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Conflicting strategies

Thursday 23 April 2009, by Sam Noumoff

The acceptance of Sharia in a region of Pakistan adjoining Afghanistan is likely to usher a new division in Pakistan society. This article analyzes its implications and will be included in the book “Maut ke Saudagar” (Merchants of Death) by “Rashani Publication” Hyderabad, Sindh, Pakistan, and edited by Khurshid Kaimkhani.

With the recent release of the SWAT agreement on the accepted extension of sharia law to that region, we have passed a new and major milestone in South Asia, the consequences of which are to be felt for decades to come. The underlying premise of the agreement is that there are multiple factions with the Islamicist movement; the irreconcilable hard core who will never accept government authority short of the new caliphate, tied inexorably to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and a moderate element who seek a more muted application of sharia and some accommodation with modernity. It is further argued that previous neglect of this distinction has allied the two factions in a war of civilizations with the more secular oriented elements of Pakistani society and its foreign supporters. It is now time, so the argument goes, to pull this alliance apart.

Those who promote this position draw nourishment from the so called Awakening Councils in Iraq designed by General David Patreus, currently Head of the US Central Command, and until recently US Commander in Iraq. These Awakening Councils employed local tribal loyalists who for nationalist reasons opposed the US invasion, paid each of the militants $US 300.00 per month, and drove a wedge between these nationalists and the religious opposition to the invasion. While initially an apparent success, the sustainability of this program remains questionable, once the financing shifted to the Iraqi Government. While tribal bribery may have its appeal, the very instrument of bribery is unlikely to establish a firm foundation for long term strategy. From initial reactions to SWAT it appears as if there is not a uniform consensus on its efficacy. Multiple and contradictory rumblings have been heard from the various NATO participants in Afghanistan. It also remains obvious that proponents of SWAT see this as an experiment to fine tune and apply to that country.

Putting aside for the moment of the utility of the Awakening Council approach to Iraq, its transferability to Pakistan and Afghanistan is highly questionable, given the social structure and so called tribal alignments. Even the Canadians, not widely known for independence from US dictates have expressed serious reservations on the arming of Afghan tribal militias. Assuming even the desirability of the Awakening Council model to both Pakistan and Afghanistan to expect this approach to succeed while US/NATO drones indiscriminately rain missiles on the civilian populations of the targeted areas is not only absurd, but impossible. With each civilian casualty the prospect for any form of reconciliation is annihilated. There is simply no comprehension of the reality on the ground. The Pakistan parallel announced in the North West Frontier Province as the Village Defense Rifles is a shadow of a viable response. 30,000 rifles distributed to villagers from the stock of confiscated weapons is a true mockery.

Some personal recollections may shed light on the issue. This unreality is not new. Some two plus decades ago, I had the privilege of addressing the Goethe Institute in both Karachi and Lahore. I argued at the time that the secular oriented elite of the country had totally underestimated the impact of the growing Islamic movement. I was assaulted by those who argued that as a foreigner I failed to fully comprehend the nature of Pakistani society. Clearly, they continued, the Islamicist forces garnered no more than 3% of the electoral vote. My counter argument then and now is that the electoral arena was not the one of their choosing. They merely returned to their complacent consumption of scotch whiskey, willingly supplied by the Zia ul-Haq military and small tidbits of pork sausage, happily supplied from smuggling by family members. These became their symbols of modernity and they returned to their caves.

While in Karachi, I wandered with some friends in the bastis of Karachi dressed as a Pathan. We came near a street speaker and I was told to turn away while my friends translated for me. The speaker was rousing the crowd with a denunciation of imperialism and its local acolytes, as well as the evils of consumerist capitalism. I assumed we had accidentally come across some itinerant leftist, only to realize when I did turn that I was confronting a maulvi whose beard was more than twice as long as his fist. He had, with some success, appropriated the language of the left in his denunciation of the established order. Why? The left had lost its effective voice, subsumed, as it was, by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto populist rhetoric of the PPP.

That same evening, I had the opportunity of spending some time in the presence of half a dozen active duty officers, all of who had equivalents of advanced engineering degrees. I had always assumed that the more technically sophisticated were the military, the closer they would be to the US. This in part was informed by the US Cold War strategy consolidated during the Brezhnev era in the USSR that engineers were un-ideological seeing the world as a series of challenges to be overcome by technology. I was in for a surprise. Each one of the officers had been for advanced military training in the U.S. and come out first or second in their class, and yet to a man they discovered that they were considered to be dark skinned inferiors. The racism in that society had been met head on. While none of them to my knowledge subscribed to a doctrinaire Islamicism, it was clear to me that their identity in the face of that racism was anchored in the fact that they were Muslims. While the ISI has sustained with the Taliban during the Soviet Afghan period and subsequently for multiple of its own reasons there remains an underlying sympathy within the senior Pakistani military for Muslims who stand up with pride. Somewhat vague and amorphous yes, but present nonetheless.

My final illustration of the fact that we have either come full circle or never moved from the same spot, came during an interview I had with a US aid official who was then assigned to close down their assistance program. I was exploring a possible research project on the flow of educational aid from abroad through central authority down to the villages and I wanted his point of view. A very jocular fellow, who swivelled back and forth in his chair and expressed his utter contempt for anything Pakistani. He main comments centered on the fact that the Pakistanis’ could be bribed to do anything “We organized CENTO and they were happy to join for a fee, then we organized SEATO and again for a fee they were happy to join, and if we paid them they would be delighted to join NATO”, as he roared with laughter. His jaundiced view of Pakistan could not have been more clearly expressed.

Have we moved anywhere is the past quarter of a century plus? My answer is definitively no. The secular forces remain unwilling to confront the reality except in the old ways of the British Raj; force, coercion and occasional bribery. They forget that the Raj was defeated. Their Western allies who have been through innumerable defeats by liberation movements of an assorted variety over recent decades, have failed to learn a scintilla from these experiences.

What is the lesson which must be learned? Think like those in the liberation movements and analyze the basis of their struggles and success. Lesson one is to encapsulate the national spirit of dignity. Lesson two is to refine a socio-economic program in which local people are empowered to define and remedy the most pressing of local needs. The emerging contradictions with tradition work their way out over time and with patient leadership. No number of newly trained commandos, satellite intercepts and predator drones will prove to be a substitute. Is there the will? That remains the question.

(Professor Sam Noumoff taught in the Department of Political Science at McGill University for a number of years.

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