Pakistan: military fight against Taliban counterproductive / FRFI 212 Dec 2009 / Jan 2010

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FRFI 212 December 2009 / January 2010

As the military operation launched by the Pakistani government against the Taliban in the northern areas of the country enters its eighth month, there are several fundamental questions about the effectiveness of the Zardari government’s approach to dealing with the Taliban. While there can be no doubt that the Taliban and its millenarian vision must be challenged in Pakistan, the state’s response has been insufficient and misguided.

Military force

Following abortive attempts at appeasing the Taliban at the start of 2009, the government and military establishment have initiated and sustained a military campaign against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). While the military has retaken control of Swat from the Taliban and dislodged it from key towns in FATA, the human cost has been tremendous. Over three million people have been displaced and now live in makeshift refugee camps scattered across the rest of the country. Information from the battle zone is tightly controlled by the military, making it virtually impossible to independently verify government claims of success, or to determine the number of civilians killed in the conflict, or the extent of the damage to cities, towns, and villages in the region.

For the government, and those sections of the liberal elite that have endorsed its use of military force in the north, such costs are outweighed by the prospect of eliminating the Taliban. However, it is far from clear that the use of force against the Taliban signifies a radical shift in the worldview of the state and military establishment. The Pakistani military has historically enjoyed a close, symbiotic relationship with militant Islam. The military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq trained and equipped the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s; this infrastructure was retained by the military to produce groups that could act as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir during the 1990s and has not yet been dismantled.  The military remains reluctant to completely sever its ties with militant Islamic groups that it believes could be used to pursue its broader strategic objectives. Although the Taliban is seen as a threat to the state, we should remain sceptical of the military’s relationship with Islamist groups that do not directly challenge state power.

The role of the US

The prominent involvement of the US in the fight against the Taliban is deeply unpopular across Pakistan. The US has used its influence and power, clothed in the rhetoric of ‘fighting terrorism’, to pressurise Pakistan into using force against the Taliban as part of its broader imperialist project in Afghanistan. This assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty is compounded by the use of US drones to attack Taliban targets within Pakistan. While proponents of US involvement vaunt the success of drone strikes in eliminating key Taliban figures, the resulting tremendous loss of civilian lives has made them incredibly unpopular. The resulting anti-US sentiment has in turn  strengthened support for the Taliban and provided it with ideological justification for continuing its own fight against the state and its imperialist patron.

Root cause of militancy

Decades of neglect, low levels of socio-economic development, and the absence of any space for political participation have created both deprivation and resentment that is used by the Taliban to shore up support. In the absence of any credible government commitment to ameliorating the lives of the people living in the region, and caught between grinding poverty and a US-sponsored military assault, many feel only the Taliban can challenge the status quo. This does not mean that the Taliban represents any kind of popular political alternative. The ability to tap into popular resentment does not make the Taliban any less anti-people or any more anti-imperialist. Indeed, levels of support for the Taliban remain low in the north, and have declined as evidence emerges of its reactionary ideological vision. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s ability to claim that it is an anti-imperialist, anti-systemic movement has been key to their garnering legitimacy. As the military conflict wreaks ever-increasing death and destruction in the north, increased opposition to the state and military, as well as to the US, could well result in greater support for the Taliban.

The absence of a viable left in Pakistan has created a political vacuum that has been occupied by political Islam. Successive regimes in Pakistan have used Islam as a means to legitimise their rule, making it a central feature of the country’s political discourse.  This helps explain  why the state has tolerated the existence of groups that propagate the particularly virulent religious outlook that informs the Taliban ideology. While a broad consensus may have been reached in Pakistan over the need to fight the Taliban, primarily because of the dozens of bombings and suicide attacks they have carried out over the past few years across Pakistan, a broader debate on the role of religion in Pakistan has yet to take place. This means that even if the military operation succeeds against the Taliban today, the ideological climate which allowed it to emerge in the first place will remain fundamentally unchanged and groups with an ideological framework similar to the Taliban will continue to emerge.

It is the responsibility of the left to propose an ideological alternative that recognises the reactionary nature of the Taliban while simultaneously attacking the role played by the state and imperialism in creating the circumstances that allowed the Taliban to emerge in the first place.

Hassan Javid