The Taliban bogeyman

Swabi, Pakistan: Buner refugees travel by road as they flee fighting (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Swabi, Pakistan: Buner refugees travel by road as they flee fighting (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

UNHCR warns that the human exodus from the war-torn Malakand division is turning into the most dramatic displacement since the 1994 crisis in Rwanda. The Guardian reports:

Almost 1.5 million people have registered for assistance since fighting erupted three weeks ago, the UNHCR said, bringing the total number of war displaced in North West Frontier province to more than 2 million, not including 300,000 the provincial government believes have not registered. “It’s been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” the UNHCR’s spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva, trying to recall the last time so many people had been uprooted so quickly. “It could go back to Rwanda.”

Meanwhile, it appears the story has all but disappeared from international media. It had fallen out of the headlines within the first week, now it barely makes the news. The Pakistani english language press (on which most Western ‘experts’ rely) is on most days about as distant from the realities of the North-West frontier as the hacks bloviating in Washington and London. They even have their native Ann Coulter in the execrable Farhat Taj who is given frequent platform to slander anyone who fails to see the virtues of the US regional agenda. In her latest installment she informs readers that there is ‘very little collateral damage’, and that most of the 1,000 dead are ‘confirmed Taliban’. As Gerald Kaufmann would say, these are the words of a Nazi; the woman appears bent on matching the military’s assault on Swat with her own on reality.

But she goes on. She gives the military a primer on propaganda, telling it how best to ‘reassure people of the success being achieved in the war’. She then concludes with a cri de coeur that would give Ariel Sharon a pause; she tells the army high command to ‘destroy the Taliban networks, installations, headquarters everywhere in Pakistan, including FATA and south Punjab…The army must carry the war against the Taliban to its logical end’. This is what C. Wright Mills called ‘military metaphysics’ — a belief in the potential of military power to resolve political conflicts.

And then of course there is the ubiquitous Ahmed Rashid, who recently claimed that the US drone attacks, 94 precent of whose victims have been civilians, have high support agmonst the Pakistani middle class. This led Tariq Ali to compare him to Ahmed Chalabi and quip that the US should not trust someone first name is Ahmed and who tells them that everything they are doing is great. (Also see my earlier piece on Ahmed Rashid)

Fatima Bhutto is on the other hand one of the most astute and principled young analysts that Pakistan has produced in recent years. In her piece from Foreign Policy magazine published below she correctly points out that much of the overblown hysteria around the so-called Taliban menace is driven by political expedience. Pakistan’s president is indeed scamming the West. She writes:

President Asif Ali Zardari, less than a year into his reign, has managed to engage Pakistan’s armed forces, the seventh largest army in the world, in a guerrilla war with the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, our very own Taliban, in the North West Frontier Province. Rumors of Talibanization air daily on Pakistani television, radio and print media: The barbarians are at the gate, we are told, and warned that if there was a time to rally around the nation’s oleaginous president, a man known locally as “President Ghadari” or traitor in Urdu, this is it. However, the time for scaremongering has past — it is precisely President Zardari’s politically expedient use of national hysteria that has seen American drones welcomed over Pakistan’s airspace and has birthed a war that this government cannot win…

Zardari’s double game may have brought him billions more in American aid and assistance — U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke being the president’s loudest champion in Washington, warning Congress that if billions of dollars are not delivered immediately to Pakistan the war on terror will be in mortal danger — but it has lost him Pakistan. As we watch the number of internally displaced people rise steadily toward two million our army kills our own citizens, it should come as no surprise when the BBC Urdu service reveals that the government controls only 38 percent of the NWFP province — a number that is sure to fall as the weeks go on.

However, everything else in the article is based on questionable assumptions with an attempt to make history yield to the demands of ideology. The elite in Pakistan has both its Westernized and nationalist elements, only the latter resented US intervention. The former not only welcomed the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), it actually cheered Musharraf on as he devastated the tribal belt. That Musharraf or the elite assisted the rise of the religious alliance (MMA) is a myth propagated by the secular parties after their poor showing in the 2002 elections. The reality was of course quite the opposite: the secular parties suffered losses because none of them openly spoke out against GWOT or Pakistan’s participation in it (indeed the ANP welcomed it) at a time when emotions were running high, and had Musharraf not rigged the elections in favour of the PML (Q), it is likely that the MMA would have won with an even larger margin. (And I am not just speculating here: my friend’s father-in-law was running on a PML(Q) ticket and the night before the election they received bags full of pre-stamped ballots to be handed to voters so they could cast them with their own). The elite only turned against Musharraf once the blowback threatened to engulf them as well. Also, to present the Nizam-e-Adl agreement as a capitulation by Zardari is not just poor analysis, it is factually incorrect. First of all, the agreement was brokered by the NWFP government, not Zardari. It was a shrewd realist manoeuvre to wean the TNSM away from the radical elements of the TTP. The centre may hae signed on, but it did everything possible to undermine it from the get go (and Zardari admitted as much during his Washington visit). Equally importantly, as Rahimullah Yusufzai has pointed out, the agreement was accompanied by a propaganda assault which often crossed the border between criticizing the viler practices of some of the more extreme elements to the denigration of Pakhtun culture itself. These commentators also appear to forget that Sharia Law may be anathema to them (as it is to me) but for people who have been failed by the state’s justice system, any law is usually an improvement (as was noted by Kamal Hyder in this report for Al Jazeera).

The regional Urdu press and some of the TV channels are for the most part providing first rate coverage, with extensive reporting on the refugees (I avoid the fancy IDP label, which appears to create a heirarchy of suffering where an IDP’s condition is somehow less intolerable than that of a refugee) and a wider spectrum of opinion is represented in the discussions than you’d ever see on say the BBC. See, for example, this show where you hear eminently sensible comments from Khawaja Saad Rafique of PML-N and the Swati singer Rahim Shah, whose family is in the thick of it, with a cousin suffering four bullet wounds. Both maintain that the use of force was premature.) Unlike the English language press, the Urudu press often appears acutely aware of the class element. This eluded the elite commentators even during the Red Mosque incident as I noted at the time.

Lastly, here is an interview with one of the most knowledgeable people on the situation in Pakistan, my friend the great David Barsamian. He provides what I think is an excellent primer to the conflict, however, in the very end he speaks on a subject which is not his area of expertise, i.e., the power of the Israel lobby in the US, and although he encourages listeners to read Mearsheimer & Walt, he unfortunatley defers to the authority of Noam Chomsky, whose own position on this subject is highly dubious.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

One thought on “The Taliban bogeyman”

  1. Fatimas fundamental flaw in her analysis, just like Tariq Ali , is to consider the PPP ( Pakistan Peoples Party) a viable goer , if only the “head was cut off”.

    Seeing mileage in the PPP even today is where their critique hits an idealogical and intellectual cul-de-sac.

    A truer analysis would be that the PPP was always a fuedal party from the top with no intention of trickling down power , and is now full from top to bottom with careerists and fuedalists.

    If it ever had the street social justice activists that Tariq Ali describes they left , never to return , during Benazirs second stint in office.

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