Thursday, January 29, 2009

SHOCKINGLY SWAT

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    If there was ever an evaluation, then 'D' is the only grade that would be awarded to the 3-D strategy – Dialogue, Development and Deterrence – that the PPP-led coalition government claims to have adopted against the Islamist insurgents in both the tribal areas straddling Afghanistan as well as settled districts like Swat in NWFP.

The dialogue has failed because for the insurgents it was never more than a ruse to regroup their forces, gather more resources and spread their influence. What is worse, the state entered into a dialogue from a position of weakness. Its only leverage was the threat of use of military force to enforce the terms of a deal, an instrument that when used, proved to be blunt, if not ineffective. Development has not only failed to take off, but is in fact regressing. After all, no new social, infrastructural or employment generating project is possible in an area which has become a veritable warzone. As for Deterrence, it has completely collapsed. In contemptuous disregard of the heavy presence of security forces, the Islamists are merrily going about their task of burning down schools, murdering people, enforcing their version of Islamic law, and establishing a parallel state structure.

    The statistics on Swat tell the story of the rapid disintegration of the authority of the Pakistani state in this region. The army was deployed in late 2008 to check the march of the Islamist warriors. But instead of pushing back the militants, the military operation has achieved exactly the opposite result. From a time when the militants dominated around 20 percent of the area, to now when they effectively call the shots in over 90 percent of the area, it has been a shocking, if not scandalous, manifestation of the inability, or worse unwillingness, of the army to restore the writ of the Pakistani state in an area that was once called the Switzerland of the East.

Nearly two hundred schools have been destroyed, hundreds of people have been murdered (some because the length of their shalwar was not correct), girls have been banned from going to school, women have been forbidden from stepping out of their houses without male relatives, kangaroo courts have been passing judgements on civil and criminal matters which can be flouted only on pain of death, shaving beards is not permitted, music, dance, films, TV have been declared un-Islamic. In other words, anything and everything that catches the fancy of the local Taliban can be declared un-Islamic and no one can question, much less argue, the absurdity of the fatwas being issued by the clerics.

    That all this has been happening amidst claims – clearly inflated as it now appears – by the military of the successes it has notched up against the Islamists, has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. Many people from Swat accuse the army of being a casual bystander when the Taliban indulge in their depredations. They ask how is it possible for the Taliban to strike right under the nose of the army without ever being challenged or ever suffering casualties. They allege that the army never targets the known bases of the Taliban and that the militants supposed to have been killed by the army are, more often than not, innocent civilians.

Members of the provincial government and political workers from the area suspect that the army is deliberately allowing Swat to become a base and a sanctuary for militants from both Afghanistan and Kashmir. These people point out that since Swat doesn't share a border with either Afghanistan or Kashmir and yet is in close proximity to both these places, it serves as a convenient place from where to mount operations and that too with complete deniability on the part of the Pakistani state and its security services. They ask how it is possible for so many outsiders – Punjabi jihadis, Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs, Kashmiris, among others – and so much money and weaponry to continue to flow without any let or hindrance to the Islamists in Swat. While these allegations might appear to be somewhat over the top, the questions they raise about the actions (or the lack of them) of the security forces in the entire Swat operations have yet to be answered satisfactorily.

    More glaring than the failure of counter-insurgency operations, however, is the political and ideological failure of the political class to understand the dialectic of Islamic militancy, especially in Swat. A common refrain among the political class is that imposition of Shariah in Swat will solve half the problem. Those subscribing to this view say that many of the combatants are fighting for replacing the English common law with Islamic law and conceding to this demand will isolate the hard-core militants and the criminal element, making it easier to end the violence. But advocating imposition of Shariah as a means to bring peace is akin to a drowning man clutching at straws. It completely ignores the revolutionary change that the Islamists seek to bring about, first in Swat and its surrounding areas, and then in rest of Pakistan.

    At the heart of the problem in Swat is not the yearning among the people for speedy justice according to Islamic law. The real question is who will have the power to administer this system and dispense justice. But this is something that no one is willing to admit openly. In fact, when top officials say that as Muslims no one can oppose Shariah law then it shows the fundamental mismatch between the objective of establishing state authority and the approach being taken by the functionaries and beneficiaries of the state to re-establish its writ. After all, if imposing Shariah was enough to end the militancy, then it would have been done long back. The reason why it has not been done, and why even when it is done it will not end the insurgency, is that there is no consensus on what exactly Shariah is.

Much like the Hindu pantheon, where every individual or group defines God according to its own preference, tradition, custom, there are innumerable interpretations of what is or is not Shariah. No two Mullahs, even when they belong to the same theological and doctrinal stream, agree on what is, or is not, Islamic. For instance, while the Taliban insist that women are not allowed to work, other Ulema disagree vehemently with such an obscurantist interpretation of Islam.

The issue therefore is not Shariah, especially since all laws in Pakistan have already been Shariah-ised. At the end of the day, what is happening in Swat is a struggle over who will wield the power to decide what Shariah is. Equally important, who will administer and implement the Islamic law? In other words, will the Pakistani state as it is currently constituted exercise the authority to interpret and impose Islam or will the Mullahs and their storm troopers enforce their version of Islam.

There is also a clear class dimension to this power struggle. The traditional elite are being challenged by force of arms by the dispossessed, deprived and marginalised sections of society. If the latter are successful, a new social order will emerge in places like Swat, which in turn will become a precursor for similar changes in the social and political structure in other parts of Pakistan. On the other hand, if the Islamists are unsuccessful in wiping out the established elite, they will still end up forcing a medieval form of Islam in large swathes of Pakistan.

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    <1250 Words>                        29th January, 2009

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1 Comments:

OpenID onecryinginthewilderness said...

When we were children we are told of a mystical, magical god that loves all and is just. We are told that governments exist to provide us with justice.
We are told that the cure for despair is hope but having existed in this world for for over half a century I have come to learn a greater truth about god and government that is far from the mystical and magical lessons we are taught in childhood.
Unfortunately many of us would rather continue to drink from the pap than take up a knife and fork and fill ourselves with reality.
I hope and pray all will go well for those in despair.

1:20 PM  

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