ISLAMABAD JULY 7/08 – Last night there was news of a suicide bombing at a police station near the Lal Mosque in Islamabad. The Lal Mosque, last year, was the site of a takeover by Muslim students, who had been doing vigilante actions and some kidnappings, and who were eventually overrun by force, with the authorities killing many of them. There was a rally to commemorate that event, and a bombing nearby. 19 people were killed in the bombing. Among them, 15 were police who had been deployed to the rally.
The editorial pages are full of opinion and analysis on how to deal with the insurgency. A column in yesterday’s Dawn by Anwar Syed had an interesting argument: "The view is shared by many that America’s war with the Taliban is not our war, and that by joining it our government has been killing our own people… the problem is that the Taliban do not and will not, even if our American connection is broken, treat the generality of Pakistanis as their people. They think of us as nominal Muslims, hypocrites, worse than infidels. They have no interest in our survival and well-being as individuals or as a state." Syed goes on to advocate the use of force against them, something I am not so confident will produce the desired result. But he makes an interesting point.
The point is also made by Ahmed Rashid, whose book, "Descent into Chaos", I saw at about a dozen bookstores in the Saddar bazaar in Rawalpindi, where I went yesterday. One bookseller told me it was his bestselling book. Rashid argues (pg. 401) that "the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarized madrasses, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become."
Rashid also talks about the Lal Mosque incident in his conclusion (pg.382), arguing that the government tolerated the students actions for a long time to send the message of its own indispensability to the international community – if Islamic militancy could reach the capital, who could keep it down except the military government? By using the students this way, the military helped create a movement that it would then violently suppress.
Rashid’s prescription for Pakistan cites a paper by the Pakistan ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, who calls for (pg. 403) "national reconciliation that brings an end to the demonization of politicians by the army; a new military culture that is taught to respect civilians, institutions, and neighbors; and reformed intelligence agencies that cease to interfere politically."
In other words, Rashid is arguing that phrase you hear a lot here – that the ‘writ of the state’ needs to be extended, but that it has to be a different kind of state. An interesting question that arises is, is it better for the current state, with its too-strong military and interfering intelligence agencies, to try to extend its writ into places where the insurgency is strong, or would that only make things worse, until the state is transformed?
In the meantime, what the state is doing is a complicated mix of negotiating peace pacts with some groups, threatening operations against others, and doing operations in some areas where the insurgent groups have advance warning to leave the area. The recent operations in Bara in the NWFP against the Lashkar e Islam of Mangal Bagh concluded this way, with the leader Mangal Bagh agreeing to negotiate and the operation being suspended as a result. As Rashid’s book shows, this rhythym of negotiation and advance-warned operation has been part of a pattern in the past few years. Other repeated acts are US missile attacks, some bloody operations by the military, and assassinations, killings, and kidnappings by the militants.
One of the most perceptive commentaries I’ve seen was by Rafia Zakaria from a couple of days ago in the Daily Times. A lawyer and doctoral student based in the US, she compared the narrative of the Taliban, which says it is fighting the Americans who are occupying Afghanistan and their proxies in the Pakistan military and government, with the narrative of the government, which has not been able to come up with so clear a narrative. In these political-military conflicts, words are as important as weapons, and the story of a government trying to fight extremism is not compelling when the government clearly uses extremism when it’s convenient.
Perhaps a narrative of being committed to day-to-day issues could work? But not for a government committed to privatization. The government actually finally deregulated gas prices, which gives sellers the option of raising prices further. There are multifaceted water problems, too, with recent flooding in Rawalpindi causing 2 people to drown, sewage coming up into hospitals, and outbreaks of diseases caused by sewage in the water. On the flip side, tube wells tapping into the water table could lower it to dangerous levels, according to Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency (quoted by Atif Khan in Saturday’s Daily Times-Islamabad). An organization wanting to deal with day-to-day issues will quickly find itself contending with non-governmental organizations – the subject of a future column.