Archive for Swat

The Swat offensive

Posted in Pakistan with tags , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by Umer

by Rashed Rahman

The military offensive in Swat Valley and surrounding districts of Malakand Division has more or less completed its initial phase. This may be a good moment therefore to assess the operation so far.

There is little doubt that there was a fundamental shift in the attitude of the army before such an unprecedented military offensive could be launched against the Taliban whom the military until recently was fond of referring to as its ‘strategic assets’. What led to this ‘change of heart’?

Under Musharraf as Chief of Army Staff (COAS), the duality in policy of capturing/killing Al-Qaeda members to assuage US post-9/11 rage and preserving the Afghan Taliban continued from after 9/11 until Musharraf’s ouster from power in September 2008. Along the way, US pressure to do something about the safe havens Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban enjoy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and which had permitted them to transform the relatively low intensity insurgency in progress since 2001 in Afghanistan into a more effective guerrilla war (helped enormously by Bush’s blundering into Iraq in March 2003), forced Musharraf in 2004 to send the army into FATA for the first time in Pakistan’s history. That campaign was a disaster. The army’s contingents were ambushed and literally cut to pieces. Clearly General Head Quarters (GHQ), the Pakistani military’s apex command, had forgotten the lessons of the British colonialists in fighting the Pashtun tribals in these areas.

The military debacle persuaded the army to sue for peace with the local militants in Waziristan and other tribal areas. Such agreements were totally to the benefit of the militants and humiliating for the ‘mighty’ Pakistan army’s pride. Nevertheless, the army swallowed its gall in the interests of trying to persuade the Pakistani Taliban to support the struggle in Afghanistan rather than challenge the writ of the Pakistani state. The watchful US military command in Afghanistan did not try to disguise its disquiet at these so-called peace agreements since it detected that an easing of the military pressure on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border meant increased attacks on their and NATO’s troops in Afghanistan. Hence at every given opportunity, they attempted to sabotage such agreements through missile strikes that took out the local Taliban commanders who had signed such deals with the Pakistan military. The Pakistani military still hoped (consistently since 2001) that the US and NATO would tire of the ‘futile’ and endless struggle in Afghanistan and GHQ and the Afghan Taliban would then easily step back into the relative power vacuum in Kabul, aided and abetted by their Pakistani Taliban facilitators and hosts. This was a serious underestimation of US determination not to repeat the mistake of allowing Afghanistan to slip once again into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s hands. Whatever other differences in policy Obama may have had with the outgoing Bush administration (for example on Iraq), on Afghanistan he declared for seeing the task through, albeit with a more nuanced policy.

In the interim, Musharraf and the Pakistani military continued on a strategy of raising the cost of the Western presence in Afghanistan through the Afghan Taliban, extracting in the process $ 11 billion dollars for the Pakistani military over eight years without any proper accounting of where this money went. Suspicions in the US Congress that the bulk of this money went to provide weapons for the Pakistani military to bolster its conventional arms balance against India have led to delays in and calls for accountability and transparency for any future US aid to the Pakistani military.

Under Musharraf, the Pakistani military came to be hated as never before by the people of Pakistan. The military’s overbearing attitudes, corruption and control of state and society under Musharraf evoked great resentment amongst the Pakistani people. When General Ashfaq Kayani took over as COAS last year, he and the military’s top brass embarked on a refurbishing of the military’s public image. This was conducted through an ostensible distancing of the army from politics and cooperation with the elected civilian government. The past collaboration between the military and the Pakistani Taliban incrementally gave way to a firmer posture of not allowing the Pakistani Taliban to challenge the writ of the state. The failure of the so-called peace agreement in Swat (a chronicle of a failure foretold) cleared the path for the current military offensive in Swat, backed as it now is by a changed public perception of the Taliban and their brutalities.

As for the offensive, the military has not cared a fig for the people of Swat, using heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and the air force to blast their way into the Valley from three directions at the cost of three million people’s displacement. These people fled for their lives in the face of this indiscriminate bombardment, which arguably saved many soldiers’ lives, but at the cost of so many tragic stories of local people killed, children and the old having to be abandoned, and the continuing misery of the displaced in camps and amongst host communities. The military advanced behind this heavy bombardment into Swat from the south, east and west. Despite this, they failed to cut off the escape routes of the Taliban (an inherently difficult task in such mountainous terrain). The result is that the Taliban leadership has by and large escaped, probably into surrounding mountains and FATA. That is the harbinger of a protracted war, especially since the military is now planning an offensive into South Waziristan, the stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) will have a tough time even after returning to their shattered homes, with no economic opportunities, smashed infrastructure and a huge reconstruction and rehabilitation task, which on the evidence of the government’s capabilities of looking after the IDPs promises to be another disaster to add to the long list of Pakistan’s miseries.

The situation is certainly at a turning point, especially since the inventors and mentors of the Taliban, the Pakistani military, has finally decided that the challenge to the state is too grave to brook any further prevarication. That does not, however, rule out the possibility that some of the Taliban may be persuaded to forego their challenge to the Pakistani state in exchange for being spared and diverted once again to the ‘export’ of jihad into Afghanistan and Kashmir. Whether this fond hope of GHQ materializes or suffers the same fate as their best laid plans of the last four decades to control Afghanistan in the name of ‘strategic depth’ and liberate Indian-administered Kashmir through jihad, only time will tell. However, what can be surmised at this juncture is that the whole jihad export enterprise has suffered a crippling blow. Whether the blow is fatal or something can be and will be salvaged from the ashes, it is difficult to say at this juncture. The Taliban having taken to hitting back throughout Pakistan through terror indicates that we are at the beginning of a long and bitter civil war whose outcome will determine the future direction of state and society. The present conjuncture represents a turn from the domination of the national agenda by the military and its Taliban cat’s paws. Without overcoming this phenomenon, Pakistani state and society cannot hope to clear the way for a more enlightened and hopeful future.

The writer is an acclaimed journalist and political analyst. This article is a part of his email series by the title of Pakistan Political Review. He can be reached at: rrahman@nexlinx.net.pk

Few thoughts on debate over relgious extremism

Posted in Communist Movement, Pakistan with tags , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2009 by Umer

Over the past many months, the Left in Pakistan has discussed the issue of Taliban over and over particularly in the context of the extremist escalation in Frontier province and following military operation. The difference between members of the Left, with two sides, who are contending over the aforesaid issues is very apparent: one side is pushing a consistent military operation against the religious extremist operations while the other is demanding an immediate halt to the military operations and its roll back from affected areas in the Frontier. The polarity of opinions is known well to any observer and the Left in particular for they have read and heard the detailed arguments from both sides on more than a dozen occasions. Therefore, I don’t intend to present my approach to the question again. My stance, proposing a demand of military operation against Taliban and an opposition to surrender or cease-fire, is known well and shall be clear from the offset.

I want to talk about something different in this email. My intention shall not be construed to create further divide in the already small and dispersed Left of our country, but only a humble call for clarification. It shall be my greatest pleasure to be corrected. As a humble student of Marxism-Leninism, I am always willing to welcome criticism with firmness and my motivation behind the instant article is the desire for a higher unity built through consensus rather than further divisions.

The recent turn in the debate over the Taliban suggests that the difference between the leftists in Pakistan exist at a more fundamental level than we understand the case to be. There is a disagreement, though I am not sure about its sharpness, at the most basic level of the debate. There is usually little utility, in terms of strengthening unity through dialogue, in clashing over the conclusions where there is a difference over premises of the discussion. We have a disagreement over the premises and let’s recognize that to be the case. Unless we form a consensus over the premises, stand assured that an agreement over the conclusions will not result.

I shall be clearer. I sense that there is a difference between the leftists in Pakistan over the form of the political activism that we as a movement want to adopt. In the context of the debate over religious extremism, there is a difference over whether we want our struggle to take up an anti-fundamentalist political posture or not. This is where the disagreement lies. Should we openly adopt an anti-fundamentalist stance or not? I hold that we must. Others in essence are saying, I will follow by how they say this, is that we should not take an overtly anti-fundamentalist stand.

We all agree that the broad policy of the Left is governed by four broad guiding principles: anti-military, anti-imperialism, opposition to pre-capitalist remnants, and anti-fundamentalism. These principles are not mere words for our satisfaction but the foundations of our political activism. We follow these principles not only in our rhetoric but also in practice.

However, some comrades think that we should not be very openly taking a stand against religious extremism and fundamentalism, that we should not criticize Taliban in the workers’ quarters, that there is no use in finding allies and be building a campaign which targets Taliban or in combining an explicitly anti-Taliban agenda with other issues or, may be, that such an effort will result in unnecessary loss of our energy and resources. In essence, this boils down to the assertion that we should be anti-fundamentalist in words but not in practice. We should tackle them covertly and not overtly. Some even go the extent that an alliance between overtly religious parties is also possible or necessary for the Left. If that is the case, my dear comrades, than let me first request you to please give an end to your hypocrisy and say very honestly that you are no longer anti-fundamentalist. Be steadfast in saying that you don’t consider the issue of anti-fundamentalism to be at par with other three guiding principles of our struggle. Please, for the basic moral requirement of sincerity, give an end to this two-faced talk.

Various grounds are often given regarding why we must not criticize fundamentalism openly. Let me get to them briefly. The first contention against bringing the anti-fundamentalism to the forefront with other main principles and issues is that working class people, the constituency for socialism, will find no relevance in the debate over extremism. This is only based on an assumption that working class does not find any relevance in the political issues of the country. That is not the case. Even if that is the point, then we must struggle to engage the working class in the political struggle. How are we to do this while ignoring this flood of right-wing political and social propaganda and without emphasizing the issue and need of secularism? Any political activism in Pakistan that ignores the right-wing fundamentalism and extremism is not worthy of being termed as progressive. If we agree that political struggle needs to be taken to the working class, than criticism of fundamentalism has to be a vital part of our message that shall identify us from the right-wing. And when we criticize the religious right-wing, we must start with the Taliban for they are the most extreme manifestation of the religious right.

The second argument is that the anti-fundamentalist activism will be highly unpopular. There is a level of truth to this argument and this should be entertained to reach the correct strategy and tactics to tackle the menace of extremism. There is general orientation towards fundamentalism in Pakistan particularly in the province of Punjab. However, this should not deter us. The Left does not test its argument on the touchstone of popularity alone, lest they are like other double-faced politicians. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels stood alone but did not compromise into appeasement. The Bolshevik Party took an immensely difficult position of demanding peace in 1914 at risk of complete isolation from all political trends. The Left in Pakistan has stood bravely at many occasions for peace in the region and has been humiliated for doing so. There are countless examples and one can go on and on. Instead of following popularity, our positions must emanate from an analysis of objective situation and shall seek the promotion of the interest of the working class.

Another point that greatly troubles our friends is that we might find allies in the liberal ‘civil society’ if we explicitly push the agenda of anti-fundamentalism. I am greatly perturbed to say that our friends think that these “low-character-elitist-women”, as they are known by the ordinary people for these ‘civil society’ women refuse to cover their heads, can make us even more unpopular. This is highly disturbing. Firstly, the popular morality is not a lamppost for us to take our activism forward. We want to change this popular morality, which is under the hegemony of religious patriarchs, and for this we have to take issue with them rather than stay silent about them. Secondly, this argument completely ignores the rightwing NGOS that have continuously received funding from orthodox Muslim countries. They are not targeted as elitist? So, are they fine? Secondly, as leftists, our contention with the NGOs, etc., is not based on their lifestyle decisions but because they receive donations from imperialism and attempt to diminish the responsibility of State in providing crucial services by substitution. Our comrades are more perturbed by the lifestyle of civil society rather than their connection with imperialism, which is clearly not different from the right-wing criticism of the NGOs (I hate to say this). And then they say they are not giving in; that our words should not be taken as a compensation to the rightwing!

The point very simply boils down to this question of principle: do we want to explicitly target extremism or not? Please, if you may, don’t cosmetically agree on this only as a matter of ritual but only if there is a will to do something about this. We will spend countless days and nights in going over our strategy and tactics, rest assured, but only if there is an agreement over the principle in the first place, only if we settle that we have to tackle this extremist menace immediately.

One last point: a few days ago a comrade proposed that we should either build schools or demand that schools be rebuilt and education be provided. Some comrades think that blowing up of schools in Swat is not a very big issue that demands our attention. However, since we worry greatly about popularity, according to one 1998 survey, education is the second greatest demand of people in Pakistan after clear drinking water. Very generally, any parent can tell you about their greatest dream: to have their children educated. And yet we think it’s a non-issue!

Comrades and friends, extremism in Pakistan is now raising its head like never before. Schools, colleges, CD shops, and cultural stations at every corner of the country are receiving threats on daily basis from those who want to reverse the social order. Victory of Taliban in Frontier is a great boost for extremists everywhere. These extremists are flexing their muscles at every major center. Can we afford to remain silent? The time to do something actively against the extremist menace is now.

So many deeds cry out to be done, And always urgently;
The world rolls on, Time presses.
Ten thousand years are too long, Seize the day, seize the hour!