Yesterday I read Adrienne Arsenault's moving description of the slow but deliberate entrenchment of the Taleban in Pakistan's Swat valley.
Tahira Abdullah posits a hell of a problem for anyone involved who does not favour the Taleban: What is to be done?
The Swat valley used to be the country's top tourist attraction. The "Switzerland of Pakistan" was the boast: good skiing, clear lakes, luxury hotels and an open embrace of visitors. Then the Taliban began arriving in ever larger numbers — attacking police, kidnapping foreigners and destroying schools — and everything changed.
Panicked, the Pakistani government initially decided it had to crush the Taliban militants in Swat but a brutal military campaign didn't bear much fruit. After three years of fighting, the result was nearly 1,500 civilians killed and many thousands wounded, but the slippery insurgents survived. So, in February, the government changed tactics and made a deal. Government troops would pull back and Sharia law would be allowed in the Swat if the Taliban agreed to lay down their arms. The result was to be peace in the valley. Certainly that's the characterization from Pakistan's beaming foreign minister who says the government did what it had to do by negotiating with moderate Taliban elements. The deal "had a very positive effect on the valley," Shah Mahmood Qureshi says. "The most important thing is to give people peace and security, to revive the confidence of the people in the institutions that exist."
Still, he advised. Don't go.
I asked if he would go. He stared silently for a moment, talked about how another minister had visited within the last month and then moved on to a new subject.
"These are hiccups," says Major General Athar Abbas of the Pakistan army, referring to the ongoing troubles in Swat. These sporadic incidents and events do happen when you have to deal with a huge area. Now this whole area was subject to militancy and terrorism and therefore this transition period is very delicate. It is to be handled very carefully."
A tip for anyone who wants to employ the "hiccup" claim around human rights activist Tahira Abdullah, be prepared for the tiny woman to absolutely erupt. "Lies. These are lies," she roars. As for the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, everyone needs to give this so-called peace deal a chance and that, perhaps for the moment at least, it is somewhat safer in Swat, her response is a bellowed question. "For WHOM? For the bearded men? For the men who are willing to toe the line of the Taliban's Sharia law? No woman is allowed to go out. The moderates and progressives are not allowed to return. They have suffered deaths.
I don't think there's any answer to that question we're going to like, be we Pakistani or Afghan progessives or Western liberals. Way back, almost a decade ago before 11 September 2001, there was not a strong Taleban movement in Pakistan. They controlled no territory other than remote borderlands, and what they tenuously held in Afghanistan, nor did their dark-age intrepretation of Islam appeal to a great many people.
Then the West invaded. Rightly, at the time, I say. But the Americans, NATO, us, well, we lost the plot. Osama bin Laden lost priority, mostly because we lost track of him and could only justify that sort of incompetence by incredulously suggesting that he really didn't matter anymore. He rarely gets a mention these other than when some grainy video or sketchy recording emerges and the talking heads debate their authenticity. And then we turned the invasion in a business opportunity, privatised (aka mercenatised) half the armed forces involved, failed to establish any sort of coherence the allied military effort, failed to seriously introduce any sort of context-aware aid and development package, failed to fund and account for expenditures based on outcomes, failed, failed, failed...
But that's only part of it. We also failed, with our ultra-positivist outlook, to account for our own 500 years of experience with colonialism. Namely, the iron law of colonialism that says every colonial effort will be met with a degree of resistance. Some of these might be benign legalistic moves, others are mythologised in horrific accounts of blood. The World Trade Center was such an act spawned from decades of US and western involvement. So are suicide bombers, and so are alternative discourses such as radical Islam. So too are writing novels in native tongue. While some forms of resistance are definitely more agreeable than others, their form is not so important as what they represent. Namely, the symbolism of not being of the thing they resist. If it was capitalist imperialism, resistors looked to incarnations of communism. Others looked to their own pasts for indigenous counternarratives to the coloniser's import. We see this easily in Canada in Aboriginal self-government and restorative justice initiatives. We also see this in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the clearist altnernative to the West is what the West is there to destroy. In this sense, it isn't so much about the appeal of radical Islam itself, its more that it is not of the invader. When the Afghan government passes laws that legalise rape, it is an act of resistance. It doesn't matter than it is not officially Taleban; it doesn't even have to like the Taleban, just that its members need to resent us enough to pass laws that humiliate our intentions. Of course, these laws might be embedded in larger local cultural narratives but not necessarily so.
This is the mechanism of radicalisation, and it is why we find ourselves in an ever worsening problem.
In practical terms in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have bombed both countries, and are seen to support governments that also attack portions of the civilian population. So governments take on the guise of Western puppet regimes, which in turn encourages resistance. Resistance forces cannot match the state or colonisers firepower, so they take the path of least resistance. In Afghanistan this involves striking the organised military force indirectly through roadside bombs, and at the symbols of this imposed regime in the form of killing or lashing 'liberated' women, and invading symbolic centres of Westernisation like Swat. This has the impact of utterly upsetting the invader, by humiliating and rendering inert its rationale for being there. These are paths of least resistance on the part of the insurgency. They use their organic membership in the local population as the means of circulating through it, drawing from, and reproducing themselves within it flowing like blood and behaving like anti-bodies fighting a pathogen.
The invader, with our limited toolset and grasp of the situation, are caught. Our liberal internationalism compels us to remain in order to help the legitmately suffering people of the region. However, this same liberal narrative prevents us from acknowledging that it is our very presence that compels and expands indigenous resistance. Our failure to acknowledge social and historical context, and our preoccupation the technological solutions means that our tools are clumsy, brutal and violent. Artillery, mortars, tanks, fighter-bombers, armed UAVs, etc, are all employed under the rubric of bringing our modernity to a place with little experience of it. We respect no village, field, ethnic, or national boundary in pursuit of our objective. We effectively buy lives if we get caught screwing up. We train local forces to fight internal fights with their own people. And then we paint a fucking school, disable a bomb, have a funeral, and point out what a wonderful job we're doing to ourselves and the tragic sacrifices we're making in the good fight.
Eight years on and the Taleban are able to hit our supply lines in Pakistan, are able to challenge the Pakistani government forces, are alive and well in Afghanistan, and their philosophy is also availing itself in our Afghan puppet government. The reasons are apparent.
Our response? We have highlevel meetings where men in suits and uniforms talk about increasing the number of Western armed forces in the region and continuing to train and equip our brown surrogates, ignoring the fact that none of this discussion would be happening if it were not for our presence. We seem to think that playing with the ingredients will save the already cooking dish, nevermind the burning smell.
The question then becomes one we often hear from the right in justification for the war. That being, what happens if we leave? The response, "everything will fall apart!" I am afraid there's no good answer there: we just don't know. We've set in motion a series of events and given a horrific movement legitimacy because we've failed to understand [our role] history and the nature of resistance. The latter is not a pretty thing and follows no rules of chivalry. Resistance becomes total, using whatever cultural mechanisms are available to refute the coloniser and invader. Even Ghandi used non-violence to send the British home, but the outcome was still drenched in blood and still costs Indians and Pakistan's their lives. What becomes of Afghanistan and Pakistan is beyond our control. Our presence provokes opposition and this binary builds legacies of violence and division.
Perhaps if we leave the violence will decrease, and the Taleban philosophy will lose favour amongst its current supporters who see aligning with the Taleban as better than aligning with the West. In either case, there are no fairy-tales here, and nothing in certain. The only thing we can do is withdraw. Remove the incentive for resistance, and maybe things will improve.
I cannot begin to imagine Tahira Abdullah's rage and fear. She is caught like so many others, in the eddy between titanic currents of narrative and action, and cannot escape until the water drops, if it drops.