The day that I arrived in Pakistan mid-September, the frontpage story on Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘Af-Pak Channel’ carried the exuberant headline ‘Everything’s coming up roses in Pakistan’. In the next four days the frontier capital of Peshawar would be hit by five rocket attacks. The week after there would be a car bombing. And things have only gotten worse since.
There was much triumphalism about the Pakistani army’s decisive action in Swat. Some were even encouraged to claim ownership of the war; it wasn’t an American war anymore, they said, it was ‘our’ war. The Pakistani liberal elite exhorted the military to press on and carry out similar actions in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). The militants seemed demoralized; it was was time to finish the job. It was not to be.
It began with the bombing of the offices of the World Food Program in Islamabad. It was followed last week by the massive bombing in Peshawar’s famous — and always crowded — Khyber Bazaar. Next there was the audacious attack on the Pakistan Army’s General Head Quarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. And today yet another bombing strikes Shangla, a valley to the northeast of Peshawar that abuts Swat. More attacks will likely follow in anticipation of Pakistan army’s planned offensive in South Waziristan, a Mehsud stronghold where most of the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is concentrated (foreign militants prefer North Waziristan). The airforce is already bombing the region in an effort to ‘soften’ the opposition (the language of mass murder globalized!). The operation in the Khyber Agency, which borders Peshawar, has already exposed the provincial capital to retaliation. Further military action will likely intensify these attacks.
Much of the enthusiasm for the attacks is found in regions least vulnerable to retaliation. On my way from Islamabad to Peshawar, I found much support for the military action in Punjab; very little of it in the NWFP. The Pakistani Taliban are disliked, but not nearly as much as the US, which is detested universally. West of Attock, where the Indus separates Punjab from the NWFP, the Pakistani military is seen mostly as a mercenary force in the pay of the US. In Swat it is now feared as much if not more so than the Taliban. Vigilante killings have been rampant, more than 200 have turned up dead in the fields. Army death squads are the prime suspects. Proof of torture has emerged even in video form, where Swati men are shown being beaten and abused by the military. Even the elderly are not spared. That all the torturers happen to be Punjabi, their victims exclusively Pakhtun, is already contributing to ethnic tension. It might make sound tactical judgment for the army to use non-Pakhtuns in its operations against the Pakhtun opposition, but its long term consequences for a multi-ethnic society held together by fragile national myths are fraught. Already there is much resentment in the Northwest due to Punjab and Sindh’s decision earlier to restrict entry to the refugees fleeing Swat during the military operation.
Much of the Northwest frontier is at present engulfed in what Chris Hedges calls atrocity producing circumstances. I heard first hand accounts of abuses too horrific to recount, carried out by both the army and the militants. Neither side gives the other any quarter. As atrocities accumulate the violence spirals, hostilities are entrenched. This in a region where blood feuds last generations. Native informers have been gushing how local lashkars (militias) have started to take on the Taliban. They seem to overlook at the the lashkars have so far had a dismal record, instead they are sowing seeds of lasting conflict between tribes. In Upper Dir, the militias have failed to produce any results, but they have succeeded in pitting villages against each other. The policy of house demolitions has likewise helped swell Taliban ranks. In a region where a single home is inhabited by enxtended families when homes are demolished for the sins of one errant son, it merely ensures that all others living under that roof are turned into potential recruits. The Taliban in essence is a backlash movement against the economic disparity and the domination of the elite. For the swelling ranks of the nation’s unemployed, joining the Taliban means an overnight access to a gun, salary, and a support network. Its a quick escape from the insignificance to which they are otherwise condemned by the countries entrenched system of privileges.
It should by now be obvious that there is no military solution to this conflict. The region will remain restive so long as the US continues to occupy Afghanistan. People may dislike the Taliban but they have little sympathy for the military. They have few reasons to cooperate so long as they are convinced the military is serving as the paid mercenaries of the US. The military has lost much credibility during the recent incursions; it will be eager to disengage. The Taliban will lose support quick once the military withdraws. The state needs to rebuild institutions, to restore the system of regional responsibility, and invest in development. US commentators — hawks and liberals alike — need to learn from Iraq and reconsider their enthusiasm for military force. There is something macabre in seeing commentators such as Juan Cole parrot the military propaganda line and speak about the ‘stiffened resolve’ of the military in confronting militancy, when it is precisely these actions which are engendering it. (In his book Engaging the Muslim World, Cole also makes the easy transition from erudite gadfly to a colonial commissar; he recommends that instead of being bombed form the air [which was his preferred solution for Iraq] the Afghans need to be ‘bribed, cajoled, and played off against one another’).
For policy to change, it first needs to be rescued from the baleful influence of the ‘expert’.