Wednesday, October 15, 2008

War Is Peace. Black Is White. Up Is Down.

Sometimes having a little distance from a phenomenon allows you to see it that much more clearly. For me, the significance of the debate in Pakistan on whether or not the war against the Taliban and their local affiliates is "our war" has only recently been brought into focus, when I stopped thinking about it for a while, and that significance is this: in Pakistan, what should be, is reversed.

For one thing, it's quite funny - or ironic - when you think about the fact that in Pakistan, it is the political and social right that is anti-war. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the country's second largest party, and one that sits in opposition, did not even bother to attend an all-important parliamentary hearing on the war. If that signal was not loud and clear enough for some, PML-N spokesperson Ahsan Iqbal made explicit the party's stand, and called for an end to the military operation in the tribal (and formerly settled) areas in the northwest of the country, adding a fairly bizarre and nonsensical claim for good measure, saying that "A state institution does not represent the whole government." As an aspiring political scientist, I have to tell you: that last one had me scratching my head for a bit.

The PML-N is hardly the lone voice for peace. The increasingly irrelevant Qazi Hussain Ahmed, and the always irrelevant Imran Khan, have long voiced their displeasure at the country's strategy to tackle militancy. The leader of the JI simply wants to know the answer to one question: why have the country's "rulers shut their eyes to the fact that military operation is not a solution to the problem?" The Great Khan, meanwhile, muses that we find ourselves in the pickle we're in because we "joined someone else's war and made it into our war" and that to solve the problem, he "would hold dialogue with the tribes and get them on my side" (newsflash: already happening, that too for a while) and that he "would never use my own army against my own people" - without ever delineating the contours of "my own people".

It is not my intention to question the sagacity of these pronouncements here; regular readers know exactly what I think about these issues. What does interest me, and I think is worthy of comment, is the extent to which this situation is unprecedented. I cannot, off the top of my head, recall a situation in any other country where the right is fervently anti-war when the country in question is fighting one. I'm sure our readers will be able to provide a handful of counterexamples that might make the status quo in Pakistan less of an empirical sore thumb, but the general point stands: what a bizarre world we live in where the right and hard right are locked in a mutual embrace, holding tightly the notions of peace and dialogue as if it were a child set to embark on her first day of school.

That, however, is merely one half of this Alice-in-Wonderland-type puzzle. The second half is the tepid support amongst the population of Pakistan for fighting this war. It is almost universally acknowledged as some variant of "America's war"; it is conceived of as the result of Busharraf simply agreeing to do his superpower patron's bidding, or dirty work, and is thought to have little practical benefit for the state and people of Pakistan. This feeling is so pervasive that the employment of cold hard data seems almost superfluous, but I will provide it nonetheless. Though public opinion polling in Pakistan is beset with any number of issues, these numbers should be instructive, not to mention uncontroversial. Less than one-half of Pakistanis think that the Taliban and al-Qaeda operating in the country is a problem for Pakistan. Less than one in three support the Army fighting the war at all; when the introduction of the poisonous "U.S." term is made into the question, the percentage of those supporting the war plummets to fifteen. To be perfectly honest, given anecodotal evidence, those numbers seem high to me, but we'll accept them for the time being.

What's puzzling to me is the complete absence of the rally-round-the-flag-effect in Pakistan. In most countries, when the state fights a war, it receives swathes of support almost immediately. Even if it is a civil or intra-state conflict - and thus necessarily involving contestation of ownership of the state or government - one still normally sees entire sections of the population behind the war effort. Support may die out if the war goes sour - Vietnam being the canonical example here - but at least at the beginning of the conflict, the government receives some sort of support from some sections of the population. That simply never happened in Pakistan. Why not?

One should note, if one is reading carefully, that I am not advocating blind support of the state as it goes about its merry military adventures. But I am curious as to why we did not see it - the blind support - in this case. Mine is an empirical question, not a normative one. It is especially vexing becaus, historically, Pakistani politicians and publics have not been averse to fighting wars or being generally militaristic, both against enemies (India) and "our people" (Bengalis). We're the same country, after all, that had people dancing on the streets and distributing mathai when we tested nuclear weapons (although all of those celebrations pale in comparison to this beautiful 70-second video, which I strongly urge you to watch).

So this is where we find ourselves today: the conservative and right-wing parties ardently support peace. A population historically welcoming of conflict is averse to using its military in a war. Up is down. Black is white. War is peace.

Somewhere, Orwell is smiling.


Rabia said...

it's not surprising at all, yaar. The state has never fought a war against Islam before. I guess it's a little like a much larger version of Jordan's Black September or maybe a better comparison would be Hafez Al-Assad's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood which I doubt the right-wing supported!

Ahsan said...


Well I would suggest that there is a massive difference between the Brotherhood and the Taliban: one is/was largely home-grown and organic, and the other is largely imported and more of an alliance than an organization. All the same, it just struck me as weird.

AKS said...

@ Ahsan

I'll be honest, I've had to read the post a few times now, and still don't really have much to say, primarily because I don't get it. It's not that I don't understand what you're saying, I do. I honestly don't understand this country. I think at times we, at least I, really underestimate how weird and unpredictable this country can be.

I've been thinking about this post for a while and honestly, my mind's a mess. I want to talk about the overlapping identities and imposition of new ones (by Saudi assfucks) but can't string together a coherent sentence. Thanks Ahsan.

@ Rabia and Ahsan

While I agree that the Muslim Brotherhood and Taliban are two very different animals. The difference in my view lies in that the Brotherhood was much more entrenched in Egyptian society and participated in the state's political discourse.

The Taliban are not active participants in the politics of the state.

I however think the statement the Taliban are 'largely imported' requires some elaboration.

As far as the state is concerned, the Taliban are an imported element. But the people in the border regions identify less with the state than they do with the tribe, and within that framework, the Taliban are not entirely imported.

rabia said...

Ahsan & AKS,
Sorry in advance if this comment sounds really scattered:

I wasn't really comparing the MB with the Taliban -- I agree that they are very different. What I was getting at was that it's a similar situation in that there's been a pretty significant break between the religious right wing's agenda and that of the army.

I mean, it's pretty interesting if you think about it -- the PML-N and JI standing up to the army! (for all the "wrong" reasons, of course, from the perspective of the liberals).

Ahsan said...

By the way, I'm no expert on the MB in Egypt so please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think they ever waged a full blown insurgent war on the state and its people the way the Taliban have in Pakistan. Ultimately, that was one of the curious things I tried to deal with in my post: the fact that Pakistanis refuse to want to fight a group that has waged war against them.

Rabia said...

ahsan, I was talking about the MB in Syria, not Egypt. I should've made that clearer. Basically in the 70s and 80s there were a bunch of conflicts between the government and the MB and in the 80s they even took over a city which the government then bombed the hell out of, apparently killing like 20,000 people.

Ahsan said...

Haan, I remember reading about that massacre. Leveled a city apparently.

shariq said...

I heard a conspiracy theory from an uncle that the Pakistani Taliban is actually an American front. That they want to destabilise Pakistan so they can get hold of the nuclear weapons.

Also I think the fact they don't explicitly say that they are fighting Pakistan makes a difference as does people seeing FATA villagers rather than Al-Qaeda miscellaneous.

I'm not sure if what I've said is normative rather than empirical but that's all i can come up with for now.

the hum said...

View from a corner of Toronto, Canada...
Although I've travelled in Pakistan (Af/Iran/India)
and studied your regional politics closely, I do not understand how your people or your state can tolerate the level of warfare waged in your streets and villages.
From this distance it sounds as if the people are constantly goaded to paranoia toward India and Afghanistan, which justifies the backing of 'patriots'/terrorists in other people's countries, justifies their genocidal and suicidal creed, and perhaps therefore stymies a national disgust with the 'patriots'/terrorists among you.
Never mind the Americans, you have killers walking your streets and preaching in your mosques.

Rabia said...

the hum,
sounds like you have it all figured out then right? We're all nuts.

NB said...

They way to make it fit something more conventional would be to say that the conservative and right-wing parties support those who seek confrontation with the US.

Ahsan said...


A couple of points. First, as you well know, your point wouldn't have stood in the mid and late 80s. Secondly, and here's the key point for me: WE'RE FIGHTING A WAR. I mean, that's crazy, right? We're fighting a war, and right leaning parties aren't behind it. I just find that insane.

Shirazi said...

So true. BTW, your title is very attention grabbing, particularly in slow economic times likke this.

karachi khatmal said...

no one is mentioning that by this conjecture the "left" is pro-war. guess what it can translate into is that the "left" is even further to the right on war issues than the right itself. or the fact that right and left are just misnomers we choose to differentiate ourselves from one another. in my limited experience, pakistan doesn't really have anyone on the left. but its not just us, most of the world seems to have this issue as well. the "new left" would probably be anti-war, green, and welfare democracy types.

but we must also realise that while war with the taliban seems to be the only sensible option right now, we are also fighting a war for the identity of our country. and that is perhaps far more to the "right" than any of us would be conventionally comfortable with.