Thursday, June 11, 2009




The devastating suicide bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, which followed within days of a similar attack on the ISI office in Lahore, is a rude reminder, if ever one was needed, that Pakistan's war against the Taliban and sundry Islamists is far from anywhere near a closure. If anything, the security situation is likely to get much worse before it gets any better, if at all. Even as the Pakistan army opens new fronts against the Islamists to oust them from the areas they control, the Islamists are widening the arena of conflict by striking at high-value and high-visibility targets in urban centres like Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. The targets selected by the Islamists have not only demonstrated their reach and their ability to hit the Pakistani state where it hurts the most, but have also dealt a body blow to the confidence of the people in the ability of the state and its security services to protect them from the depredations of the Islamists.

Clearly, Pakistan is in the throes of a conflict that it cannot afford to lose and probably lacks the material resources, ideological commitment and moral fibre, strategic clarity, social cohesion, political will and consensus, and most of all, the military single-mindedness required to win. Although both the supporters of the war effort, and its detractors, agree that this is going to be a very long haul, there doesn't seem to be an adequate appreciation, much less any preparation, of all the measures and reforms that need to be undertaken to win this war. Worse, there is utter confusion as to who the bad guys really are and the reasons why this war is being fought.

What, after all, is the big idea for which this war is being fought? Is it to preserve the way of life of the Pakistani elite? Is it a war for protecting traditional social and cultural values? Is it a war to define what is or is not Islam? Is it a war for a liberal, modern, progressive Pakistan or is it merely a war for the survival of the state? Is the war against both the methods adopted by the Taliban as well as their version of Islam, or is it the case that while the Taliban version of Islam is acceptable (with a few tweaks here and there) the opposition is only to their methods? Is this a war which is being fought only to sustain the flow (or should we say flood) of dollars coming into the Pakistan economy? Is it a war being fought purely because of the immense US pressure (military and economic) but for which the Pakistanis would have handled the Taliban in a very different way?

The answers to these questions become unavoidable every time Pakistani officials talk of imposing the 'writ of the state', or when they rather pompously declare that no one will be allowed to challenge the 'writ of the state'. Perhaps this is a phrase that is not properly understood by the people who keep mouthing it tirelessly. What, after all, do they mean by the 'writ of the state'? Surely it must mean more than just acquiring the control of a particular place by the police and army after forcing millions of people out of their homes and then flattening entire towns and villages by artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.

No doubt, retaining the monopoly over coercion by all means possible constitutes an essential element in enforcing the 'writ of the state'. But what use is it to establish the authority and majesty of the state if the social contract that operates is not that of the state but of the Taliban. Indeed, matters are fast reaching a stage where even if the Taliban are decimated, their ideas and indeed the social and cultural mores that have been mandated by them will survive. In other words, the Islamisation, rather Salafi-isation or Arabisation, of Pakistan is not likely to end with the defeat of the Islamists or the Taliban.

The facts on the ground suggest that while the Pakistan army claims to have wrested the physical control of many areas from the Taliban, albeit at a very high human cost, psychologically the Taliban remain pretty much on the ascendant, not only in the areas where they held a sway, but also in areas where their presence was supposed to be negligible. The signs of this are everywhere: one letter to the main CDs market in Lahore, and the next day all the shopkeepers made a public bonfire of all pornographic CDs in their shops; in Muzaffarabad people are scared of hiring women workers and are considering firing women employees after receiving a threat from the Taliban; doctors in Peshawar have started wearing Shalwar Kameez instead of trousers and shirts which have been declared un-Islamic; music and CD shops and barbers have been forced to change their line of business; there are markets in NWFP and Quetta where women are forbidden.

Obviously people take the diktat of the Taliban far more seriously than they respect the laws made by the Pakistani state, which they flout with impunity. What is more, while the Taliban enforce their laws even on the pain of death, the state appears incapable of ensuring compliance with the laws it makes. This being the state of affairs in places where the Taliban influence is more notional than real, it is hardly surprising then that in places where the Taliban have held sway, not many people are willing to defy them. So much so that despite the army's claims of having cleared many areas of the Taliban, the fear and terror of the Taliban lingers on, more so after incidents of renewed Taliban activity in some of the areas from where the Taliban were supposed to have been thrown out.

The failure of the army to so far kill or capture even a single top ranking Taliban commander has added to the sense of disquiet among the people, many of whom are still not entirely convinced or continue to doubt that the army is no longer patronising the Taliban or that the army is not playing favourites among the Taliban leadership or even that the army has finally decided to give up the use of Taliban as strategic assets once and for all. The sheer magnitude of distrust in the state and its security forces, coupled with the growing anger over the ineffective and inefficient handling of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) is going the severely compromise the image of the Pakistani state in the eyes of these people, many of who have probably lost their homes forever because their towns and villages have little or no chance of ever again becoming habitable.

Ironically, unlike the Punjab where there is a tendency to romanticise the Taliban, many of the people from NWFP, especially those who have suffered the Taliban, have no love lost for them. And yet, the treatment these people have received at the hands of the Pakistani state is in some ways worse than what was inflicted upon them by the Taliban. Indeed, the greatest danger to the writ of the Pakistani state is not so much from the Taliban as it is from the disaffection, disillusionment and disenchantment among the people in whose name the war is being fought. Unless the Pakistani state can provide succour (and not lip-service) to the people affected by the war, and at the same time initiates on a war footing reforms that firmly put Pakistan on a liberal, progressive path, the writ of the Pakistani state will continue to wither away, and that too at an alarming pace.


    <1290 Words>                    12th June, 2009



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home