Jun 022008

What does Pakistan represent to the militants in the borderlands? At best, a somewhat alien potential ally; certainly not ‘home’ or ‘their government’, or even ‘someone else’s government’

Here’s a question to ponder: which areas of Pakistan are the most ‘radical’ at this moment? Where is producing the largest number of ranting clerics and Kalashnikov-waving angry young men (and women)? I have been requested by a foreign NGO to ask around and come up with some ideas. My initial reaction? Swat. Swat and the frontier zone in general.

Some I have spoken to about this have cited the sink-like pull of Karachi, where anything goes and nobody is noticed. As with ports everywhere, the city seems to have bred a sense of transience and anonymity, as well as myriad hiding places for those who wish to hide — for now. But recent violence does seem to point to the western borders as the place to be seen for today’s up-and-dying young would-be bomber.

So confident, indeed, is major militant leader Baitullah Mehsud following his moves towards a deal with the Pakistani government that last week, he organised a press conference at one of his mountain ‘hideaways’.

The BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan was there, and interviewed Mehsud. I would not be surprised if Hasan has since received death threats, not from extremist types, but from fellow journalists; I cannot think of a more exciting career high.

It will have been all the more of a scoop for the selected journalists invited by Mehsud because he is characteristically such a recluse. On this occasion he even allowed photographs of the side of his head to be taken, a vast improvement on the usual all-enveloping pile of cloth that the outside world knows as Baitullah.

During Hasan’s interview, there was one point at which the sparse audio highlights broadcast by the BBC came to life. Would Mehsud consider peace in Afghanistan, as he had in Pakistan?

The answer was beautiful, and must have delighted the BBC bosses: a slow, reedy, wheezy laugh emerged from the silence. Nothing more, just a chuckle at the absurdity of the very thought. This, I think, is what Mehsud intended in inviting western journalists to interview him: to make sure that his answer to this crucial question wasn’t dubbed for the English-speaking audience; that it was his own voice that assured the west that this is not the end, in language that all human beings understand. It was haunting, I can tell you.

Mehsud has said from the start that his ceasefire applies only in Pakistan. Herein lies an odd problem with regional peace efforts in which Pakistan is involved: what does Pakistan represent to the militants in the borderlands? At best, a somewhat alien potential ally; certainly not ‘home’ or ‘their government’, or even ‘someone else’s government’. Pakistan is far too easily seen as one of those ‘yoked together’ countries, encompassing terrains and peoples who would not otherwise have much to do with each other; and thus adequately representing no one except themselves.

To those on the fringes, this presents an interesting scenario. The Pakistani government does not, I would imagine, seem associated with any particular people or even nationality in the wider sense of the word to those in the country’s farther reaches. Thus, devoid of any other identity, the only thing left for militants to pin the idea of this government to is ideology: are they ‘us’ or ‘them’, the west?

This leaves the government in the difficult position of being diametrically opposed in the mindset of Mehsud and others to the ‘western-run’ government in Afghanistan, the alternative being to be seen as the enemy; thus they will lose the peace deal if they seem too friendly with either the Afghan government or the west. No wonder the borders are the site of trouble — the peace deal may well have made the area even more contentious than before. The ‘enemy other’ there has been replaced by a dubious and highly unstable form of ‘ally other’. This might turn out to be a more unstable position.

In lighter news, Urdu daily Aajkal reported last week that 32 teams have qualified for the next level of the largest inter-madrassa cricket tournament in Pakistan’s history, being held in Lahore. The players, the paper said, were keen to show that they are not extremists and are not against sports.

Reaction 1: I was right!

Reaction 2: what excellent young men these players must be. The language of cricket may still override the chuckling language of dogmatic war. I’d love to meet some of the madrassa cricketers one day; although it seems as unlikely as a Mehsud-Rumsfeld tea party.

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Courtesy: Daily Times, 2/6/2008

 Posted by at 9:35 am

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