Left of the Taliban
March 14, 2010 § 11 Comments
by: M. Tahir
A critique of the Left from the Left. With the encouragement of friends, I’m posting an email below that I wrote regarding a recent controversy on the Left involving former Guantanomo detainee and human rights activist, Moazzam Begg and head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, Gita Sahgal. The debate exposes a larger division on the Left about where it stands with respect to the global war. The incident that sparked the larger discussion began when Sahgal accused Amnesty of tarnishing its human rights work by collaborating with Begg and the organization with which he works, Cage Prisoners. Begg is a Taliban supporter and Cage Prisoners a “jihadi” organization according to Sahgal, and Amnesty damages its reputation by working with them. Following Sahgal’s public remarks, Amnesty suspended her. Some have taken the view that Sahgal is an upstanding activist wrongly penalized by Amnesty while others argue that she is leveraging rampant Islamophobia for her ends.
The disagreement operates along a deepening fault-line in the Left that has wider implications. Many liberals and leftist allies (who support Sahgal) accuse the anti-imperial Left of egregious silence on the issue of the Taliban while it criticizes America’s imperial wars. Charges of insufficient critique of the Taliban and criminal silence on their atrocities are being hurled with increasing ferocity at Pakistani leftists in particular. Those making the accusations include Pakistani liberals as well as those who in the past have been our international allies in South Asia and elsewhere.
The email below is my response to this debate on a particular listserve. I’ve edited it to excise sections particular to an internal debate as well as to keep identities private but kept the rest in tact in the hopes of having a wider discussion.
The larger issue, however, is this: why do our so-called allies constantly demand that we articulate our disavowal of the Taliban? Do they perhaps believe that in some deep dark religious corner of our lefty Pakistani hearts, we nurture a secret love for the ruthless brutish bearded circus called the Taliban? Why are we being constantly asked to prove our bona fides as secularists and as humanists (in the sense that we believe in the dignity of *all* humanity)? And that too by those who appear to have little qualms about retracting dignity from a man whose words and appearance unsettle us but who has done nothing – in terms of his actions – but run a girls’ school in Afghanistan and, now, defend the rights of precisely those that the American empire has reduced to ‘bare life.’  Does the problem lie in the fact that he “has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers…” as the Sunday Times puts it? But isn’t the selective granting of rights precisely what the Left is critical of in general? Or is it that he stated in his memoirs that the Taliban were “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years.” Yes, these views are abhorrent, but by no means unique. I heard much the same thing from the Afghans I met when I traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border town of Chaman (in Balochistan) over a month ago. These were Afghans who all hated the Taliban now (among them were ex-Taliban fighters). To them, the Taliban had seemed like an answer to the corruption, chaos and random murders that had afflicted Afghanistan for decades when they first rose to power. They left when they realized that this was not the case or that the price they were being asked to pay was too high.
If one really wants to understand the Taliban – something that seems to preoccupy our allies – then one should be willing to listen to exactly these kinds of problematic statements in order to figure out what’s going on. Ultimately, what is Begg’s crime? What has he done other than human rights work? It’s exactly what the Left would approve of if it did not originate from these quarters. And what of the American Empire that spouts democratic principles while breaking arms, twisting necks and torturing people like Begg who are a little too “Muslim” in the last instance to acquire the affections of the Left?
In Chaman, our cell phone reception ceased one fine morning. That’s common there; it’s how one knows that the armies are amassing on the border – the Americans on the one side, the Pakistanis on the other. Thus are great games played. Meanwhile, the people of Chaman have no hot water and live without electricity for most of the day, save a couple of hours. It’s freezing cold in the morning.
The relationship of the army to the state and to ordinary Pakistanis is at its most explicit in Balochistan. Here, it openly intercepts, snatches, manipulates and leaves the locals to quibble over the leftovers. The army ‘bought’ land in Balochistan at Rs1.50 per acre. It is building garrisons and cantonments. Take a look at the map to see where these are: not in the Pashtun belt along the north where the Taliban are reputed to be but rather in the tribal areas near gas reserves, copper, ore, gold mines. Go to the Quetta cantonment and see the level of obscene opulence in which army officers live – chandeliers and fine drawing rooms in a province that is by far the poorest in Pakistan and even lacks roads and running water in parts. The highest levels of food insecurity in Pakistan are to be found in Balochistan. The problem in Chaman where the Taliban roam is not so much them as their drugs – it’s a drug-addicted town. Who lets them in? Why, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) which controls the border. And they hold the final levers to the Taliban too; everybody knows it: the Rand Corporation’s Christine Fair has written of it, the NYT has written of it, the LWJ has written of it, so has the scholar Ayesha Siddiqua, and the army has occasionally attempted to run her out of town for it. The relationship between the FC and the religious extremists is an old one dating back to the Cold war when the American and Pakistani establishments deemed it worthwhile to create this religious Frankenstein’s monster. Today, America is providing training to this same force, and pumping billions to it. And so we come full circle.
In Balochistan, the army uses the Taliban to suppress the local Baloch nationalist movement that is threatening secession. When Musharraf hunted and killed the Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti in 2006, he justified it by instrumentally (and falsely) accusing Bugti of having dealings with al-Qaeda – laughable if one knows that the Baloch movement is secular with shades of Marxism. Also, the US is still using religious extremism by many accounts, using the Baloch Sunni group, Jundallah, to launch attacks into neighboring Shia Iran.
In Swat, which I also visited following the army attack there, people are scared witless of both the Taliban and the army. I traveled beyond Mingora to Matta where fighting had been heaviest. Along the way, one alternatively sees bombed out schools (the work of the Taliban) and the rubble of houses (the work of the army). There are army checkpoints every 10 minutess or so, but there is no rebuilding going on. And when we speak with Swatis, they express their hatred of the Taliban but also without fail say that the Taliban got away and the wrong people were killed – namely, those who didn’t have the money to run elsewhere or to get out. The IDPs were the lucky ones. This was the third – not the first – army attack on Swat in the last few years and Swatis told us of having passed on information about the location of Taliban fighters in the vicinity only to have the army bomb elsewhere or of army and Taliban checkpoints within a few feet of each other. For years, while the same liberal Pakistanis – who today cheer on the army as a bulwark against the Taliban – were busy navel-gazing, Swatis were attempting to raise their own militias to fight the Taliban in the absence of state help, only to be told by the local authorities to lay down their arms.
Now as attacks on ‘mainland’ Pakistan increase, the liberals have suddenly discovered their love of human rights (for certain humans), represented by a fear of the Taliban and a love of the army. These are the same liberal Pakistanis who have not cared enough to do anything about the far more insidious manner in which a public culture of religiosity has taken over in Pakistan except when it interferes with their narrow and decidedly elite preoccupations. After Swat, I spent a long evening in Islamabad with a Pakistani personality and other assorted liberals discussing the army attack on Swat and the Taliban threat. It was good and necessary, he said. We all knew the army had ties to the Taliban, so I asked him how it was that he expected the army to exterminate those it finds useful? He may not have trusted the army or the government in the past, but he trusted them now, he replied. He admitted that he could point to nothing that justified this change of heart, but yet somehow he ‘had faith.’ And that’s all the Pakistani Army requires: ‘faith, unity and discipline.’ 
Religious extremism was and is fed by the billions in arms sales and funding by the US to the Pakistani military as well as by the drone attacks, the incursions on Pakistani sovereignty, and the American-led reinforcement of the Pakistani army. Thus when we talk about the army, we are talking about the Taliban. When we talk about the imperial war, the drone attacks, the military funding, we are talking about the Taliban. All we are saying is stop focusing on the Taliban egg alone while the imperial hen runs out and lays a dozen more. Talking about the Taliban outside of the context of this history and this present context makes no sense. If there’s a cogent argument about why/how one can end the Taliban – indeed, religious militancy in Pakistan more generally – without dealing with the American imperium or its arm, the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies, then please put it out here. But enough of the faith-based initiatives, and the requirement that those of us who are talking about imperialism must present our anti-Taliban credentials in order to be allowed into the club of true Lefties. It’s a silly and pointless game at this late stage when the American war is expanding into Pakistan.
in solidarity -m
1. Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
2. State emblem that has become synonymous with the Army.