Friday, July 04, 2008

As Long As We've Decided To Post Articles From Vanity Fair

I came across this piece a couple of days ago. It's a feature-length piece on the security situation in Pakistan, with particular reference to the Taliban in NWFP, Balochistan, and FATA, not to mention major urban areas like Karachi. Though it is a touch outlandish and over-the-top at times, I highly encourage you read it. In particular, watch out for parts like this, where the writer's driver muses who could be behind the wave of militant violence in the country:
He, like many people here, is not sure where the endless suicide bombings are coming from, but he is sure they are coming from somewhere we least expect: “It’s too easy to say it’s the jihadis. The Secret Service, the government, the C.I.A.—who knows?”
What? No, really...what? Alternatively, you could check out this part, where the writer interviews a man whose son has been badly injured in a bombing:
Elsewhere, Syed Zamir Hasan stands near his 22-year-old son, Syed Ashad, who has shrapnel wounds in his chest from another bombing in a different part of the tribal belt. The father has no idea who was responsible. He moves his son’s arm and makes him expose the bloody wound. The son grimaces in pain.

“People give shelter to the Taliban. That’s all they do,” the father explains. “Because they are afraid. Because of that, they get bombed.” But who is behind the attacks, the military or the jihadists? The man smiles, confused.

You know what confuses me? The source of all this confusion. Seriously. Why are they confused? Why do they shrug their shoulders and say "who knows?" when asked about which organization - the Taliban or the CIA - is carrying out bombings in Pakistan's tribal areas, settled districts, and urban centers?

The contributors of this blog have often poked fun at conspiracy theories and those who hold them dear, but this is getting ridiculous. We are getting to the point where conspiracy theories are actually harming the national security of the state. Why? Because all insurgent organizations - which is what the Taliban is currently functioning as - need the support of the local population to survive and thrive. Mao likened insurgents to fish, and the local population the sea, leading anti-insurgent commanders around the world to conclude that if you can't catch the fish, you have to drain the sea (a thought process that can lead to things like a few hundred thousand Guatemalans dying).

Macabre metaphors notwithstanding, the point remains that the Taliban simply could not be successful if they did not receive the support of the local population - either through positive inducements ("carrots") like quick justice when law and order breaks down, or through fear and intimidation ("sticks"), such as when they threaten truck drivers or kill "spies" in public for "cooperating with the infidels and apostates". An important point, though, is that it is significantly easier for the Taliban to maintain relative popularity if the victims of their violence don't even identify them as the perpetrators.

People like the driver quoted above are perpetuating Taliban power in two important ways, then: first, they are echoing the narrative of the Taliban, which is that they (the Taliban) are not too blame for the violence prevalent in the country, and that responsibility exclusively lies elsewhere, in the form of AAA: the Americans, the Army, and the agencies. Second, and more instrumentally, the people like the driver perpetuate Taliban power by not identifying, let alone condemning, violence from the Taliban, and thus allowing them more local support than they would have under alternate circumstances.

On that happy note, bon weekend.


Riaz Haq said...

I think it's the fear of the Taliban, not the conspiracy theories, that motivates them to look and act confused. These people are caught between the rock and a hard place. They know the security forces usually leave after an "operation" but the Taliban always come back with the potential to harm any one perceived as "collaborator".

Ahsan said...


I take your general point (that fear precludes citizens from taking on the Taliban) but what is stopping them from merely *identifying* the Taliban as the perpetrators of attacks to a reporter? Even if they do it anonymously?

I think the driver's quote is more revealing here than the distraught father's: he simply thinks something other than the obvious must be going on. "It’s too easy to say it’s the jihadis." That quote, in particular, stems from our (Pakistanis') love for conspiracy theories. In general, I have found in my arguments with Pakistanis of all ethnicities, shapes, and sizes, that what is plainly true cannot be regarded as plainly true because it's too plain.

Anonymous said...

You really are oversimplifying if you think that the people of the tribal areas are blaming the Army, the US (and the NATO occupation of Afghanistan), and the FATA system of government as a way to deflect the blame. These are not conspiracy theories but the root cause of the problems in the tribal areas. I'm not saying you're a neo-conservative, but this is such a neo-con argument to selectively ignore the history of a region and just conclude that a population is crazy to do what it does and to preach to them in a schoolmarmish way that they REALLY NEED to change their attitude without providing any particular reason for them to do so. Have you seen any pictures of Wana after "Operation Zalzala"? If I lived in a place like that, saving the urban residents of Pakistan from suicide bombings would be very low down on my list of priorities of things to care about.

Ahsan said...


Well, thank the heavens for me not being a neo-con.

I'm not saying they should be concerned with saving the urban residents of Pakistan from suicide bombings. They can want whatever they want, so to speak, including killing or saving everyone in the world. I am not concerned, for the purposes of the argument, with their preferences.

My only point is that it is clear as day that it is the Taliban organization that is perpetrating the militant violence in the country. Note, I am not saying anything about whether it is "justified" or not, which is what you seem to be talking about.

I am only saying that they - the Taliban - are the ones doing it. If you go back and read the quotes, the people in the story are not talking about justification of the act, but the act itself. They *actually* believe that the agencies or someone else is perpetrating the acts. Whether or not they think it's ok, or justified, or whether or not they give a crap about the lives of Pakistan citizens, is all irrelevant to the matter at hand: whether or not they think the Taliban are actually the ones planning and executing the bombings across the country.

Anonymous said...

"I am not concerned, for the purposes of the argument, with their preferences."

On the contrary, your entire argument is concerned with their "preference" to implicitly support the militants by not admitting to a member of the Western press that they hold them responsible for the suicide attacks.

Your argument seems to be that this implicit support is due to an addiction on their part to conspiracy theories. Extending this argument by adding the Mao sea and fish analogy, you conclude that an insurgency can only survive if the local population supports it, therefore this addiction to conspiracy theories, by allowing the local population to support the Taliban, is perpetuating the Taliban and threatening the national security of Pakistan.

My point was that this chain of reasoning completely ignores the rather pressing security concerns (due to the threat of NATO and the Pakistan Army) of the people of the tribal areas, which, along with Riaz Haq's point above, makes them unwilling to stand up and condemn the Taliban militants. By ignoring these pressing security concerns (and why wouldn't you, this blog has advocated the Pakistan Army's use of force in the tribal areas and has suggested Obama's hardline policy towards the tribal areas), you are making a deliberately misleading argument.

Anonymous said...

and I apologize for the neo-con jibe. I just find the parallels between the urban Pakistani people's attitude towards the tribal areas to be amazingly similar to the attitude of the proponents of the Iraq war in the US towards the Iraqis.

Ahsan said...


Alright, let's try again. I think the difference between our positions is slight yet important. I just want to highlight these differences as I understand them.

I concede readily that the people in the tribal areas have security concerns stemming from organizations other the Taliban. Furthermore, I concede readily that there is nothing "wrong" with the people of the tribal areas concluding that their security concerns are best served by siding with the Taliban against the twin threats of NATO and the Pakistan Army - this position, by the way, distinguishes me from neo-cons, who couldn't fathom that Iraqis may well prefer to live under home-grown totalitarian rule than foreign-imposed-and-conducted "democracy".

In other words, nowhere do I say that the local population *shouldn't* support the Taliban. They can support whoever they want - as I said, I am not interested in their preferences *per se*.

My argument is only that a proclivity for conspiracy theorizing, or assuming that what is obvious cannot be true only because it is obvious, among various Pakistanis has led the Taliban to garner greater support than they would have attained absent this condition. This is obviously not the *primary* source of their support - as you say, geopolitical history matters more than psychological biases, but it is a source nonetheless.

Consider the case of the driver. His argument is not that the Taliban are *right* to be bombing targets in the face of the threat from NATO and the Pakistan Army, or even that he supports them in their quest, but that the Taliban are simply *not responsible*. There is a crucial difference here. Taken to the extreme, the distinction here mirrors the distinction between the following two positions:

1. al-Qaeda was justified in their attacks on 9/11 because of the US' policies and conduct around the world.

2. 9/11 was an inside job; al-Qaeda wasn't even involved.

The second is a statement of what happened, the first is a statement of why. Again, to reiterate, I am not interested - for the purposes of this post - why the Taliban do what they do, why the local population would support them. I am more interested in whether or not the local population even *knows* or *understands* that the Taliban is conducting these attacks, and how their lack of acknowledgment or understanding leads to greater support for the Taliban than would exist without the endless conspiracy theories.

I think the distinction between our positions can be highlighted if you answer these yes-or-no questions:

1. Do you think the Taliban is the primary organization involved in the militancy in Pakistan?

2. Do you think the local population understands the physical, not moral, difference between a Taliban suicide attack and a missile fired from a pilotless drone or a raid conducted by the Pakistan military? In other words, do you think that the local population in FATA can ascribe to the Taliban the execution of a suicide bombings, the way journalists and policymakers do?

My answers to the above questions are yes and no, respectively. What are yours? I think this should clear things up considerably.

NB said...

@ Anon

Not to open up another can of worms, but your incorrect to assert that we "suggested Obama's hardline policy towards the tribal areas".

I said the 'hard end' of existing American policy (regarding strikes in Pakistan) could well be more *overt* under Obama, but that increased bluntness would not make said policy 'harder' in substance.

You can read the post here.

Anonymous said...

"My argument is only that a proclivity for conspiracy theorizing,[...] has led the Taliban to garner greater support than they would have attained absent this condition."

The main problem with your post is that you're overstating the role of a proclivity for conspiracy theorizing as a cause of the support of the Taliban. The way I see it, it's simply a side effect. People are less willing to attribute blame to groups they are generally sympathetic with.

In general, I have very little patience with arguments like "The Muslim world as a whole loves conspiracy theories" etc. If it weren't publicly admitted by the US government would you believe a crazy story that there were CIA agents running around Afghanistan in the 80s giving out Stinger missiles to the likes of Hekmatyar? That kind of stuff just doesn't happen in the domestic politics of Minnesota or something. So it is much more difficult to attribute accurate causation to events in places like the NWFP. So I guess in a sense you are right, and it is more difficult for people in Pakistan to understand who is behind what and provide definitive answers. But do you really think this is a cause for the support of the Taliban? If there weren't already an existing sympathy for the Taliban, its supporters would be quick to blame them for everything.

Here's my answer to your questions:
1. Not entirely. Sorry if I sound like a conspiracy theorist but I am positive that they have some support from significant elements within the Pakistan Army, ISI and politicians like Ijaz ul Haq. Also, I don't think that the Pakistani Taliban is one centralized organization.

2. I'm not sure. Probably, in most cases, but not always in high profile cases like the attack on Benazir.

Ahsan said...

Actually, I think this is a point I can readily concede, and not one that you made earlier, I don't think - the point that there could be an endogeneity problem with my argument, and that people could indulge in conspiracy theories *because* they support the Taliban, not the other way around. Or it could be similar to the democracy-economic growth relationship: mutually causal.

AKS said...

@ anon

Ahsan and NB seem to have covered most of what I would have liked to say. But I do have some thoughts on two particular statements that you make:

1. "People are less willing to attribute blame to groups they are generally sympathetic with."

But there are tons of people, urbane and educated who are not at all sympathetic towards the Taliban but would not attribute blame on the Taliban.

Case in Point: A highly educated 'liberal' telling me that the Army burnt down the ski resort at Malam Jabba and blamed it on the Taliban so that they could then initiate an offensive against the Taliban at America's behest.

2. "In general, I have very little patience with arguments like "The Muslim world as a whole loves conspiracy theories" etc."

I would like to agree with you but I've started having doubts. I obviously can't speak about the 'Muslim World' (surely that in itself is a gross generalisation, which overlooks the divergent cultural foundations of different Muslim countries) but I can talk about Pakistan where I've lived pretty much all my life. And I've got to tell you, Pakistanis love conspiracy theories.

Case in Point: A couple of weeks ago I was waiting outside a court. A court clerk was reading the newspaper aloud and a bunch of people were listening. He read a story about Edhi offering to feed 10,000 people per day (figure could've been 100,000 - I can't remember). Upon hearing this one of the listeners inquired how it was possible for Edhi to do so? Following this a 10 min discussion ensued regarding the source of Edhi's funds and who Edhi was working for. The Americans, ISI, Army, UN (!!!) were all considered as serious possibilities.

As Ahsan put it: admittedly there are few people in Pakistan beyond reproach, but surely Edhi is one of them.

Well, apparently not. So I don't know what to say to you. I'd like all those 'western oriental ideas' to be based in fantasy but I feel that sometimes they just aren't.