Alternatives in Pakistan
May 18, 2009 § 11 Comments
Note: This post is by Shalini Gera, a friend and ally of APP.
As I see it, the justification for the current military action in Swat is primarily this: “Although this bombardment of Swat is tragic, and the plight of the refugees heartrending, and the extent of devastation overwhelming –this is the only way out! There is simply no other way to stop the Taliban. Military action is a necessary evil, and ugly as the results are, things would be much worse otherwise.”
It is this perspective that I want to explore more in this post. I don’t know enough about the particularities of Pakistan, other than what I can gather from the internet—so I would appreciate all corrections, arguments and vehement disagreements, and hope to learn more from the conversation.
Maggie Thatcher’s famous slogan, when it came to advocating neo-liberalism, free-trade and capitalism was “There Is No Alternative.” In fact, this was such a favorite line of hers, that it was shortened to TINA, and became the title of her biography.
It is not just neo-liberalism—TINA is the favorite slogan of the Conservative Right for every single war or any other depradation. From the Hiroshima bombing, to the Vietnam War, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to tax cuts for the super-rich, to obscene hand-outs to the financial sector—we have always been told that other alternatives were considered, but they were simply not viable.
I am not making facile comparisons between what is happening right now in Swat valley with these other cases. What I am saying is — given the regularity with which TINA gets dished out every time the power elite further consolidate their power at the expense of the poor and dispossessed, let’s keep our skepticism alive for a bit before accepting TINA in the case of Swat valley. Especially because our accepting TINA will lead to the legitimization of a solution which…
(a) gives even more power and legitimacy to an institution, the Pakistani army, which has a sordid history of being completely unaccountable, and servicing a tiny elite
(b) disproportionately hurts the most poor and marginalized people in society
(c) furthers the imperialist agenda in the region
(d) comes at such a huge humanitarian toll
(e) allows a corrupt government to divert even more public resources away from a progressive social agenda (of education, employment and health), which in the long run is the only real defense against Talibanisation.
Each time in the past when TINA has been successfully deployed, there is some dire threat which requires immediate action (another imminent 9/11, WMDs ready to be launched, insurgents running amok, Great Depression round the corner), and there simply isn’t enough time to fix the system or address long-standing needs. And yes, the poor and innocent will have to face even more hardships, but what-to-do, “TINA!”
And so, I question the urgency and imminence that is driving military action at this point also. I sense some hype and hysteria behind the din of “The Taliban are coming.” The Taliban have been coming for several years now, and yes they are a truly evil force and should be opposed, but I am not convinced that things have changed overnight. Going by various news reports, most local people dismiss the idea that Taliban are imminently poised to take control of large urban centers, or that vast areas of Punjab and Sindh are ready to fall to the Talibans. Buner district, around which panic was created about the expanding reach of Taliban, had already been vacated by the Swat Taliban forces by April 26th, before the Army action started. (This of course, did not stop the Army from bombing Buner for good measure.)
The high pitched reporting by NYT and WSJ around Buner and Swat deals, seems ominous to me. Sufi Mohammad is not a new, sudden occurrence—he has been active in the area since 1990, and the Nizam-i-adl regulation of 2009 is not all that different from the Nizam-i-adl regulations of 1994 and 1999, when also the provincial authorities negotiated peace deals with Sufi Mohammad. Just last year, in May 2008, another peace deal was negotiated with Sufi Mohammed. Yes, the local context is changing for the worse, and yes, we should be alarmed, and yes, we should be doing *something*– my only point in talking about this history is to say that this latest step was an incremental one, not a deal changer.
So why did this peace deal result in the screaming headlines of newspapers and Hillary Clinton’s aggressive posturing, when the last year’s deal raised barely an eyebrow? Is a certain case of “clear and present danger” being deliberately built up, and is the media complicit once again in carrying out US foreign policy objectives?
I am not convinced of the TINA line yet, and I would also like to present another line: TIANA! “This Is Also No Alternative!”
Everyone who is advocating TINA as the reason to support the military initiative, and dismissing other suggestions (peace deals, negotiations, educational overhaul, land reforms) as impractical, idealistic, “too long-term” should at least make *some* effort to show why the current military approach is a viable, short-term alternative. It appears to me that this is just an underlying assumption on everyone’s part– I haven’t come across any argument to reassure us skeptics that this approach, though ugly and unpleasant, is at least workable.
How many real-life examples do we have, especially in the South Asian context, where military actions have successfully stopped insurgencies, Taliban or otherwise? In Swat itself, this is the second (albeit a more virulent) military offensive. Gunships have already pounded the valley in Nov-Dec 2007. (Look at http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=82864 for a comprehensive timeline). The first military offensive didn’t make any dent in the Taliban, who simply receded to their mountain hideouts and reappeared later, although hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands of people were displaced in the process. So what gives us fond expectations that this one would be any different? In “History repeats itself — at great cost to our nation,” Shireen Mazari lays out several examples in the Pakistani context, where military action has not only failed to quell an insurgency, but actually made it stronger.
So then, why are “pragmatism” and “realism” associated with military operations, when they have never been shown to be successful, either in the short term or the long term—but structural changes are immediately dismissed as “impractical” and “idealistic”?
There is another reason why I doubt the effectiveness of the current approach. News reports depict the Taliban in Swat to be “lightly armed” fighters, i.e. armed with Kalashnikovs and machine guns—enough to create havoc in an unarmed civilian population, but no match for an army. So what sense does aerial bombardment make in this case? These Taliban forces, unlike the LTTE, don’t have their own air strips or airplanes or permanent military installations. Nor do they have other infrastructure on the ground, nor armored tanks nor other heavy artillery. So, pray, what exactly are the war planes bombing? There are no “bomb”-able enemy targets that I can think of—except schools and government buildings, roads and bridges, homes and farms…
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I cannot avoid the cynical feeling that all this “shock and awe” is more to impress the imperial master, than to fight the Taliban, which have probably already disappeared into some mountain hideouts.
The famous political scientist Susan George, coined a counter slogan to Thatcher’s TINA… and called it TATA! There Are Thousands of Alternatives.
I know that my skepticism of TINA and my advocacy of TIANA only go this far unless I can also suggest a few alternatives. However, here is where my lack of knowledge of the local context makes whatever I say sound rather presumptuous and fluffy. But, in any case, here are a few thoughts.
First, the timeline: Given that the Taliban and the religious jihadi movements have been around in the area for decades now, virtually unchallenged, if not actively encouraged by the powers-that-be, it’s a little unrealistic to expect that they can be rooted out in a matter of weeks, no? Just as the establishment of Taliban has been a long process, their eradication will also be a long effort—so let’s not shy away from strategies that have a long term focus. But let’s get started on those NOW.
Second, structural reforms: After reading so many differing accounts from Swat, it is quite clear to me that people in Swat do not support the Taliban. But they also have no faith in the Pakistani government, which works only for the feudal elite. The Swatis aren’t invested in resisting the Taliban, because the pre-Taliban days of little government presence, an oppressive feudal order and huge deprivation aren’t all that attractive to them either. And so I come back to the familiar theme: people will only organize against the Taliban if there is a movement or a political party with an agenda that addresses their socio-economic needs *and* ties it to a strong anti-Taliban stance.
While it is decidedly more difficult to organize anyone under a barbaric and authoritarian regime, what about the areas that are not yet under Taliban? As I read the comments on this list—it is the fear of more areas falling under Taliban control that seem to create the most urgency. Surely, we can help to strengthen secular, progressive forces in these non-Taliban areas of Punjab and Sindh, and make the Taliban less attractive there, no?
I hear of peasant resistance movements and fishworkers unions, and anti-displacement movements in some areas in Sindh and Punjab—all of which are multiethnic, with a lot of participation from women. Shouldn’t we be helping and promoting these movements more, if we are concerned about countering the spreading Talibanisation? If the Taliban are using madrassahs to spread the ideology, shouldn’t we be setting up alternate, secular schools at a maddening pace and frantically wooing students away from the madrassas? There is no reason why women’s movements in Karachi cannot be strengthened, why media campaigns and education drives around women’s educations and rights not be undertaken NOW, if there is fear of spreading fascism. But in all this discussion of how to stop Taliban from coming South—I am not hearing any of these non-military options being discussed. Instead, are we passing on the blame to the Taliban, for what are essentially colossal failures of the civil society?
Third, Military options: There are many Pakistani commentators who remain convinced that the Pakistani army has not sundered its links to the Taliban, so what is going on right now is just a sham. So for them, the first and foremost demand is for the Taliban to stop enjoying all kinds of state and military support.
I don’t know enough about the current status of military-Taliban relationship, and would like to hear more from the knowledgeable types on this list. But what I can say is this: had the military really wanted to hurt the Taliban and not the people, there are a lot of other things it could have done other than aerial bombardment of the region. E.g. jamming radio stations being used to propagate Taliban propaganda (a long standing complaint of human rights groups), securing roadside check posts, safeguarding exit roads from the cities leading out, air-dropping commandos at taliban strongholds rather than an all out aerial bombardment.
It is only at a recent dinner meeting in Washington DC that Zardari announced that the government would start monitoring all the madrassas in the country. If the idea was to control the spread of virulent ideology, shouldn’t this oversight of the madrassas have started a *long* time ago? The madrassas didn’t suddenly become extremist when Zardari reached Washington, or after the bombing started.
So I take seriously the allegations that the government and military aren’t really concerned about countering the Taliban and only want to make a pretense of it. And certainly one of the most pressing tasks for us is to ask for accountability from the govt and the army.