My latest piece on the situation in Pakistan for The Guardian was published today:
Rough Justice in Swat
The growing influence of the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province is a direct threat to Pakistan’s fragile democracy
For once the news out of Pakistan was positive this week with the reinstatement of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and all other judges sacked by the former president, Pervez Musharraf. But, in the afterglow of that great landmark in Pakistan’s still youthful experiment with democracy, there were sobering reminders of the bitter reality of an encroaching Taliban insurgency.
A mere 100 miles north of the celebrations in Islamabad the restive mountains of Swat were beginning their first taste of de facto Taliban rule. This week the pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad warned government-appointed judges to stay away from the provincial courts. Under a peace deal reached between Mohammad’s Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TSNM), or Movement for the of Enforcement of Islamic Law, and the North-West Frontier Province government last month, the Taliban are to stop fighting in exchange for the implementation of sharia law.
As feared, rough, rural justice appears to be the order of the day.
In an interview to a local outlet, the leader of the TSNM, Mohammad said the judges of the state were no longer needed because their pronouncements were no longer valid. Pakistan already has a sharia, or “Islamic law”, court system; but even this is not recognised by the TSNM. The system envisaged by Mohammad is unique to the region and it has one selling point: the hearings and decisions are swift.
Already, since Tuesday, Qazis or religious judges appointed by Mohammad have made a number of rulings: 30 decisions in one day alone according to authorities. Under the old civil and common law system still used in most of Pakistan, legal process was mired in corruption and typically took several years.
Although the Swat valley is often called a settled part of Pakistan, it has more in common with the tribal areas that abut the border with Afghanistan than the urban centres of Punjab and Sindh. Until 1969 Swat was ruled by the Akhund, a line of oppressive despots who forbade both men and women from seeking an education under the threat of harsh punishment. Most Swatis are Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group of Pakistan’s tribal areas. And although the laws of Pakistan were meant to apply in Swat (unlike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the legal process was corrupt and inefficient.
That history is more than a footnote to the situation here: it is a living, breathing legacy that connects past disenfranchisement with today’s poverty, ignorance and desperation.
These failings gave the Taliban and TSNM a casus belli for confronting the state – they promised stability in exchange for their version of Islam. Now, this war-ravaged society, that had spent most of the past six decades of Pakistan’s existence in relative tranquillity, is desperate for anything that will offer stability.
As though it were “year zero”, Mohammad claims that Islamic law forbids references to the past because “The [Prophet Muhammad] says a Muslim should not discuss past happenings because he may not remember all the [details] and, therefore, he may… sin by not speaking the truth.”
And so, addressing the crimes committed by the Taliban, or compensating their victims or their victims’ families, is un-Islamic too. He also contends that the Taliban can keep their weapons because everyone else is armed – a statement which only appears logical if there is no historical context.
To be fair, this obfuscation of moral responsibility, a particularly ironic yet somehow revealing one at that, is not unique to Mohammad or TSNM. Virtually all mainstream Islamic political parties and organisations have the same tendency. When I asked the Emir or leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi what motivates Pakistan’s Taliban movements, he replied by saying they did not exist – those that bomb girls’ schools and kill their fellow, predominantly poor Muslim Pakistanis are foreign agents, not Taliban.
Hamid Gul, the czar-like former chief of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence, routinely queries the existence of the Taliban too. Even Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who is sometimes difficult to pinpoint on the left-right divide, focuses more on foreign interference in Pakistan than the Taliban’s violence.
There have been persistent murmurs of foreign involvement in some of the violence engulfing Pakistan. While many may roll their eyes upon reading that, it is important to remember that foreign support for militancy in Pakistan has an old pedigree. The most well-known instance of this was during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan when, along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, China and Israel helped the mujahideen wage their jihad.
India has been suspected of supporting the secessionist Baluchistan Liberation Army and involvement in sporadic bombings in major Pakistani cities.
Given the lawlessness of so much of Pakistan’s tribal agencies, and the traditional militancy of its tribes there, the lure of warlords willing to enlist their foot soldiers for suicide missions to the highest bidder may be too big a prize for any number of intelligence agencies in the region to keep away from.
Yet, even if foreign governments are involved, the reality of Pakistan’s rapid radicalisation must not be deprived of the scrutiny it deserves.
Were adequate time given to analysing the power relations that shape this troubled part of the world, the role of Saudi Arabia in inculcating its puritan, Wahhabi Islam in Pakistan would surely also deserve several volumes. While the Saudis have, over the past few years, been at the forefront of attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have not relinquished their dreams of creating an archipelago of satellite states beholden to the House of Saud’s ideological dictates.
Nawaz Sharif is part of that project. Sharif sought refuge in Saudi Arabia after being removed by General Pervez Musharraf in an October 1999 bloodless coup. Indeed, the Saudis intervened to stave the former prime minister’s appointment with life imprisonment by offering him exile in the land of Islam’s birth (albeit a very different one to that practised there today).
Since his return to Pakistan in December 2008, Sharif has been a vocal critic of the United States’ missile strikes in Pakistan, characterising them – correctly, if inadvertently – as an example of Pakistan’s subservience to the United States. More significantly, these criticisms have served to avoid scrutiny of the very real, murderous insurgency that is waging war with Pakistan.
The US itself has only exacerbated matters by increasing its missile strikes in Waziristan and, since last month, in neighbouring Kurram agency too. Only yesterday, the Obama administration publicly revealed that it is considering expanding strikes to include Baluchistan, geographically the largest state in the country and a region often gripped with violent calls for secessionism fuelled by the ethnic Baluchi’s marginalisation by the wider Pakistan state.
A small bi-partisan group of US lawmakers has criticised the proposal to include Baluchistan in missile strikes as a grievous mistake that will inflame the region further.
Yet such a strategy may well be welcomed by the Taliban and those that tolerate them as well.
NOTE: the version of this article in The Guardian incorrectly refers to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s coup on ‘May 1999′. It actually occurred, as noted above, in October 1999.