Sie sind auf Seite 1von 3

COMMENTARY

COMMENTARY

The Antinomies behind the Peshawar Killings

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The ruthless attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar has precipitated a clamour for stronger military action against the “terrorists”, and the Pakistani army and government have responded by stepping up the Zarb-e-Azb operation and hanging a handful of incarcerated convicts. This article uncovers the tangled yet well-known roots of violence in Pakistan today to illustrate how the military-dominated State’s designated ideology and political machinations have brought the country to this pass. The strengthening of democracy is the only way to prevent such incidents from recurring, but the Peshawar attacks have been used precisely to weaken democratic institutions vis-á-vis the military establishment.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (aasim@lums.edu.pk) is a member of the Awami Workers Party and a well-known academician.

T he cold-blooded killing of almost

150 children in the northern gar-

rison city of Peshawar on 16 De-

cember 2014 confirmed that, after count- less “counter-insurgency” operations, and tens of thousands of deaths, the legitimacy of the so-called “war on terror” is as dubious now as when it began in 2001. While its major staging grounds remain Pakistan and Afghanistan, the “war on terror” has since the outset been depicted as a worldwide clash between the forces of modern “civilisation” and medieval barbarians. It is anything but. Enough commentators have written about the historic collusion of western imperialist powers and the religious right in Muslim-majority countries that I need not go into details here (Amin 2007). In this article I will focus only on Pakistan, which has, in the eyes of many western journalists, become the epi- centre of global “terror” networks, whilst also boasting of a State that has been amongst the most active patrons of such networks. That many of its own protégés have now apparently turned against the State may be the most notable element of this complex dialectic, but does not exhaust our understanding of it. Going beyond surface phenomena, then, is necessary both to make sense of Paki- stan’s regional role, as well as the strug- gle for democracy within the country.

The Denial of History

In hindsight it seems logical to claim that Pakistan was always going to become a breeding ground for political Islam due to its creation on the basis of religion. Yet the country’s early history confirms only the structuring influence of the colonial inheritance; that Islam would come to play a hegemonic role within the polity is explained by the fact that the unitary state needed a legitimising ideology to

suppress democratic demands emanating from a multilingual and multi-ethnic soci- ety. Religio-political organisations would steadily gain social and political space – one decisive juncture was the 1970 gen- eral election, in the lead-up to which the military regime of General Yahya Khan ac- tively supported the religious right. So- called “Islam-pasand” (Islamist) parties were patronised to counter the “taraqqi- pasand” (progressive) wave symbolised by the Awami League in the eastern wing and the Pakistan People’s Party and the National Awami Party in the western wing (Haqqani 2005). The strategy failed miserably, and the powerful military establishment’s pre- dictable unwillingness to accept the over- whelming mandate in favour of the Ben- gali majority in the eastern wing eventu- ally led to the latter’s secession. The 1971 debacle could have precipitated a shift away from a spectacularly failed policy; instead the State proceeded to reassert Pakistan’s “Islamic essence” with even greater vigour than before. The brunt was now to be borne by under-represent- ed ethnic nations within what remained of Pakistan – and particularly the people of Balochistan, who suffered a four-year long military action between 1973-77. More relevant for the purposes of this discussion was the initiation of a covert programme of funding and training to militants – or what would later be eulo- gised as the mujhaideen (holy warrirors) – in 1973. These militants were to be used as proxies of the state in its efforts to acquire “strategic depth” vis-á-vis India (which lay to the east), by simulat- ing Afghanistan as a “fifth province” to its west. What were to become house- hold names in the international Islamist movement – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – were not, as popular myth sug- gests, organic products of a “resistance” movement against the Soviet troops that only entered Afghanistan in 1979; they were at least originally very much “stra- tegic assets” of the Pakistani state. Over the past decade there has been at least some acknowledgement in the political and intellectual mainstream of

10

january 10, 2015

vol l no 2

EPW
EPW

Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

western countries about the role that those governments played in facilitating the rise of the mujahideen, along with the Gulf states through the best part of the 1980s. That this acknowledgement has facilitated a whitewashing of the cynical interventions of the Empire is, of course, not to be understated. Indeed taking such “admissions” at face value means acquiescing to the dominant nar- rative in which the forces of (Western) “civilisation” are clearly lined up against the “barbarians” (that they helped create not so long ago). Yet in Pakistan the level of obfusca- tion is still higher. While some space has been garnered by dissidents in the intel- lectual mainstream to generate a modi- cum of debate about the state, ideology and right-wing militancy, politically there is virtually no acknowledgement of historic state policy, the fact that reli- gion remains the primary source of political legitimacy, and specificities such as the use of jihadi proxies as a foreign policy instrument. The Peshawar attack precipitated an outpouring of public sen- timent and demands for action against “terrorists”, but an historical account of who the terrorists are, and how they have acquired influence in society over time, remain matters about which very little public debate takes place.

Democracy under Siege

Indeed, the tired refrain about such events being the handiwork of a “foreign hand” continues to find space within Pakistani society, due in no small way to the distortions peddled by media an- chors, pro-establishment writers, as well as status quo politicians. Even those who would otherwise be suspicious of such insularity have been inclined, in the immediate aftermath of the Peshawar attack, to assent to a series of steps that have strengthened the security estab- lishment at the expense of the perenni- ally weak political class. First, there was a resounding call for an intensification of military operations ongoing in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The lat- est phase of military actions began in the summer of 2014 under the guise of Oper- ation Zarb-e-Azb – the principal target

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
EPW

january 10, 2015

were “terrorist sanctuaries” in the North Waziristan territory associated with the so-called Haqqani network against which Washington had been demanding un- equivocal action for the past couple of years. Such operations have been ever- present since 2001, but there has been no appreciable decline in the scope and breadth of “terrorist” attacks in the country. Yet the circular logic that underlies the militarism of the contemporary state – that the security of its citizens requires concentration of power within its mili- tary and intelligence branches – contin- ues to circulate within society; progres- sives who dare to criticise the false binary between the “good” state and the “evil” terrorists are simply decried “Taliban sympathisers”. Thus even while the Peshawar attack reflected the utter fail- ure of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the combi- nation of grief and alarmism generated by the attack precipitated calls, from “civil society” up to the prime minister, to support military action against the “terrorists” at all costs. Second, following the attack, the president immediately announced a moratorium on the death penalty so as to facilitate the execution of a number of high-profile “terrorists” captive in Paki- stani jails. Once again the decision was greeted with what appeared to be popu- lar fanfare, and while to date only a dozen or so of the hundreds on death row have been sent to the gallows, the decision to fast-track executions is indicative of the trend towards centralisation of power by the security apparatus. The third and most significant initia- tive in this regard is the proposal to establish military tribunals that would effectively supersede the civilian judi- cial apparatus. The latter admittedly still resembles a colonial, anti-people set of institutions and processes, and there is no gainsaying that this civilian appa- ratus is as reactionary as any other frac- tion in the power game. Yet the possible acquiescing of mainstream parties and “civil society” to the creation of military courts – and that too by amending the constitution – would potentially herald the surrender of basic civil liberties, which established legal institutions do at least guarantee, even if only in name. In

vol l no 2

short, military courts would be the first step in a slide towards dictatorship.

Contradiction or Compromise?

While the Nawaz Sharif regime is cur- rently spearheading the “all power to the military” campaign, events preceding the Peshawar attack seemed to suggest that contradictions between the elected gov- ernment and General Headquarters (GHQ) had in fact grown increasingly acute. The four-month long dharna by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-In- saf (PTI) – with the Canada-based “mod- erate” cleric Tahir ul Qadri featuring as sidekick – was perceived by most sea- soned observers to be an army-backed arm-twisting exercise with the objective being to remind the prime minister that fundamental policy decisions required the assent of the generals. Attempts by the executive to exercise autonomy from the military have, of course, always been met with scorn and sanction by the GHQ. It is arguably in the realm of foreign policy that the generals are most un- yielding. As noted above, the political economy of contemporary jihadism has its roots in the policy of “strategic depth” – one possible explanation for the gener- als’ decision to cut the Sharif govern- ment down to size is that the latter had been making noises about realigning re- lations with neighbours, and particularly India and Afghanistan. There has been much talk in recent times about the im- pact of the “drawdown” of American troops in Afghanistan, and there can be little doubt that Pakistan’s military es- tablishment was, and is, keen to be the primary negotiator in this regard – both inside the country and outside of it. I will return below to the matter of regional geopolitics, but it is suffice to say that the prime minister was seen by the generals as unpredictable and generally untrustworthy. As the Imran Khan-led dharna dragged on for weeks and then months, the sense that the prime minis- ter was on the retreat became palpable. It appeared as if the generals had gotten the message across, and Nawaz Sharif – who made his name as a protégé of argu- ably Pakistan’s most brutal military ruler, Zia ul Haq – had been reminded that it is not wise to bite the hand that feeds you.

11

COMMENTARY

To be sure, the civil-military divide remains one of the most prominent faultlines in the polity. Traditionally, elected governments come into office on the basis of an implicit compromise with the men in khaki, yet contradictions have historically emerged sooner or later. Other institutional interests, including those of the judiciary, have become more significant in recent years, whilst the television media has also come to play an enhanced role in the power game, but the fundamental antagonism between democratic political forces and the military establishment has yet to be displaced. The nature and intensity of contradic- tion varies, not insignificantly, across political parties. So while in the current conjuncture the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) has surrendered much of its initiative to the generals, it has not paid anything like the price incurred by the Awami National Party (ANP), which ran the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government between 2008-13. Dur- ing this time hundreds of ANP workers and leaders were killed in terrorist attacks, many of which were perceived to be implicitly sanctioned by the generals. More generally, the civil-military fault line in Pakistan must be understood in relation to the ethnic-national question; the predominantly Punjabi military establishment has historically enjoyed a much more consensual relationship with Punjab-centric political forces like the PML, in contrast to parties whose primary sources of support are derived from Sindh, Balochistan and KP. That even Punjab-based mainstream parties have developed contradictions with the military establishment indicate just how haggard the Pakistani struc- ture of power has become.

Peace as Pipe Dream

This relative breakdown in the hege- monic order will not, however, precipi- tate a decisive shift on the part of the military establishment away from the patronage of the religious right. Indeed the rot goes much deeper than just the instrumental use of militant proxies; the military retains a belief that it is not only the guardian of Pakistan’s

12

physical borders but also its “ideological frontiers”:

The military-state relation conceptualises a dialectical relationship between Islam, Pakistan and the military. Without Islam, Pakistan would not have been able to come into existence; without Pakistan the mili- tary would not be able to exist; and without the military, Islam and Pakistan would be threatened (Hussain 1979: 133).

Relatedly, Islam remains the source of legitimacy in politics more generally. Neither the compromises that main- stream political forces make with the military nor their meek acceptance of an Islamised political discourse will give way to a democratic and secular mode of political operation all that soon. There is the further matter of regional geopolitics, and particularly the role that big powers such as the US and China con- tinue to play in impeding democratic de- velopment in Pakistan. Until quite recently Washington was perceived to be exerting a great deal of pressure on the Pakistani mil- itary but in recent times censure has been far less common. In fact the American mil- itary establishment has warmed consider- ably to its Pakistani counterpart, and there are indications that some mutually agree- able power-sharing arrangement has been agreed between Pakistan’s generals, Wash- ington and the recently installed Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul. How long the back-slapping will persist is impossible to ascertain – in any case there is little chance that the innumerable militant factions that exist across both sides of the Afghanistan- Pakistan border will all magically make a commitment to an enduring peace. Add to this the fact that China is the single biggest investor of capital in the country, that the Russian military has recently emerged as yet one more benefactor of Pakistani gen- erals, not to mention the long-standing cultural, political and economic influence of the Gulf kingdoms, and it becomes ap- parent that the latest phase of the Great Game will be no less cynical and socially destructive than all previous ones. In short, the steady brutalisation of Pakistani society over the past few dec- ades is unlikely to be arrested in the im- mediate future. To be sure, the politics of hate peddled by the religious right and its establishment backers is not only a function of regional geopolitics. Over a

period of at least four decades, the right has established sociological roots in dif- ferent parts of the country, not least of all in Punjab, which has till now re- mained largely insulated from the destructive impacts of millenarianism. Whether or not the Punjabi heartland will remain relatively peaceful is diffi- cult to predict; in any case substantive change in the medium to long run will entail a recognition of deep-seated social and ideological divides, and not insignificant conflict as a corollary.

In Conclusion

In closing I want to draw attention to the hypothesis that the military institution itself may be deeply divided on how to deal with the Frankenstein that it has spawned. There has, for example, been conjecture on the use of proxies by Paki- stani intelligence agencies against one another’s political clients. It is also feasi- ble that some amongst the top brass recognise the dangers of continuing to pursue a policy that has clearly had a serious “blowback” effect. Without rejecting the anecdotal evi- dence, I would like to suggest that the military institution remains the most coherent in Pakistan, and while fragmen- tation of the formal state is a fact to which observers need to remain alive, I do not think that there is any fundamen- tal disagreement within the ranks, in re- lation both to the military’s “exceptional” position within the polity, and traditional security concerns, including relations with Pakistan’s immediate neighbours. The democratisation of Pakistani state and society remains the concern of popu- lar forces, as it always has been. The forc- es of reaction, at the heart of state institu- tions, and the trenches of society, will not easily relinquish the cultural, economic and political power that they have wilfully acquired over the past many decades.

References

Amin, Samir (2007): “Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism”, Monthly Review, New York, 59.7: 1. Haqqani, H (2005): “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military”, Carnegie Endowment for Inter- national Peace, Washington. Hussain, A (1979): “Elite Politics in an Ideo- logical State: The Case of Pakistan” (Dawson:

Folkestone).

january 10, 2015

vol l no 2

EPW
EPW

Economic & Political Weekly