ISLAMABAD JULY 8, 2008 — Another couple of days of bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, each with its own message and each by a different group. A couple of days ago the Americans hit a wedding party and killed over 20 people in Afghanistan. In Kabul yesterday the Indian embassy was struck by a suicide bomber killing over 40 people. The next day a series of bombings in Karachi — six blasts in an hour, wounding dozens. These bombs were low intensity, and not suicide blasts. After the bombing of the Indian embassy, an Afghan official said something like: “we believe an intelligence agency from the region was involved” — a clear allusion to Pakistan’s ISI. A friend speculated that the bombings in Karachi were India’s response — a warning in this world where governments send messages to each other by bombing people. The American bombing of Pakistani troops weeks ago is widely thought of as sending a message to the Pakistani army.
It raises a question of who the sides are in this war. The Pakistani army has engaged in some bloody fighting against the Taliban on the border in the past, although the current method involves negotiation and conceding control of areas to the Taliban. When the government fights the insurgents, they are seen as doing the bidding of the US. At the same time, according to Ahmed Rashid’s analysis, the government uses and manipulates the insurgents and historically has used them to try to have their way in Afghanistan. This is why the responses to the insurgency are so contradictory. The US mission is expensive and its interests there are unclear: the US supposedly wants to find and destroy al Qaeda, but there are also ways that a constant terrorist threat is useful to governments that try to use fear to control the population. The US also probably wants troops and bases in the region to watch South and Central Asia.
In his new book Descent into Chaos, Rashid offers an analysis that is at its core a statement to the US: if you really want to get rid of al Qaeda, you have to do something about the Taliban; if you want to stop the Taliban, you have to rebuild Afghanistan and allow Pakistan to democratize (i.e., stop supporting the military exclusively). For the US, though, the questions are: there are costs and benefits to al Qaeda’s existence as a low-level insurgency capable of committing occasional terror attacks on US civilians, and there are costs and benefits to having US troops in the region, but are the costs of what it would take to really stop the Taliban and al Qaeda really worth it? Would paying those costs bring the US increased control over the region or the world?
Probably not. The Taliban would wither away if Afghanistan and Pakistan had the type of sovereignty where the direction of government and economy were determined by their people (and if there were sensible global agricultural policies and no drug prohibition — but more on that in a future column), the dream of third world nationalism. Under such conditions the Taliban would have no legitimate claim to be fighting foreign occupation and all they would have to offer was social conservatism and violence. Other political and social forces would emerge they would not be able to compete with.
Unfortunately, a dream of a world of sovereign countries is a nightmare for the US. In that sense, I disagree with Rashid: I don’t think the US will act in ways that would bring its citizens safety from terrorism, because the rewards of domination of the region, for those in charge, outweigh the risks of terrorism against US citizens. Moreover, not everything is under US control. The Taliban (and probably part of Pakistan’s establishment) figure that NATO will get tired of the costs, so they can be waited out. Indeed, if the US choice is between building a sovereign Afghanistan and allowing a sovereign and democratic Pakistan on the one hand and cutting some kind of deal and leaving on the other, the Americans are more likely to just leave.
If it is too much to suggest the US can suddenly act benevolently, what about Pakistan? The Taliban, some argue, have flourished not just because of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan but also because of the absence of the state in the border areas. A story by Anwarullah Khan in yesterday’s Dawn reports the Taliban setting up Sharia courts in Bajuar agency, “and a large number of people are using them to get disputes resolved, instead of waiting for action by the tribal administration.” The Taliban said this was because people were tired of the current system. That’s one response to a vacuum created by the state’s absence from an area. Here’s an example. Another lynching, as happened in Karachi in May. Four men had robbed a house and were caught by a mob, and three of the robbers were killed. Police were stopped from helping the victims. Another attempted lynching happened a few days later in Lahore but police were able to save the robbers. Anees Jillani in the June edition of the (excellent) monthly magazine Newsline argues that the police are underresourced and untrustworthy, the judges corrupt or afraid.
But it might be too simplistic to talk of the “absence of the state”. The June edition of Herald, another fine magazine, had a special feature on “The Great Land Robbery,” in which elites, entrepreneurs, the military, and bureaucrats took a great deal of land for the Gwadar port in Balochistan (a resource-rich province with poor people) and distributed it for personal enrichment, with callous disregard for local people’s rights. There are stories of local fishing and picnic spots being seized to make way for tourist hotels, of people being roughed up for trying to get their rights to their own land recognized, and worse. The cover story concludes: “Though the focus so far has remained on the violent conflict taking place elsewhere in the province, Gwadar too is seething quietly.” Here the state isn’t absent so much as present in ways that are negative, which generates rebellion as a consequence. That the state then deals with the rebellion by force doesn’t help address the deeper problem of the nature of the state and its relationship to the people.
Without addressing that, though, it is hard to see how the current problems could be solved. A hard-nosed analyst might say “yes, but we live in the world we live in, and neither NATO nor Pakistan’s government is perfect but they are the only tools to deal with the Taliban.” That would be true if they were tools that were capable of fixing, rather than further breaking, the situation. It might actually be less realistic to expect the US or Pakistan’s establishment to solve these problems.
Rashid argues in his book that the Taliban were not of Afghanistan or Pakistan but a kind of transnational phenomenon. It follows that they don’t have, and I don’t think will get, deep roots in Punjab or Sindh or even Balochistan, where there are other class structures and huge concentrations of economic, political, and military power and a 150-or-so million other people. The maximal scenario, it seems to me, is that when NATO leaves, and if NATO leaves irresponsibly as they are likely to, the Taliban could take over Afghanistan and Pakistan’s NWFP. That would be a terrible outcome, but I believe the counterinsurgency underway makes that outcome more likely as time goes on. A similar suggestion has been made more than once in the media here in recent days: that Pakistan just withdraw to the borders of NWFP and allow the Americans to occupy the region. The suggestion is offered tongue-in-cheek, of course, because that would just precipitate the Taliban takeover and also discredit Pakistan’s government massively domestically and internationally: governments don’t, and can’t, willingly hand over parts of their country for foreign occupation.
Where does that leave the writ of the state? The writ of the US should not be over Afghanistan or Pakistan to begin with, and it is moreover creating more problems than it is solving. Withdrawal is necessary, and the sooner the better, though one can recognize that there are more and less responsible ways to withdraw without supporting an imperial power’s claim that it needs to be there to prevent things from getting worse. As for the writ of Pakistan’s state and its transformation, that’s a project for the people of Pakistan — one that would also be made easier without destructive US interference.
Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.