Turbulent Tribes


As the ‘we are at war’ chorus reaches deafening proportions, it is worth delving into history so as to be clear about where this ‘war’ will take us next. Waziristan has quite an epic past, and, if the claims of ‘terrorism’ experts are to believed, it stands alone in the present as well, having been designated the global sanctuary for al-Qaeda. To make sense of how we got to where we are today, and what is in store in times to come, a brief glimpse into the past is necessary.

 

The British, masters of the world and emperors on whom the ‘sun never set’, never quite seemed to be able to figure out the Waziristani tribes. They fought them numerous times, and lost more soldiers in Waziristan than anywhere else in British India. Even at the height of the world wars, approximately 80,000 troops of the British Indian army remained deployed in Waziristan.

 

Thus the British both saw first-hand and proceeded to make into myth the intractability of the ‘tribes’. The martial races theory actually clumped all Pakhtuns (the ethnic group that is the heartbeat of the Taliban) into the same category but it was clear that it was the Waziristanis that were at the head of the warrior genealogy. The imperatives of colonial rule meant that the strategy of engagement with the obdurate Waziristanis required the cooption of some ‘tribes’ to balance the power of other ‘tribes’. Thus there emerged a pattern of periodic conflict interspersed with fragile peace.

 

The new Pakistani state proceeded to adopt virtually the same strategy vis a vis the ‘tribes’. Waziristan became one of many areas that constituted the institutional and legal anachronism that is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It was FATA that would become the operational heartland of the military’s ‘strategic depth’ policy that envisioned Afghanistan as a pliant state to the west to counter the threat from ‘Big Brother’ India from the east. As early as 1948, the Pakistanis drew upon the warring qualities of the Waziristani tribes to make forays into Kashmir and thus force the hand of the Hindu Maharajah who was, under the British formula for partition of India, entitled to choose whether to join either of the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan, or declare independence. The Pakistani strategy succeeded only in inducing Indian forces into the valley, thus precipitating a military stalemate and the separation of Kashmir into two. 62 years later the more than one billion people of the Indian subcontinent remain hostage to both India‘s and Pakistan‘s posturing over Kashmir.

 

The Pakistani state has for the best part of these 62 years ensured that Waziristan remains a strategic enclave for the pursuit of regional geo-political objectives. Things have of course changed since the end of the Raj. Large numbers of Waziristanis have migrated to cities and even abroad, thus resulting in a large injection of cash into the local economy. Since the 1970s, Waziristan has become a clearing house for drugs and guns; in fact it would not be incorrect to assert that Waziristan‘s economy has essentially become reliant on the continuation of armed conflict in the immediate and wider regions. Finally, the ‘tribal’ structure of power that was fashioned under the British has been subject to serious shocks on account of the rise of the political mullah.

 

These substantial changes have actually consolidated the Pakistani state’s long-standing colonial-style administrative and military logic. For the most part the United States and other dominant powers have acquiesced to this logic and even directly sponsored Pakistan‘s strategic vision. Thus the notion that Waziristanis are addicted to war has been made into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

As has now been documented by mainstream writers such as Ahmed Rashid, even after the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, business continued as usual in Waziristan. Rashid argues that the Bush administration was so obsessed with pillaging Iraq‘s riches that it simply neglected Afghanistan (and by extension Waziristan). But it is preposterous to think that the Pentagon was not aware of the fact that jihadi forces were regrouping in Waziristan. That attention was dramatically diverted back to the region in the dying days of Bush’s presidency is suspicious to say the least.

 

In any case, Barack Obama has demanded that the Pakistani state overturn not the policy of the past 8 years, but a policy that extends back well over a century when the British still ruled India. Or has he? Before the beginning of the military operation in South Waziristan, military high-ups went on record to note that their strategy included the ‘neutralising’ of North Waziristan-based militant commanders Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir. It is these two commanders who are said to be affiliated with the Haqqani network that is the backbone of the Afghan Taliban.

 

What of the fact that Washington has, in the wake of the ‘Afpak strategic review’, once again been indicating that it might be willing to coopt segments of the Taliban into the mess that is Afghanistan’s government? Is the ‘candidate of hope’ reverting to the same strategy of his predecessor by distinguishing between the ‘Taliban’ and ‘al-Qaeda’? How are these two entities defined? Do we know for certain that South Waziristan is home to al-Qaeda, whereas the (till now vilified) Haqqani network is a distinct political grouping?

 

Afghanis have long been cured of the notion that the American occupation of their country will lead to a sustainable peace. Yet some progressives in Pakistan continue to obstinately insist that the United States is the only hope against the ‘barbarism’ of religious obscurantists. Aside from ignoring the historical relationship between imperialism and the religious right in Muslim countries (and the fact that there is no principled opposition between them), this point of view is a reflection of the fact that the left is virtually a non-entity in Pakistani politics in the present conjuncture, and therefore some leftists feel the need to take sides in a ‘war’ in which none of the protagonists represent a genuinely progressive position.

 

Then there is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government that, as was evidenced by its stand during the hullabaloo created by the Kerry-Lugar Bill, is banking on the fact that space has been (inadvertently) created for a challenge to the military’s establishment’s strategic thinking due to the tensions generated by the American occupation of Afghanistan. While imperialist war necessarily gives rise to numerous contradictions, there is no evidence that the Americans think of their engagement with the ‘tribes’ – in Afghanistan and Pakistan both – any differently than the British did before them, or the Pakistanis have done for 6 decades. This is not say that there is no indigenous impulse towards conflict. But the fact is that the bloody Great Game that the people of this region find themselves immersed in is the result of cynical geo-politics and there is no sign that any of the numerous actors in this Game are about to back off soon.

 

Within Pakistan if there is a growing rupture in the relationship between the military establishment and militant Islamists, this does not mean that there is a sea-change in the state’s commitment to instrumentalising Islam. The Pakistani security establishment retains a belief that there are ‘good jihadis’ that serve their perceived strategic interests, and it is only the Frankenstein ‘bad jihadis’ that need to be targeted. Indeed, if Obama, Hilary and the rest of the gang decide that a meaningful distinction exists between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then what difference is there between what the Americans are doing and what they accuse the Pakistanis of doing? Insofar as the PPP is putting all of its eggs into the United States-will-be-the-guarantor-of-democracy basket, it is taking a huge risk.

 

The functional logic that guides the actions of both the American and Pakistani militaries is only likely to lead to an increase in the death and destruction. Add to this cynicism the increasingly desperate and indiscriminate responses that military offensives incite and it becomes clear that all of the protagonists of this ‘war’ are forcing terror into the hearts and minds of ordinary people. It is possible that the military offensive in South Waziristan leads to a period of relative calm. But history suggests that this will be followed by renewed violence. And there is no sign that those who claim to be fighting for peace and freedom have any desire to change this history. After all they are the perennial winners and people are the losers of this history. And they would want it no other way.

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