today is a logical culmination of the Pakistani state project as it has been conceived and executed since at least 1978. As I have repeated ad nauseam on these pages, the state ideology is projected through the educational curriculum, the popular media, the systematic dismantling of organic bases of politics, and many other, structural, factors.
Whether the elite likes it or not, for the majority of common Pakistanis, what is going on in Swat, Buner and Fata, or even in Bahawalpur (where jihadis have also made substantial inroads, albeit much more surreptitiously than in Pakhtun areas), is very distant. This largely silent majority does not feel alarm or a sense of impending doom. In fact, for many people the Taliban are still romanticised.
This is not a good thing by any means. But it must be understood. It is not good enough to curse governments and mullahs for bringing things to this point. The elite's unwillingness to see the problem for what it really is emerges most manifestly in the vigorous condemnation of the parliament for signing on to the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation bill. In other words, the democratic process – for whatever it is worth – is considered part of the problem rather than the solution.
Indeed, it is not recognised that the paucity of the political process has allowed jihadis to garner the space they have. If one does not like what the parliament is doing, then parliamentarians should be challenged by their constituents. Unfortunately, the parliament and the people that it represents have never been empowered enough to challenge the guardians of the 'ideological frontier'. And for this the elite must take at least some of the blame, because it has historically exhibited disdain for politics and thereby not framed a national discourse that addresses causes rather than symptoms, such as the Taliban.
There is much at stake here. One hopes that for the elite this is not only a question of maintaining a lifestyle of relative privilege. Most Pakistanis live in relative deprivation. And the distance between the elite and the people is increasing on a daily basis. If things are to change in this country -- and it must be reiterated again that there is no quick-fix -- then the elite must decide whether it wants to get its hands dirty or simply wants to invite whoever has the biggest stick to wipe out the mullahs, which will in turn ensure that the polarisation between the common people and the elite becomes more acute. In any case, if the Taliban were to march on Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, one wonders whether the elite would not already be on planes taking them far away from this blessed land, leaving the common people behind to fend for themselves.

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