An ignorant friend

By —Farhat Taj
Daily Times

The tribal people fear the Pakistan Army’s aerial bombardment in FATA. The IDPs from all over FATA accuse the Pakistan Army of deliberately bombing innocent civilians while avoiding Taliban centres

Some time back, a piece in Foreign Policy suggested a referendum in FATA and the nearby areas of Afghanistan to ask the people if they were for or against a strict Islamist government. In case of a yes vote, any people in the larger region subscribing to a strict version of Islam could emigrate to the area. Dr Mohammad Taqi has elaborated how hollow this whole idea is via his article ‘A passport to dystopia’ (Daily Times, March 3, 2011). Dr Taqi’s article and Pakhtun comments in Foreign Policy on the piece should have encouraged the writer to reflect on his ideas about the Pakhtuns. A researcher with a sense of professional commitment would have done so. This does not appear to be the case with the writer Saleem Ali. Recently, he wrote an article in a Pakistani English daily and reproduced the following misleading ideas about the Pakhtuns on which I would like to comment:

“FATA is ungovernable territory and its population is decidedly more conservative than the rest of Pakistan. Islamists have political clout in FATA. There is an urban-rural divide among the Pakhtun whereby the urban Pakhtun blame the ISI for the terrorism in FATA while the rural Pakhtun in FATA embrace Islamism. The Bacha Khan Movement has no traction in FATA. The New America Foundation Survey last September is the most comprehensive survey in FATA. Tribalism in FATA is conflating with Islamism. There is an aversion to aerial bombing (US drone attacks) in the area.”

From a security point of view, FATA has never been an ungovernable territory since Pakistan came into being. It has always been under the control of the intelligence agencies of Pakistan. This is especially so since the ISI-CIA sponsored jihad in Afghanistan. Did the ISI and CIA operate their entire jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan from an ungovernable space? Were the Soviets so foolish that they could not destroy jihadi bases in an ungovernable space?

FATA is governable but the military establishment of Pakistan is deliberately projecting it as an ‘ungovernable wild west’ to the world because it needs the area for strategic games vis-à-vis India in Afghanistan. Does the writer have any idea about the pro-Islamism activities from the offices of political agents in FATA under the direction of the ISI? May I ask Saleem Ali why the Political Parties Act of Pakistan has not been extended to the area? President Zardari announced the promulgation of the act in FATA in 2009. Who is resisting a formal notification in this regard? Is it the people of FATA or is it the GHQ in Rawalpindi that is so averse to any idea of Pakhtun nationalist political parties operating in the area due to its eternal fear of Pakhtun nationalism?

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that FATA is more conservative than any other community in Pakistan. The fact that FATA is a gender discriminatory society does not explain anything significant in terms of the conservatism supposed by the writer.

It is ridiculous to hear that there is an urban-rural divide among the Pakhtun at a time when Pakhtun social activists are expressing their concerns over the growing ‘ruralisation’ of Peshawar and other cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to a lack of human development caused by government policies. Can one indicate any significant rural-urban divide between Waziristan, FATA, Bannu and Tank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, between Bajaur, FATA and Dir and so on? Actually, all areas in FATA are much more integrated in terms of culture, tribal links, familial ties, business connections and so on with the adjacent ‘urban centres’ in Pakhtunkhwa than among themselves.

Above all, there is no ‘rural-urban’ divide among the Pakhtun over the security situation in FATA. It is actually the illiterate ‘rural’ people in FATA who have suffered at the hands of the Islamists and straightaway hold the ISI responsible for their destruction. The fact that they cannot openly speak due to fear of the ISI does not give any justification to writers sitting far away to assume that FATA’s population subscribes to Islamism.

It is factually wrong that the Bacha Khan Movement has no traction in FATA. His movement has mainly been concentrated in villages, including villages in FATA. There are countless people all over FATA who are sympathetic to the movement. People linked to it were among the first eliminated by the ISI when it unleashed targeted killings in the area in 2003 to silence those who had the potential to question the presence of ‘state guests’ — al Qaeda jihadis in FATA.

How could the New America Foundation survey in FATA be comprehensive when it was conducted at a time when most of FATA’s people were IDPs outside FATA? The survey also suffers from other serious methodological and ethical errors that render it meaningless for a scholarly debate over FATA. My detailed critique of the survey will be published in the coming months.

There is no conflation between tribalism and Islamism in FATA. The tribes have made lashkars against the Islamists. The popular jirga-backed lashkars are much more representative of the tribes in terms of tribal identity than the ISI-backed multi-ethnic Taliban. Did the writer ever try to reach out to the lashkar leaders? Does he have any idea who the ‘rural’ lashkar leaders hold responsible for the atrocities committed against their tribes?

The tribal people fear the Pakistan Army’s aerial bombardment in FATA. The IDPs from all over FATA accuse the Pakistan Army of deliberately bombing innocent civilians while avoiding Taliban centres. There is, however, no aversion to the US drone attacks. They are welcomed because the drone never targets civilians. There have been large-scale human displacements in all tribal areas where military operations were conducted. There is no large-scale human displacement from North Waziristan, the area most hit by drones. I predict there will a huge human displacement from North Waziristan if and when the Pakistan Army launches a military operation in the area under US pressure.

“Are we achieving any success thus far with drones?” asks the writer. No, we have not achieved much with drones in the larger picture. But this is because the US is not doing enough to deal with the ISI. As long as the military establishment is using FATA as strategic space, terrorism will go on by state design. The drone attacks, meanwhile, frustrate the establishment’s design by killing its ‘beloved’ jihadis. For the tribesmen, the drone strikes are a significant achievement. They are precisely killing the multi-ethnic jihadis who have overpowered them.

“I am writing this as a friend of Pakhtuns,” says Saleem Ali. I accept his words at face value but his writings show that he is ignorant about Pakhtun history, society, culture and the current situation. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Nothing can be more dangerous than sincere ignorance.” Saleem Ali should educate himself about the Pakhtun or choose some other topic to write on. The Pakhtun are passing through a hard time and cannot afford ignorant friends.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban

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