Contradictions point towards a crunch

LAST week began with President Asif Zardari signing a bill that effectively legalizes the hand-over of a portion of Pakistan to a branch of the Taliban. It drew to a close with a bunch of countries pledging, at a meeting in Tokyo, to donate $5 billion to the country. The president promised to devote the extra resources to combating the "tremendous challenge" posed by Islamist extremism, and warned the nation’s benefactors: "If we lose, you lose, the world loses." The very same day, Maulana Abdul Aziz returned in triumph to his favourite haunt, Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, where he appeared to claim at least some of the credit for the outcome in Swat and promised that a similar fate lay in store for the country as a whole and for the rest of the world.

The instrument of surrender in Swat was more or less unanimously endorsed following a perfunctory parliamentary debate – and even that gesture appeared to spook the Awami National Party and its leader, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who threatened to pull the ANP out of its alliance with Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party in the event of the bill being presented for discussion to the National Assembly. There appears to be a relatively simple explanation for the ANP’s nervousness: it is very, very scared of the Taliban and their allies. Which says a lot about the state of affairs in the NWFP. If the once progressive party’s leading role in negotiating a highly reactionary deal in Swat is based on the assumption that a concession in Swat will allow the provincial government more breathing space elsewhere, then it clearly does not understand the Islamist mentality.

The vast majority of MNAs who spoke on the bill defended it on the basis that similar laws had been enacted in 1994 and 1999, although former information minister Sherry Rehman pointed out that "in those times the elected representative of the province had executive control over the area. There was no danger of people being subjected to privatized justice, to Taliban vigilantism and public brutality."  The only party that refused to acquiesce in endorsing the bill was the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, whose parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar challenged the idea of allowing an armed ultra-radical group to establish its writ by force, and was subsequently quoted as saying that the move will "have far-reaching consequences for the idea of a moderate and liberal Pakistan". I don’t often find myself in agreement with the MQM, particularly in the context of its stranglehold over Karachi, but in this case its stance seems unexceptionable.

One possible factor behind the refusal of other parties to acknowledge that the Swat deal sets an ominous precedent was elucidated by an intriguing analysis by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, published last week in The New York Times, according to which the Taliban have advanced their cause by taking the side of landless peasants against landlords – sometimes by intimidating the latter into running away from their estates, and then sharing the spoils with the peasants, who in return are willing to serve as the shock troops of the extremists.

There are unlikely to be many countries in the world where feudalism is as deeply ingrained as in Pakistan, and landed interests dominate most of the larger parties (the MQM, for what it’s worth, is an exception). They are obviously keen to restrict the Swat phenomenon – described by an unnamed senior Pakistani official as "a bloody revolution" that could sweep away the established order – to that region, so that their own latifundia are not similarly threatened. This, again, is a vain hope: there’s a considerably better chance that the Taliban will only be emboldened by their success in the Malakand area.

Although most of the peasants may not realize it, this is essentially a case of one form of exploitation being superseded by another variant that is equally toxic, albeit in a different way. Regardless of the circumstances, the discomfiture of the feudal elements does not render them any worthier of sympathy. The pity is that it was left to the Taliban to capitalize on the natural resentment of the rural proletariat: the political parties that could have done so chose instead to align themselves with, and to accommodate, the propertied opportunists.

In a recent interview with The Independent, Zardari suggested that he understood the nexus between poverty and militancy, saying: "We will never really succeed in containing and destroying the militants and fanatics if we do not address the social needs of our people." That is perfectly true – although it ought to be pointed out that unacceptable levels of poverty were taken for granted for decades before fundamentalism became a deadly force. What’s more, addressing "the social needs of our people" has never been a priority for any Pakistani government, and it does not follow from the presidential acknowledgement of this problem that the present administration will behave any differently.

Arguably, the best possible use for the bulk of the forthcoming $5 billion would be to spend it on education, whose inadequacy is in all probability the largest single reason why the sowers of ignorance find such fertile soil – and the dominant feudal mentality again helps to explain why the idea of enlightening the masses has never quite caught on. Chances are the money will be put to more mundane uses, such as upgrading weaponry or servicing the international debt. A certain proportion amy also end up in someone or the other’s pocket. Richard Holbrooke says the handout should have been multiplied by ten; Zardari, who at one point was keen on soliciting $100 billion, would wholeheartedly agree.

Meanwhile, the inadequately explained bail for Maulana Abdul Aziz and his return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, is more or less guaranteed to enhance the sense of beleaguerment that has become second nature to the majority of Islamabad’s residents, accustomed as they are to sporadic blasts and massive security barriers. "The government," according to a report in The Guardian at the weekend, "is urging foreign embassies to move into a diplomatic enclave that may soon resemble Baghdad’s green zone." Almost everyone acknowledges, however, that adequate precautions against suicide bombers are hardly feasible. The vulnerabilities of Lahore and Karachi – to say nothing of Quetta and Peshawar – have already been demonstrated, while the likes of Baitullah Mehsud are free to hold press conferences, evidently with little fear of interception.

If the centre cannot hold, things will inevitably fall apart. Every now and then the odd flicker of hope can be glimpsed, but chances of redemption are fading fast. Once India concludes its drawn-out electoral process, it might be well advised to make contingency arrangements for a wave of refugees driven by Islamist anarchy.

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