Richard Seymour on Obama’s Pakistan Frontiers
Our understanding of the war in Pakistan is bracketed by implicit, unspoken exclusions. The glimpses we get are like occasional narrow slits in an otherwise solid screen. We are encouraged to draw our attention to, for example, suicide attacks on government officials in Peshawar. But we otherwise have little context with which to interpret such bloody doings, apart from some general catch-all explanations about the medievalism and bloodlust of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This narrowness of focus, instead of contextualising such attacks in the war launched by the Pakistani military, at the behest of the US, on the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), rather provides a pretext and pseudo-explanation for that war. A multi-faceted conflict is reduced to the simple dichotomy of ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’.
To the extent that there is context in the Anglophone press, it tends to come from the perspective of counterinsurgency, and reduces the population of the NWFP to a xenophobic, insular, ethnonationalist rump, and reduces the insurgency to the issue of nationalism. In Pakistan itself, this analysis has manifested itself as deep-seated bigotry toward the Pashtuns, as Riaz Ahmed recently wrote. In fact, the insurgency is more complex, transcending Pashtun nationalism in the name of pragmatic alliances and an Islamist ideology that is not specific to any ethnicity. Its primary motivation in this war is opposing the US expansion of the ‘war on terror’ into Pakistan and the decision of the Pakistani military to join Washington in attacking pro-Taliban forces in these areas. But its relationship with the state is by no means one-dimensional, as the Pakistani military has previously relied on the TTP to support Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, which is why some in the Pakistani ruling class are unhappy with the strategy of aligning with the Washington axis.
Pakistan’s reluctant – but once launched, brutal – war against the TTP and its support base has resulted in a dramatic escalation in the activities of the TTP and sympathetic groups. The Pakistani military’s massacres, and the murderous drone assaults that Obama has escalated, threw people into the arms of the Taliban and other Islamist groups that are prepared to fight NATO and the military. The TTP have demonstrated their ability to strike in unpredictable ways, with devastating results. Between 2005 and 2008, the rate of insurgent attacks in Pakistan increased by 746%. Thousands were killed and injured as a result, as officials in the government, police and military headquarters. Neither a change in the national government, nor in the local administration has restrained this trend. In the February 2008 provincial elections, a ‘progressive’ coalition of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party (ANP) took control of NWFP, defeating the reformist Islamist grouping who had run the region until then.
If these parties had a solution to the grievances of local populations, they would have retained support. Instead the war continued, and the Taliban sought to position themselves as the most committed anti-US force in the province. There followed a sharp rise in attacks on local government officials, particularly in the provincial capital, Peshawar. Whatever people thought of the perpetrators, the targets didn’t gain much sympathy. Unable to offer an alternative, the ANP sought to cut deals with the Islamists, and lost much of the support they had previously gained. The TTP have also lost support since mid-2009, however, due to their harsh disciplinary practises and the gruelling civilian toll of their insurgency. Gallup polls estimated that they had the sympathy of about 11% of people in NWFP by June 2009, and that it had fallen to 1%. It’s possible that such polls underestimate Taliban support, as they have been known to do in Afghanistan, but the decline is likely to be real.