Jul 11, 2010

Frozen in time

Pakhtuns' manipulation by the state has left a chaotic region along the Pak-Afghan border

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

In early 1948, the Pakistani state, not yet equipped with a fully functioning army, incited Waziristani tribesmen to occupy Kashmir, thus triggering the first Indo-Pakistan war. From the outset then, the Pakistani state made clear that it viewed the tribes as a political tool that was to be used when the need arose. And just like the British before them, Pakistani administrators did not feel the need to reward these tribes with welfare and development schemes in Fata.

The first meaningful public investment in Fata took place in the 1970s under the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Among other initiatives, roads were constructed, abandoned cantonments were once again inhabited, old forts such as Datta Khel Ladha and Tiarza were renovated and made functional, and extensive power and electrification schemes were begun. Not all of these schemes necessarily benefited local communities. Forts, for example, became the exclusive preserve of the Political Agent (PA) and his retainers. In any case, it was not till almost three decades after the departure of the British that the state recognised the need to dedicate resources to the uplift of Fata's people. Even today, Fata's development indices are shamefully poor. There are, for instance, only 33 hospitals in Fata and the road density in Fata is 0.17 km per square km of area against a national average of 0.26.

By and large, Pakistan has continued with colonial practices for governing the region. The political-economic structure still revolves around the political agent, the maliki system, and the khassadars. Perhaps, most damningly Fata is subject to an explicitly colonial legal regime by the name of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The FCR empowers the PA to fine, blockade and detain individuals or even entire tribes. PAs are further entitled to confiscate or demolish property under the guise of maintaining the public peace.

While Fata has been accorded representation in the Pakistani parliament, adult franchise was not granted until 1996. For the most part, the maliks continued to be viewed as 'representatives' of Fata's people. Between 1947 to 1954, Fata was represented in Pakistan's first constituent assembly by only one member. In 1973, for a total of 37,000 maliks, eight seats were reserved in the National Assembly. Even after the granting of adult franchise, political parties remain prohibited by law to operate in Fata. In recent times, there has been much hyperbole about the need to repeal the FCR, allowing political parties to function in Fata and integrating the tribes into the social mainstream. For the time being, however, there is little evidence to suggest that any substantive steps will be taken in this regard.

If the 1970s marked the first attempt of the Pakistani state to invest (nominally) in social infrastructure in the tribal areas then it was also in this period that a revised strategic policy was initiated. In retrospect, it may be argued that the engagement of the state with the tribes prior to the 1970s did not give rise to dislocation and upheaval which was to characterize the new strategic dispensation.

Following the secession of the East Pakistan in 1971, the truncated and insecure Pakistani state was traumatised by the calls of Afghanistan's King Daud for Pakhtuns to unite and (re)establish their historic homeland. In response to this perceived threat to the state's territorial integrity, the military establishment began to patronize Islamists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Meanwhile, the state started investing in religious seminaries in settled and tribal Pakhtun areas. In Pakistan's calculation, the appeal of secular Pakhtun nationalism could only be countered by the propagation of Islamic ideology which was, as will be discussed presently, an important component part of the Pakhtun worldview.

It is important to bear in mind that there is a long history of Pakhtun militancy in which "jihad" has been invoked against outside aggressors. However, for the most part, jihad in the past did not represent any challenge to either cultural structures built around the Pakhtun code of honour called Pakhtunwali or to the political structures that were developed by the British in which the tribal elite and maliks were dominant.

The new strategic policy, however, shook both cultural and political structures. The "political mullah" became increasingly powerful, patronised by the PA whilst also becoming a symbol of a new economic regime in which guns and drugs flowed freely throughout the Pak-Afghan border region. The 'traditional' elite was conveniently sidelined; maliks either accepted the new dispensation and sought a place within it or faced a complete loss of power and prestige.

Even after the end of the Afghan jihad, there was to be no reversion to the old political, economic and cultural structures. This is not to suggest that the state's basic perception of the tribal areas and the people that inhabited had become less functional, but only to point out that the tremendous upheavals associated with the Afghan jihad had resulted in an immutable transformation of society.

It is now well-documented that Afghanistan was subject to the whims of warlords throughout the period preceding the emergence of the Taliban regime. Thus, when the Taliban managed to secure a majority of the country's territory and establish a nominal peace, the Afghan people acceded to the new government because they had not known even the semblance of peace for the best part of two decades.

However, this 'peace' was based on a perpetual war economy featuring smuggling of weapons, contraband, and all sorts of consumer goods, even while the majority of Afghans were not able to meet their basic needs. Pakhtun war contractors on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border created linkages between legal and illegal economic activities. For example, city transport services in the metropolitan centre of Karachi are controlled by Pakhtuns, and these transporters are heavily implicated in much of the illicit business that takes place in the permanent war economy.

After the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, this permanent war economy has actually been further consolidated. Not only has heroin production and trade expanded, it is now increasingly well-documented that large sums of 'development aid' are ending up in the hands of war contractors, a perverse fact which is not unknown to American administrators.

In Fata, the Pakistani state claims to be fighting an epic war with the extremists just like the Western forces claim to be doing within Afghanistan. In truth, however, ordinary people remain at the whims of cynical protagonists in a war which many contractors would prefer to prolong rather than end.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's military establishment has clearly not made a complete break with its jihadi protégés, preferring to selectively conduct military operations under the guise of fighting terror rather than reorienting foreign and strategic policy decisively. Most recently, a high-profile military operation took place in the South Waziristan tribal agency. There is no conclusive evidence, aside from what the corporate media reports, that these operations serve any genuine welfare function. In fact, the state's engagement with the Pakhtun people remains a function of strategic objectives.

In the final analysis, little has changed in terms of the state's perception of the Pakhtun tribes in the 150 years since the British established their hegemony in India. It is important to note here that the western powers and the United States in particular have viewed Pakistan as a 'garrison state' much like the British conceived of the 'frontier' as a 'buffer zone'. Through the cold war this confluence of international and the Pakistani establishment's interests was depicted in heroic terms by the media and experts alike. However, in the post-2001 period, the major fallouts of the historic engagement of the state (and international powers) with Pakhtuns in the Pak-Afghan border area have become painfully clear.

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