Monday, June 01, 2009

Echoes Of Lal Masjid, As Awful Fallout Of Malakand Operation Against The Taliban Continues

While the operation against the Taliban and their local affiliates in Malakand division continues (and indeed expands, even to Waziristan), the tragic human toll of the operation continues to rise. Here's a quote from a British aid worker:

When you open the door the stench of stale breath and sweat is mixed with the heat. As it hits you, you can feel people's misery. They have lost everything and now they have to live in squalor.

In recent years, our staff have responded to several emergencies in Pakistan - from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake to the Balochistan flooding in 2007 - but nothing could have prepared them for what they see when they visit the camps and host communities where displaced families are now living in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

In some places there are up to 70 people living in one house, and 500 people sharing just two toilets. People have no other option than to defecate in the street.

You can find out where to donate here. I understand times are tough for everyone in this recession, but I promise you, times are tougher for these people, who have been left homeless and without water and electricity. Even if you're going to donate 500 rupees or 10 dollars, it can make a difference. Go on.

I want to shift my attention now to a useful analogy to this operation: the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007. Just as with the Taliban encroachment, the Pakistani government and military simply ignored a serious problem, either (a) in the hope that it would go away, or (b) in the fear that using real force would lead to a political backlash. But more importantly, just as with this operation against the Taliban, the government then forced itself into a corner by leaving itself to do more once the problem became a monstrous one rather than a mere nuisance. Eventually, when it finally took action, it entailed significantly higher humanitarian costs (over a hundred lives then, over 3 million refugees now) than would have been the case had they been proactive before. To be more concrete, if during the Lal Masjid crisis the government simply turned off the water and electricity to the mosque as soon as the Chicks with Sticks took hold of the library and the adjoining mosque, do you really think we would have ended up where we did?

The cliche of nipping a problem in the bud is apt, because nipping it in the bud is easier and less costly. I don't know why this simple truth continues to evade our leadership. It is a lot easier (almost always) to defend held territory than overturn the status quo. If the Pakistani government had stood behind the Pakistani people of Swat and Buner before the Taliban moved in rather than after, the fallout would have been considerably less severe. I know I've made this point before, but I wish to repeat it here because it really is crucial: this humanitarian crisis could have been almost wholly avoided if the Pakistani leadership did not look the other way earlier on. In that respect, while the Taliban deserve an overwhelming proportion of the blame for this crisis, the Pakistan government is more than culpable itself.

It's important to understand that I am not arguing for the blanket refusal of concessions to aggrieved populations. Nothing could be further from the truth. We live in a strange world where it's liberals who are sometimes portrayed as trigger happy, so I want to be careful about delineating exactly what I think about all this.

Let us assume two actors, A and B. A is a central state, and B is an aggreived population seeking concessions (either a policy, some territory, or whatever). When B turns violent in the hope of extracting concessions from A, the latter has, broadly speaking, two options. Either grant the concessions (at no cost), or fight for the status quo (at high cost). I believe that A has to make two calculations, or ask itself two questions:

1. Is B asking for something "morally" justified?

2. Will B ask for more if we give it what it wants now?

We can basically ignore question number one, because what is moral for one actor is almost never moral for another (ask the Tamils or the Kashmiris or the Vietcong or the Balochis or the Basques or the Palestinians or indeed the Taliban). So then we move to the strategic question, that is: will this be a slippery slope of concessions, or will B be satisfied if we give it what it wants?

I think -- and I am sure I am not alone here -- that we have seen that the Taliban would ask for more, or fight for more, once you concede. The failure of the Sharia/peace deals in Swat bear testimony to this fact. But what is wholly disappointing about this is that any sane, rational observer could have told the government this beforehand. So conceding anything to the Taliban is futile, because they would run riot with their gains, rather than resting on their laurels.

Contrast this with, say, the Tamils. Of course we can not know what goes on inside the heads of various actors, but I would be willing to bet that if the Sri Lankan state had conceded to the Tamils twenty years ago, they would have been satisfied and not asked for more. Indeed, their very demands spoke to this fact: they wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the Sri Lankan state. What were the Sinhalese elite afraid of? That once they got their own state or greater autonomy, that the Tamils would move on to Colombo? I'm sorry, but I find that hard to believe.

So to reiterate, the basic question governments should ask themselves in these situations is: if we give in here, will they ask for more, or will they be satisfied? If they think the armed minority will ask for more, they should fight for the status quo. If they think they will be satisfied, they should concede.*

*We can complicate the analysis by bringing in third-parties and their potential effects on the balance of power between the actors, but I suspect you're bored enough already. For whatever it's worth, this is basically my dissertation topic (i.e. the influence of third parties on the calculations of central governments faced with armed insurrections).


Butters said...

"We can basically ignore question number one, because what is moral for one actor is almost never moral for another"Don't you think this is a non sequitur? Whether something is moral or not is a different question from whether a particular person or group thinks it's moral.

I would have understood if you had said that the first question is one that has to be asked from the Taliban, but you didn't say that. Presumably, it is a question the government must ask itself, and in that case I'm not sure why it matters whether the Taliban disagree.

Ahsan said...


Yeah, sorry for the lack of clarity. I should have said this:

We can basically ignore question one as analysts, because long-drawn discussions of what is moral and what is not is *precisely* what is being fought for (i.e. the Taliban think flogging a girl for not wearing a burqa is moral, I think the opposite). Instead, as analysts, it is more fruitful to gauge things from a purely strategic perspective.

In other words, question one is irrelevant because questions of morality will lead us right back to where we started: is this worth fighting over, or not? Question two is more useful, because it actually yields an answer, rather than the original question.

I have a feeling I'm still not being clear. Am I right?

Asfandyar said...

Your conclusion ultimately is what riles me up no end when people use the IRA or the LTTE as examples of how 'negotiations' should be used (PTI twats mostly).

The taliban will continue wanting more because their goals aren't spatial. And about a billion other relevant points i'm just not going to get into because I'm sick of all this.

Except to say how anyone hasn't been able to realize this for the past 3-4 years has to be really naive or just really stupid.

takhalus said...

nipping it in the bud reminds me of the following quote "Everything that a wise man does, an idiot also does the same,
But alas, after a lot of ruination and affliction.”

The other day i was talking to a emergency medicine pakistani doctor who was on his way with an aid mission to the middle east. I suggested he convince his group to do the same for the IDP's in which his reply was "I don't want to end up dead, you don't know what kind of people live there"..

Anonymous said...

Great read, thanks

I think an underlying assumption of your analysis here is that entity A will act in the interest of the nation to save lives and minimize loss of life. Generally I would agree that this is a safe assumption. However, in this instance, the personal interests of those ruling entity A are not aligned with the overall interests of entity A. An early move on Lal Masjid or in Swat, although in Pakistan's interests, may have caused immense civil backlash to the parties in power. This is compounded by the fragile nature of the democracy (army coup threat rises) and the historic low polls for the PPP, making unpopular moves largely unlikely.

It raises an interesting question. Namely what happens when a popular strategy is not necessarily the best strategy (or vice-versa). I would guess that in democracies, especially developing-world democracies, rulers would tend to go with popular strategies regardless of whether they are in the best interest of the country.

I think there's all kind's of interesting side issues to the general principle. In democracies, access to information, resources, general wealth, and literacy rates among other things all become important factors to aligning ruler's interests to interests of the nation as a whole.

Apologies for the scatter-brained thoughts, I'll maybe try and organize them better and comeback and re-post more succinctly.

Ahsan said...


Yeah, there needs to be a just a little bit of subtlety with these types of pronouncements -- there's no one size fits all approach. But what sort of inspired this post was the opposite mistake. After my last post on this stuff (linked above), I think an Indian reader commented on how India's response to the Kashmir insurrection was apt given my analysis. But like the Tamils, I simply don't think the Kashmiris would move to New Delhi after winning Srinagar.

Of course, the Indian leadership always has to worry about internal dominoes i.e. if we let Kashmir go, then every Tom, Dick and Harry will want to go. These are the perils of being a highly multi-national state, but sometimes leaders of these states (Russia is similar) overstate the case, I think.


Haha yes. I think it was Churchill who said of the Americans that they will do the right thing, once they've exhausted all the alternatives.


You're right about the fact that I asbtracted some details away to make the analysis manageable. I guess the underlying point would be: which of X or Y is in our best interests given this analysis?

Now, once that has been decided, then it is up to the political leadership to try to convince the public that X is in the nation's interests. I think it was Martin Luther King Jr (but I could be wrong) who said that the best leaders are the ones who try to change the temperature of the room, not just take the temperature of the room. Musharraf tried for a bit, but was then consumed by domestic troubles. Zardari never tried at all.

But I do take seriously the point that sometimes some options are so unpalatable for the public that irrespective of what leadership you exercise, the public won't fall in line. The ONLY bright spot in waiting this long to take action against the Taliban is that the public is finally (provisionally) behind the war.

Amjadia Nawaz said...

Mr. Ahsan,

Saw that you were quoted in an article in (is "in" the appropriate preposition here?) the huffington post recently. Some achievement that, not to mention the wonderfully heart-wrenching quote - you are quite the public crusader.

Well done, sir. May you garner much more of the same sort of recognition, or higher, in the not-too-distant future.

Stay thirsty, my friend.

Ahsan said...


By any chance, did you once have an awkward moment, just to know what it felt like?

Anonymous said...

Its all an American plot to move their forces into Pakistan and dismember our nuclear program.

Wait and watch.

karachi khatmal said...

i think the genuine problem with the whole scenario was that like the lal masjid, it took something truly terrible to happen for the people to get behind the government's actions.

the military option in both cases had society largely ambivalent until certain events took place - i believe the tipping points were the abduction of the chinese nationals in the first, and the ranting of sufi mohammad + the flogging video in the latter.

you have to remember that both incidents also took place when the existing government was hanging onto power by the skin of its teeth, especially the PPP one. (mushie was just beginning to face the wrath of the lawyer's movement, but the PPP was reeling from the mayhem in march)

i think it is easy to blame the government, but the populace's complicity can not be ignored so easily.

Faheem Mumtaz said...

Extrimists to to bear what they have done. We as a nation dont want them to come and take us over. So why they are trying to impose their self defined laws on us.

Nabeel said...

will there be a way for us to read your dissertation once it's complete? it seems like it will be interesting.

i think our government couldn't really ask itself these questions because
a) We don't have a government
b) The government doesn't know who the government is
c) There is no concept of 'we' in the government :P

The problem is that our government couldn't decide for itself whether it was sympathetic to the taliban or not - when everyone started blaming them and their inactivity for everyone's problems (pakistan is root of world terrorim, yada yada) they had to do something. probably related to the friends of pakistan initiative as well - and especially our economy's need for international support right now.

Khan said...

Can you be a Mir Jafar, a Pakistani head of state, a former head of the Pakistan military, a once true believer and backer of the Taliban, a man very comfortable in Western media circles craving their applause and attention, a puppet of Washington, a military hero chumping at the bit to attack India, AND work for MOSSAD ALL at the same time?
It also helps if you are a little mixed up, morally and psychologically.
... However as one born in Bengal, with its history, the idea that the former head of state in Pakistan, and the head of the military is a foreign trained and guided agent is disturbing to say the least.

Consider Mir Jafar, the general who sold himself in order to get into power in Bengal, which he ultimately enjoyed only for a few short years. But the consequences of his ONE action had very serious negative consequences for countless millions of his countrymen, for generations after generations well after he died, even to this day, 252 years after that sad event of monumental betrayal to his people and nation.
But .. Mir Jafars one off mistake, .. he inflicted a major catastrophe upon the people of Bengal and India. .his name will forever live in infamy. Bengal ...conquered by the British, was the springboard which they used to conquer the rest of India, over a period of 100 years (1757--1849, cessation of Anglo-Sikh wars). It was the Bengal Presidency army of 150,000 by the 1790's which helped the British conquer India. The British Raj army that fought Tipu Sultan, the Maratha's, the Pindari and the Sikh's...........until..
Not that this service to the empire was EVER repaid. 1769, 10 million Bengalis died from forced starvation, since the East India company required the growing of cash crops such as Indigo, jute and Opium instead of rice....30% of the population died...genocide. The systematic looting of the richest state in India, known as the "Pearl of India" before the Britsh arrived, into its most destitute part after the British conquered it. To this day Bangladesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa constitute the most backward and poverty stricken parts of South Asia. Such is the legacy of British rule. .........252 years after they first set foot there, with Mir Jafars ONE unwitting mistake. The Pogroms against the local populations, mass rape, murder, the destruction of the vibrant local industry in the ensuing decades. The death of a few million more in forced starvation during 1943, just before independence.

Then the tragedy of East Pakistan/Bangladesh, the result of a British colonial mindset articulated through the post-colonial elite of Pakistan and the British trained Pakistan military......the economic exploitation over a quarter century, juxtaposed with the sheer evil brutality of the "Pakistan military" as a last farewell gesture, and the death of 3,000,000 civilians and the rape of 300,000 women can only be explained in the colonial context. But this too is Mir Jafar's legacy.

Bangladesh now, under British control is slowly sliding into the abyss. Its a member of the Commonwealth, still celebrating the magnificent British empire; it hosts British military advisers; it sends its best cadets to Sandhurst for top up training; and the two political parties of the left and right are more or less managed by the British; corrupt, worthless, useless, agenda less, bickering over nothing, doing absolutely nothing. This too is Mir Jafar's legacy.

Once one bad apple sets the tone, it is for the future generations to share the burden of the mistake of one man.

Are there Mir Jafars like Busharaf in the Pakistan military?......most certainly. The tragedy of Bengal does not have to be visited on Pakistan,.. We have the historical example of Bengal, and the stark example of Iraq and Afghanistan more recently. However at this moment in time, Pakistan is slowly sliding in that direction through the betrayal of the Pakistan military. Only the Pakistan military top brass.

We can avoid this.
(View this article at )

sameer khan said...

Lets see---i read a small article a few days ago in The Economist which quoted a senior American military official that both Zardari and Kiyani have a quiet understanding with the Americans that allows them, the Americans to attack targets in the tribal areas, waziristan etc and soon this area of strikes will be widened to include baluchistan areas including quetta.The truth is that all our lives we pakistanis have been brainwashed and fed with lies that our army is allah's army and that our military leaders if not civilian are pristine and will never ever hesitate to do whatever is necessary to protect and defend the country. I dont deny that there are still some patriotic elements within our military,civil-ian and intelligence establishments but for the most part, we are ruled by criminals, murderers and thugs. I have no doubt that kiyani is as much on American payroll as Zardari is. That bastard's face makes me nauseate as much as Nawaz ganjaa or that fat fuck Fazal Rehman. Everybody is a sellout and this insurgency which is happening in the tribal areas is no doubt a foreign conspiracy and the poor pakistani people are caught in between. The truth is, that most of the pakistani elite class dont give a shit about what the hell is happening in the tribal areas(the growing refugee problem as well as the insurgency) and continue to live their high,superficial,sinful and corrupt lives. We overseas pakistani origin people are deliberately targeted since being away from the motherland causes nostolgic emotions and we are told to graciously donate. I dont mind, but how do we know that our funds wont be embezzled or will reach those who truly deserve?? And what about those fat cats both civilian and military who have embezzled billions and millions of dollars,pounds,euros, marks, franks,riyals,dirhams and dinars in their multiple oversees bank accounts over the years and decades? Dont those bastards have any moral obligation to donate money which is not theirs even to begin with? I am so sick of the exacerbating situation in pakistan(never mind the shaky karachi stock exchange, sky high inflation and unemployment, deteriorating law and order situation,long hrs of loadshedding which is effecting our industries and causing capital flight, suicide bombings in cities, shaky judiciary and an outdated and failed education system) that now i dont even want to watch geo after coming home from a stressful day of work and college. I just dont have the mental strength to watch the "pukar room" telethons and appeals whether its hosted by the normal geo anchors, whether its hosted by the holier than thou aamir liaqat or even whether some of the guests are of the double faced elite class such as Humaira Arshad, Nadia Hussain, Reema, Raheem Shah etc. I am just so plain sick of everything related to pakistan now. I know its shames to say this but after such a tense and stresful day, its better to watch some bollywood music or movie channel. Everybody knows since its open secret that the insurgent leader Mehsud and Mullah fuck faced Douddickullah are protected and armed by powerful foreign intelligence agencies but our military and civilian leaders are so timid and meek as well as corrupt that they dont confront those countries--in fact, they dont utter as much as a peep partially because they are scared as shit but mostly because they receive lots of cash in their foreign accounts and are under obligation.
Sorry Ahsan for the long boring but true post of mine, (which was also a bit off topic), but your forum is one of the few where one can freely fart out and speak out their mind:) Keep up the good work!!

Anonymous said...


Head of Let and JuD was freed today. Pakistan establishment still actively supports Mullah Omar and his Taliban variety.

As long as they (Mullah Omar and Saeed) and others like him are free, Pakistan will remain a terror state. Until Pakistan shows it is serious about taking down the leadership of the Taliban (all varieties), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, these groups will regenerate and prosper. And law enforcement in Pakistan will shy away from taking them on.

A few years ago most Pakistanis used to say no Taliban will ever harm Pakistanis. Guess what, some of them are killing fellow Pakistanis now. In a few years time, the brand of terrorists Pakistan currently supports (Afghan Taliban and Punjabi Kashmiri groups) will come back and bite them.

Ali Haider said...

It always happens: I want to comment on a post on a particular point and by the time I read through some of the other tangential comments, I am so irritated by some of *their* points I almost forget my original point. In any case, with great restraint and control I am going to restrict myself to what I wanted to say in the first place... :)

Ahsan, your post is quite good as a framework to think about things. The basic point is pretty self-evident: that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. However, what seems not to be addressed is how a situation such as Lal Masjid / Taliban in Swat /Buner needs to be tackled once the worst fears have come true. Of course the culpability of the state, the government and the military in the development of both problems cannot be ignored. But suppose you were suddenly put in a decision making position once things *had* gone out of control, what would be your response? This is very pertinent to the current situation in Pakistan, where anyone trying to set things right even with the best of intentions will be faced with the baggage of decades of wrong decisions that have not only destroyed institutions but also created entrenched interests that protect social structures partial to those wrong decisions.

The question of how a democratic government (or even a government vying for legitimacy in the eyes of the populace) tackles difficult and potentially explosive issues in the face of divided opinion and potential public backlash is paramount here. In the context of Lal Masjid e.g. the backlash created by the media and religious parties obscured and continues to obscure the fact that there were heavily armed militants in a place supposedly meant for worship. As far as Swat / Buner is concerned, there continue to be those who argue vociferously that the Taliban should have been negotiated with, not out of any strategic insight, but out of a real sense of sympathy for their cause or a lack of any understanding beyond 'let's give peace a chance'. It is becoming clear that part of the problem in Swat was that the militancy problem was allowed to fester simply because the democratic government was unwilling or unable to take a decision about what to do since the army first asked it to decide the course of action in April 2008. Months of stop and start and indecision led to the situation in February 2009. This was prob due to the strong support for the militants from sections of society and the ambivalence of parties like the PMLN whose support the PPP was seeking. Given the absolute ambivalence of the media itself, could any government have taken an unpopular decision?

I fully agree with you about the IDPs (another instance where a little bit of foresight would have helped tremendously) but those who think the Taliban could *now* have been defeated *without* a military option being exercised (mostly PTI twats as Asfand said but also a number of romantic idealist left-wingers)are living in some sort of utopia of their own making.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Ahsan.

A fair point re leaders leading public perception rather than following it. I think Mush said something similar as well in his interview on GPS. To accomplish this, however, a leader/party requires the skills, and a conducive environment to do so; the PPP enjoy neither. Although you maintained that the only good coming out of the wait is that public opinion is behind the offensive, the gist of my ill-written post is that this was the only environment in which the PPP would launch an offensive, as it enabled the interests of the party to finally align with the overall interest of the country.

So, if you will forgive me for crudely simplifying, I would summarize your post as stating that a capable leader, in a situation as defined in your post, should act swiftly in the interest of the country in order to minimize loss of life and other tragic costs. I agree with the post, but want to add as a corollary that the PPP, without the means, ability, or will to turn public opinion, intentionally dragged it's feet. They cruelly weighed the damage to the nation of waiting against the damage to the party of acting quickly and acted in their own interest rather than in the interest of the country.

Ahsan said...


Uh, ok.


Haha probably not. But if I'm lucky, parts of it will get published in journals, so I guess you could read that (again, if I'm lucky).

Sameer Khan:

Which foreign country stands to gain from the Taliban succeeding in Pakistan? Can you please elaborate on your "foreign hand" hypothesis?


The Pakistan "establishment" is not responsible for his release. The courts are. If you don't know the difference between the establishment and the courts (and the incentives and preferences of each), you haven't been following Pakistani politics for three years, and so there's really nothing I can say to you that will make sense.

Ali Haider:

Spot on, don't really disagree with anything you say.

Ahsan said...

Also (with ref to Anon816) I should say that I think the release is a terrible move for a number of reasons (credibility, relations with India, local operation viability). But what I am disputing is the cause of the release.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, Ahsan, by signing the peace deal, the government has exposed the Taliban for what they really are, not for the Islamic, peace-seeking body they carried the facade of. Everybody is now unanimously united against the Taliban because they were given a chance and they broke their word. As Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Kiyani had said, they were being given enough rope to hang themselves, and hang they did. If you ask me, the military is still strong enough to beat them into the ground, and the humanitarian crisis is being worked upon, by both civilians and the government, but the exposure of the Taliban was a key factor. And do you really think that resisting the Taliban would have done any better in terms of the humanitarian issues? The frame of the crisis would have changed - there would have been just as many bombings around the country then, and more random episodes of terror and floggings.

sameer khan said...

Personally i do believe (from my own sources as well as hearsay) that a few powerful foreign intelligence agencies from russia,afghanistan,india,iran, and israel (and also a couple of our arab "brothers") are undermining the stability of pakistan so that they can take away pakistan's nuclear assets and capture baluchistan, the prized treasure which contains lots of oil,gas and gold. These countries are using their assets and agents in the US and UK to convince both countries to declare Pakistan an unstable country at the UN forum to isolate it and confiscate its nuclear assets and carve the country to make it weaker as well as occupy the prized treasure baluchistan. Before you dismiss me as a conspiracy theorist, look at the developments taking place in pakistan for the last few yrs especially and consider pakistan's geopolitical position in the region. It gives credence to the hypothesis (which is in reality a fact) that foreign powers are indeed trying to undermine the pakistani nation state.
Also you said to Anon816, that the establishment is not responsible for his release, the courts are. I respectfully disagree, the courts may be a bit freer ever since choudhary sahib got restored but nevertheless they are not totally free. If they were totally free, dont you think choudhary sahib would had ordered the ISI head and military generals to produce the thousands of missing persons in pakistan?(and most of the military and intelligence establishment is against that) That was one of the main reasons general sahib ditched justice sahib in early '07. Of course that doesnt mean every person in the establishment likes hafiz saeed or wanted him released but you cannot deny that hafiz sahib's release was blessed by a good segment of the military and intelligence establishment since he commands a large and well-trained cadre of hard core jihadists which the military establishment may want to use later in any future conflict with india. I personally though am against that man being released as i believe that such a wild animal may one day turn against pakistan's people just like the taliban have shown their true colors, and hence he should be caged or better yet be made to disappear for good. But of course he is a trump card which the military and intelligence establishment may need in the future against india so they will keep on protecting him and provide him full aid and comfort, but you mark my words, just like the taliban, this hafiz saeed will turn out to be like the alligator which bites the hand that feeds it. In fact i have no doubt that this bearded bastard has contacts with the taliban and sympathizes with their goals to estalish their warped up version of shariah in pakistan. Same goes for the brother of that idiotic imam who was killed in the red mosque in islamabad in late summer of 07. His elder brother was released a few months ago and now he has vowed to take up his dead brother's cause which is to spread his own version of shariah. I think the ISI and military heads and generals have done a good job to make our opponents's goals of ostracizing and villifying us more easier.