On February 17, 2009, American news outlets took a minute from their seemingly unending sob saga over the economic crisis to ponder a different development. The deal between the leader of Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi, Sufi Muhammad, and the NWFP government was cast uniformly as a sign of Islamabad surrendering to the Taliban.
One commentator in the Weekly Standard called it “a terrible deal”, bound to fail like the 2006 deal between the Musharraf administration and Maulvi Nek Muhammad. Others raised concerns about how the deal would allow the Taliban to regroup and re-arm, enabling a territorial expansion of their control.
However, while Western analysts are quick to voice their fears about the Pakistani government’s ceding of sovereignty to the Taliban, there is unfortunately little mention of that “other” onslaught on the writ of the Pakistani state.
A few days before the agreement, the new head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dianne Feinstein, revealed that American drones responsible for attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban were being flown from Pakistani airbases. The resulting uproar about that impingement on Pakistani dominion to enable American military strategy in Afghanistan and the tribal areas continues to be ignored.
With these competing claims on its power, the fledgling government in Islamabad finds itself in the curious position of creating room for strategic manoeuvring between two competing forces, both of which may be working against the interests of the Pakistani state.
It is no revelation that the drone attacks on Pakistani territory and the inevitable loss of life get little attention in the US. The political detritus of civilian deaths, of lost infrastructure and general disapprobation faced by Islamabad in the wake of these attacks garners little sympathy from Washington. Despite the changing of the guard in Washington, there is unceasing support for drone strikes regardless of their political cost. The American argument for the necessity of drone attacks is based on the premise that a military strategy must be the ultimate tool for disbanding the Taliban and uprooting Al Qaeda: as more leaders are killed by these drone strikes, more damage is done to the group’s capabilities, leading to a military victory.
The strategy to agree to a peace deal between Sufi Muhammad of the TNSM is a markedly different one from the drone approach, and is based on a calculated gamble which posits that if the Taliban are handed control of the area, the consequent repression they will impose on the people will automatically turn public opinion against them.
In other words, if the anti-state force, one that has ruthlessly been destroying schools, ravaging the economy and attacking state installations, is itself made the state, then its power to subvert the state is automatically neutralised. Thus the decision to impose sharia thus has little to do with the substantive issue of Islamic law and more to do with the strategic interests of the Pakistani state in fighting an anti-state actor that uses a religious platform to foment support.
The strategy is based on the following assumption: First, the Tehreek-e Taliban and affiliated groups do not have any history or experience in either institution or state building. Their prowess lies in destruction and their critique is based on a vitriolic hatred of a way of life that they see as inherently corrupt. Even while asking for the implementation of sharia, they have no scholarly prowess that would allow them to enable any sort of legal discourse. This was substantiated by their spokesperson who, in a recent interview to Aaj Television in the wake of the deal, was unable to name any specific law or ordinance that would be changed or imposed under the auspices of the Nizam-e Adl legislation.
This means that the only way they can enforce what they consider sharia (and let’s remember that a majority of their leadership is illiterate) is through terror and brute force. The use of such tactics, while it may accomplish the immediate purpose of enforcing their barbaric code, is likely to have a huge political cost, alienating the locals who will then see them as the culprit instead of the Pakistani state. Providing them with limited state power thus effectively turns the group’s anarchist anti-state rhetoric against itself.
Second, this deal has a cost not only for the Pakistani state but also for the Taliban. It is undoubted that highly radicalised elements within the TTP and the TNSM are opposed to reaching any agreement with the state. By empowering those that do want to make deals, internal dissension between the TTP and their compatriots can be increased with the intent of reducing their organisational strength and undermining their support base.
Thus the calculated ceding of control could produce the political victory that is impossible to achieve through military means. However, the possibility of success should not be mistaken for its potential likelihood. Regardless of whether the gamble pays off or not, the terrible cost that the population of Swat and Malakand will pay even in the likelihood of its success is terrible and unfortunate. An already terrorised population will likely suffer more to realise that the utopia that the Taliban promise will never become reality.
If it fails, of course, then all of Pakistan may soon become enveloped in a terrifying experiment where the rule of law and the definition of faith are defined by an illiterate and bloodthirsty band of marauders.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced by permission of the author and Daily Times