Monday, 19 March 2012

Dude! Who radicalised my people?

 A much delayed book review:  Taliban and Anti Taliban by Farhat Taj

What would a Pakistani pashtun academic and Michael Moore the writer and film maker have in common? I pondered this as I looked for a copy of the book Taliban and Anti Taliban in Pakistan. Barely anyone I had met, including those who had/have served in the tribal areas had heard of her work. 
If this book is a reflection, the two of them share a passion for the polemic and shattering myths.

Not so long ago it is said that there was a meeting between a tribal leader from Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and a senior official of the Pakistan's government. The topic of discussion was the presence of Al Qaeda in his area with the alleged collusion of the state. Mirza Alam was a Waziri tribal leader of the Yargul Khel and by the end of his conversation he knew he was going to be killed. He is said to have gone to meet a local undertaker and informed him that he was about to die as a martyr and that suitable arrangements should be made. Shortly afterwards he was dead.


This story is the central premise of Farhat Taj's book the Taliban and anti Taliban and if there was any doubt on the writers views it should be answered by the front cover. The Front cover has a picture of between the Pakistan Corp Commander, garlanding the Taliban leader Nek Muhammad.

What makes this book different is that while Western writers have charged the Pakistan military establishment with duplicity in its dealings with the Taliban  this is the first by someone from the area. Taj challenges several key theories that have developed in the last decade about the Pashtun tribal areas. She argues that the radicalisation and fighting that has happened in the region is because of Pakistan state policy,Arab money, jihadi volunteers and not a product of the local culture of the society. 

The opening chapters introduce the reader to what is called Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A buffer region that originally separated the British Raj from Afghanistan, it is governed by the FCR(Frontier Crimes Regulation). The FCR  ensured order in the region through a mixture of institutionalising tribal customs and including brutal punitive measures that kept the region separate from the rest of the 'settled' areas. The punitive measures and restrictions that apply are by todays standards exceptionally regressive and range from collective punishment for whole families and tribes for the acts of individuals. Imprisonment without the right of judicial review, and till recently political partys were not allowed to operate in the region.

In her words 'There is a great deal of British colonial literature on the Pakhtun that orientalize them. The Pakhtun have never systematically challenged the literature due to their backwardness in education. The researchers and journalists writing in the context of the war on terror have been uncritically drawing upon the colonial literature. This has contributed towards strengthening the colonial stereotypes about the Pakhtun'

Here the writer draws the distinction between the conservatism of the tribal people and that being equated with sympathy for Islamist related extremism. She traces the origins of the Pakistani state collusion with people like Gulbadin Hekmatyar in the 1970's as a means of countering Pashtun nationalism. This in turn was followed by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan where in an attempt to control the Afghan Mujahidin, Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with the backing of Americans and Saudis marginalised Afghan nationalists in favour of Islamists.

Following 9/11, the escaping remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda escaped into Pakistan. She highlights how the local representatives tried to rally tribal forces (called lashkars)  against the influx of Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda. Here the lashkar leaders were systemtically targetted by the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and either killed or forced in their thousands into exile.

The book for certain has flaws, the final chapter about extremism in amongst the Norweigian Muslims reads like an after thought. The book while being thorough does not attempt to seek a balanced argument on the causes of the Pakistan state insecurity. Her sympathy for Pashtun nationalism leads to her ignoring other major party's like the Pakistan People Party and Jamiat-Ulema Islam.

Another weakness is it does not look at the broader generational changes going through the region. The Tribal Areas dynamics have changed for other reasons, large expatriate populations, internal displacement, money and wars have changed the region forever.

What it does do is that it challenges the traditional narrative, it is a polemic in an age when academics shy away from confrontations.

More importantly it offers a narrative in a region defined by either the priorities of an occupying power next door or by a state narrative which relegates their own people to strategic assets. In that way it is a brave polemic and it deserves to be read.

5 comments:

TLW said...

Takhalus, thank you for writing this! :D

I like your points about money entering the area as well as about how two different colliding priorities define the area.

it offers a narrative in a region ... by a state narrative which relegates their own people to strategic assets

:-( I know the feeling.

I was reluctant to get this book, but your review convinced me to try and get my hands on it. At least I know what I'll be getting into.

It was definitely the fact that she didn't even acknowledge the existence of the PPP or the JUI's presence in KPK that made me disinterested in her writings.

I think the JUI has earned itself a pall of notoriety and some clear elucidation on the side-by-side relation between the JUI and the Taliban needs to be made clear. The Taliban are presented as if they came about in a vacuum, and then a somewhat apolitical person like me, sitting in Karachi, has to explain how my society produced scum like the Af-Taliban & the TTP. The JUI are useful in this sense, sort of like how Alfred Hugenberg's DNVP gave the street Nazis respectability and access to the mainstream. The military is also vital in this, but I think the JUI's role & responsibility & profiteering in the spread of Jihadi-ism is not popularised enough. Attributing pure hearted Pakhtun nationalism to the populations of KPK & Fata, obscures some very real support people willingly give to the JUI. And how the JUI pimps that support to the military for violent Jihadi purposes.

A note on the cover: It's nothing shocking to me. I was reading the year end Herald in 2004, and it had the horrible, horrible stories about the deals & military defeats in Wana & Waziristan. I knew when I was reading them, they would come back to haunt us.

Some of the explosive stuff Herald has...if it was widely available on the net, it could face a tougher time. That same year-end piece had Pakistani pop music as it's cover piece :-)

Anyway, definitely going to get this book for the history. This had been, up till now, my defnitive history on the takeover over the Waziristans.

meera ghani said...

I have to read the book before I comment but usually I dont agree with Farhat Taj on much except her myth busting narrative of the pakhtuns. So will be an interesting read.

Ali Arqam said...

If someone has any doubts regarding FATA and its placement in Pakistan strategic interests and the counter narratives Farhat Taj and a few other are presenting, they should read the infamous Jinnah Institute report on the perceptions of our foreign policy elites".

If he/she had a bit of honesty, he/she will realise what is the mindset and how deeply rooted it is, which is challenged by Farhat Taj and few other colleagues.

Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan, inability to prevent its seized territories(to the militants) to be used against neighbourhood with an excuse of fearing a reprisal here in rest of Pakistan. Presenting Taliban as the sole representatives of Pashtuns and calling the insurgency here in Pakistan as Pashtun resentment. Perhaps JI stands for Jamat Islami as well, and the narrative came from Jinnah Institute, another JI, makes him just a proxy of the same corners, who were Jamat Islami as their sole representatives during Afghan Jihad.

Not a change of hearts and mindset, what JI has conveyed in the streets and Mohajir camps in 80's is regurgitated by the so called FP elites with relatively liberal avatars in the form of that sham report.

Kudos to Farhat Taj for helping us realise how handicapped our intellectuals are with their biases.

Sikander said...

I did not get a sense of academic honesty in reading Farhat ANDERSON'S "book". It read more like a leftist (read extreme minority among the Pashtuns) ideological monologue rather than an inquiry for truth. I'm sure her usual retort is going to be along the lines of: "i'm pashtun (even though i disregard pashtunwali and islam) so i know more than you because i say i know more than you (with the accompanying unverifiable anecdote from her FATA exploits). Extremely amateurish which only tarnishes the image of liberalism in Pakistan. Certain facts are known, Taliban are Pashtun. There leadership down to their commanders are Pashtun. If some Uzbek or Tajik or Punjabi joins, they do so as cannon fodder. No amount of conspiracy theories against the Pak Army or ISI is going to change those facts. Her pov also manages to make the ISI as an all-powerful entity capable of mind-controlling a whole nation like the innocent, attan-loving Pashtuns; and in the same breath a mind numbingly incompetent entity. These contradictions seem lost on the people that parrot the anti-military narrative.

Anonymous said...

it has become fashion with some pseudo intllectuals to present themselves as anti army. with such pre set mind truth cannot come out. this may amount to a monologue about the situation which could, at the most, only bring out the individual
to lime light but cannot uncover the truth.