By Akbar S. Ahmed
24 Jan 2014
In the first part of an essay about his recent trip to Pakistan, Akbar S. Ahmed describes the country’s security crisis in the context of the stark disparity between center and periphery
“We have to cancel today’s program due to a very high alert security threat. One brave officer died in Karachi yesterday, Chaudhary Aslam.” The email from Dr Naeem Mushtaq, the head of Human Resources at the Islamabad Club, sounded ominous. My lecture on Islam and Mr Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, had already attracted a large number of RSVPs and I was looking forward to one of my last events before I returned to the United States.
I was concluding a six week trip to Pakistan early in January 2014 which had involved giving an intense round of lectures, media and meetings. It was a time of high emotion for me as this was my first lengthy visit in nearly two decades.
But Dr Mushtaq’s letter left no room for doubt about the seriousness of the threat: “We need to protect international assets like yourself and therefore the Club management has decided to cancel the program on the information provided by our security department.”
It did set me thinking. The Islamabad Club is no ordinary institution. It is the bastion of prestige and power in the country. Its members are influential generals, civil servants, businessmen and politicians. Its facilities are unrivaled. The abrupt manner in which the lecture was cancelled revealed the impotence of the upper and middle class – the elite – and the boldness of those who were determined to challenge it.
Understanding the Crisis:
In my last book, The Thistle and the Drone, published last year, I had proposed a thesis that the relationship between the center and the periphery has reached a breaking point across the Muslim world, due to the failure of the modern state to accommodate the diversity of minority groups and give them their due, especially on its borders. The delicate balance between center and periphery is now in jeopardy, from Morocco to the Caucasus Mountains. In most cases, the center has prevailed with brute force. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain are some examples. However, the periphery has also succeeded in some cases in not only challenging but overwhelming the center, as in Libya.
In Pakistan, the tribal periphery has been subjected to over a decade of turmoil that has left it devastated. I pointed out that the disruption for ordinary tribal peoples is caused not just by the drone strikes but also by the suicide bombers, clan warfare and Pakistani security forces hunting for terrorists. As a result large numbers have fled their homes to live desperate lives as refugees in the bigger cities of Pakistan.
I witnessed the stark disparity between center and periphery in Peshawar. The governor of the KP Province graciously hosted a dinner for me at the governor’s house attended by some 40 senators and members of parliament from the Tribal Areas. The security was extremely tight. In fact, Peshawar itself looked like a military camp under siege: high walls, barbed wires, roadblocks and barriers, with unshaven soldiers asking us to stop every few yards. It broke my heart to see what the violence had done to this beautiful city where I had spent so many happy years. I could not imagine anyone taking their infant children in a stroller along with their wives down Fort Road as we did when we lived there. People are fearful of exposing themselves and every day is like a battle for survival. This historic city of gardens has been reduced to a battleground, with men of violence, in and out of uniform, slaughtering each other with cruelty.
The people of the province complain of how far they are being left behind in law and order, development and education, compared to the Punjab. The Punjab is almost like another country within Pakistan. Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister, has made it probably the most developed and well-run province in the entire subcontinent, but its rapid development has caused a further divide between the center and the periphery. The peripheral provinces of Pakistan, KP, Balochistan, and Sindh, are resentful due to the blatant imbalance between the provinces. They complain that the present government is basically a government of the Punjabis, by the Punjabis and for the Punjabis. The idea of a federation of provinces is thus weakened.
The devastation of the tribal areas has had profound consequences for Pakistan as a whole. The center is now under assault by the desperate and infuriated periphery and its responses seem to have been restricted to two strategies—either “peace talks” or the use of “force”. Pakistanis discuss these options passionately throughout the land. I found these arguments flawed. Both dialogue and force had been used over the last decade and both had failed. Besides, I had become quickly aware that it was not simply a question of dealing with the Taliban alone (The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP, is the Pakistani version of the Taliban which came into being after 2007). The situation is far more complex and changing rapidly.
The Taliban were no longer only in the Tribal Areas; their presence was apparent in the bigger cities as well. Their actions were not restricted to the ethnic tribesmen from the Tribal Areas but seemed to be supported at some level and in certain cases by ordinary police constables, peons in the office, and domestic servants in elite homes. Besides, as Sunni Muslims, they were now working closely with equally deadly Sunni groups from the Punjab including organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba, whose main target were the Shia.
The bold war tactics and consequent violence that came from the TTP provided inspiration to two other sections of society: the landless labor and peasants whose confrontation with the landlords and elite had been simmering for the last decades, and the emboldened criminal elements in society.
All three are helped by the desperate situation of the poor in Pakistan. Lack of jobs, electricity, and gas combine with high prices of basic foods like wheat and sugar make life intolerable for ordinary Pakistanis. Stories of suicide of desperate parents jumping onto railway tracks with their children appear in the media.
Families were prudently hedging their bets, one son going to the police, the other to the army, the third taking employment as a domestic servant, and the fourth joining the Taliban. Because all of these jobs were at the lowest rung of society, the brothers have one thing in common, apart from blood; they face a similar “enemy” – the Pakistani elite.
The merging and overlapping of the Taliban with the class confrontation and the criminal elements of Pakistan has created a new dynamic. Traditionally, the bold war tactics of the tribesmen in the Tribal Areas were restricted to their own areas and used during wartime. We have seen since 9/11, however, and especially after the attack of President Musharraf on Lal Masjid, the representatives of the state become a target far from the Tribal Areas. The attacks on the General Headquarters of Pakistan Army, when the assailants reached dangerously close to the office of the Commander-in-Chief himself, the Mehran Naval Base in Karachi, and the Air Force Base in Kamra reflect the characteristic boldness of tribal tactics.
Aftab Sherpao of the KP province, who heads his own party and was once interior minister for Pakistan, told me that we should not be so focused on analyzing the Tribal Areas alone because Pakistan must first get a grip of the collapsed law and order in the settled areas. There are large swathes of territory from Peshawar to Swabi — the most fertile territory of the province — which are completely lawless. The three elements we have identified have combined to paralyze the administration. Sherpao said that there were what he called Taliban “sleepers” in Peshawar. The Taliban had told him they could take Peshawar tomorrow if they wanted, the question was what they would do with it. Meanwhile they have set about systematically demolishing the fabric of the state. They have destroyed 2,000 schools and targeted and killed the most outstanding police officers in a deliberate bid to demoralize the administration.
Sherpao was in deadly earnest. He lost his elder brother, the charismatic Hayat Sherpao, and his brother-in-law, a senior police officer, to assassins. He narrowly escaped several attempts on his own life. These tactics of the Taliban had now combined with the desire of the less privileged and often landless peasant to challenge landlords and with the criminal elements. The combination of the three elements is playing havoc with an already demoralized and shaken society.
In Swat, landless peasants openly have challenged their landlords. I was told by Brigadier Ajab Khan, who was formerly in charge of army operations in north Swat that 95% of the Taliban in that region belonged to the Gujar community, who had lived in the valley centuries ago and felt dispossessed by the Pashtun Yusufzai Khans. They now wanted their ancestral lands back and were prepared to kill for it. When the Gujar combined with the Taliban in Swat, they set out, according to the brigadier, to destroy its economic base by wiping out the rich forest reserves of the area and even removing the copper from the wires of ski lifts.
To be continued…
Akbar S Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and former member of the Civil Service of Pakistan. His latest book is The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013)