Stemming the Taliban tide in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Comment)
There yet seems inadequate understanding of the complexities and the challenges confronting the Pakistan-Afghanistan region as the mainstream leadership in all camps, including the US, gropes to develop a strategic formula for keeping the jihadi wolves from the door - before they inundate Islamabad and Kabul, and indeed plunge the entire region, including India, into political chaos.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that the 'most worrisome' part of the US-led war in Afghanistan has become the havens the Taliban and other insurgents have carved out in neighbouring Pakistan.
One thing appears certain: The forces of moderation and modernity are currently beleaguered; steadily losing ground to the fanatics whose declared goal is to return civil society to seventh century conditions where mullahs, ayatollahs and ideological radicals rule the roost behind the facade of a distorted, stereotyped conceptualization of Sharia law that would reduce everyone to automatons chanting the ideological cliches of ultra-orthodox Islam.
For several years, the world has witnessed the gradual crystallization of FATA and its tribal environs into a quasi-state dominated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. So much so that Mullah Umar and Osama Bin Laden have in essence severed this region from Pakistani sovereignty, established a de facto emirate there, imbued it with rudimentary state institutions, and are employing its infrastructural resources to broaden their political and ideological writ to encompass more mainstream portions of Pakistan.
The recent conquest of Swat, the 'Switzerland of Pakistan', by Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), on behalf of the Taliban is a case in point. This has markedly altered the balance of power in the border regions and points a political dagger directly at the heart both of Pakistani and Afghani political society unless a way is found to reverse it. The enemy is literally at the gates!
The danger to both countries' future as secular states has dramatically increased even further with the news that the Government of Pakistan has now in effect capitulated to the Taliban in Swat. They have allowed the extremists to win by default.
With their willingness to accept the Talibani version of Shariah Law for Malakand, the Pakistan government has in effect consigned women's rights, modern education, art, music, science and democracy itself there to the medieval dustbin. Swat, and Malakand generally, now have been annexed to the 'Jihadistan Emirate'; they have become reluctant minions of a theocratic state which all the objective evidence indicates is contrary to what ordinary, workaday Pakistanis and Afghanis would really prefer if left to their own devices.
Through its political weakness and irresolution, the Pakistani state has become complicit in the establishment of an archaic, mullah-dominated version of Islam whose goal is the eventual, complete destruction of mainstream Pakistani society and with it ordinary Pakistanis' civil rights.
The irony of the Zardari government's capitulation to the likes of Maulana Fazlullah in Swat and Beitullah Masud in south Waziristan is that a mockery is being made of the power and prestige of the Pakistani state.
Where does the solution now lie that offers even the most modest hope that Pakistan/Afghanistan can be pacified and that the most strategically important parts of the region can be saved for civil society? I think it now lies in a federal solution. That is, there is no possibility that a centralised, unitary state either for Pakistan or Afghanistan is realistically possible. Such a solution was in actuality never possible, as Pakistan's historical attempts to bring it about so amply testify.
From Jinnah to Musharraf, the attempted suppression of the country's regional systems, and their reduction to some kind of Urdu-based 'Islamic state', led to one military dictatorship after another, culminating in Bangladesh, secessionist movements of varying degrees in all the other provinces, and most recently, the absorption of most of FATA and Swat into emergent 'Jihadistan'.
The same scenario applies to Afghanistan. Historically speaking, the original perpetrators there were the Communists who also sought to unitarize the country, in this case under the rubric of Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism, made it a pawn in the Cold War, and in the end doomed it to become a cauldron of perpetual internecine political strife catalysed by the ideological certitudes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
American attempts to bring some measure of political coherence to Afghanistan have thus far failed for much the same reasons: because too much energy and resources have been invested in a vain quest for some kind of unitary political solution there, not unlike what failed vis-a-vis Pakistan (through US support for military dictatorships) and also did so in Iraq until the advent of General Petraeus.
The upshot is that federal solutions are essential in such highly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and sub-nationally integrated political environments as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Developments in Swat and Malakand make it clear, however, that yielding control of the negotiating process to the jihadis jeopardises everything. Implicitly it is yielding crucial political ground to the enemies of the pluralistic polity and society that both countries sorely need if an eventual bloodbath is to be avoided.
Local extremist groups that systematically attempt to nullify the rules and subvert the consensual process by doctrinal intransigence and promulgating violence and anarchy must be rejected in principal and defeated in fact on the ground if civil society in Pakistan and Afghanistan is ever to be achieved.
This means that the civilized leadership of both countries must find the will and the means to say 'No' at all costs to the imposition of doctrinally-distorted fundamentalist Islamic orthodoxy. This asymmetry is what must be confronted by the Zardari regime in Swat and FATA; and by Karzai in Afghanistan. So far the jury is out on just how effective these efforts can be.
(15.03.09- Harold Gould is visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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