By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
The writer is a London-based lawyer turned political commentator
If I were not married to a Pashtun, I too may have been inclined to suspect the survey results carried out by Peshawar-based NGO, AIRRA, first brought to my attention in a piece by Farhat Taj (5 March 2009). According to the survey, the majority of the respondents (approx. 55 per cent) of the affected northern areas view the drone attacks as accurately striking their targets and successfully destroying militant hideouts. Far more importantly, however, when asked if the Pakistani military should target strikes at militant organizations, the approval rating jumped from the mid-fifties to a high of seventy percent.
The results of this survey tally closely with the sentiments of the Pashtuns that I speak to but are vastly different from the views of non-Pashtuns in Pakistan. Therefore, it is quite evident that a disconnection is emerging on the value and necessity of drone attacks between the affected Pashtuns and the more distanced rest of Pakistan. While non-Pashtuns may view the drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, Pashtuns increasingly argue that the areas being targeted are not under the control of the Pakistani government and the writ of the state is already absent there. Thus, for them, it is a choice between being left to the will of the militants or facing minimal collateral damage from the drones but still maintaining the hope that the stranglehold of the militants may dissipate and life return to some form of normalcy.
Neither option of course is ideal, but as Arshad Haroon, writing into this newspaper from Peshawar, translated a Pushto saying, “When faced with death and fever, one is ought to choose fever.” It is a pity that one would look to American drones to save our own people from the brutalities of the militants, but when the Pakistani military fails to act then unfortunately, for the people of the area, it is a matter of survival.
General Kayani recently stated that the Pakistani army is fully capable of defending the country from both external and internal threats. I have no reason to doubt his assertion. But the question Pashtuns ask is not related to capability but the will of the army to fight the militants. In fact, as Christine Fair pointed out in Foreign Affairs, “While ‘Operation Clean-up’ – in Karachi against the MQM – had some pretty nasty and draconian elements, it did demonstrate the capacity of police and the rangers to put down serious insurrection when there is will to do so.”
What I have found terribly disappointing of late is a pass-the-buck approach to this very serious problem. As it is difficult to ascertain what exactly the military policy is on this issue, if the views of retired generals appearing on talk shows are an indication, they consistently blame lack of action on lack of policy direction. The inference no doubt is that bickering civilian politicians fail to give clear guidance. Yet, one wonders why there was no clear policy even during the Musharraf decade.
According to several commentators and analysts, however, the army retains de-facto control over foreign policy, defence policy, nuclear policy and internal security. Due to the media outreach, most Pakistanis are aware of this fact and thus passing the buck on to civilians, critically in the matter of internal security (an area viewed as the ultimate responsibility of the military in any country), is not likely to work.
It is no secret that the Pakistani state is confronted with several challenges externally. American imperialism and India’s rivalry and competition for influence in Afghanistan are real threats to Pakistan. It would be naïve to ignore Indian consulates and missions in Afghanistan and the fact that it is pumping money into Baluchistan, but as Aqil Shah pointed out in Foreign Affairs, if Pakistan continues “to patronize groups it sees as useful in the regional race for influence,” the cost to Pakistan’s political stability may outweigh the benefits.
If Pashtuns start looking to America to fight off the militants and if the extremists can strike with impunity in Lahore, the heart of Punjab, clearly we are headed towards a very weak interior and any external influence that we have would be meaningless. Therefore the strategy must change. America must understand the importance of a neutral Afghanistan and Pakistan must focus on protecting its own citizens before extending its regional influence.
When seventy per cent of the Pashtuns say that they would support military action if taken by the Pakistani army, then the Pakistan army should act, and act with commitment. In my wide interaction with Pashtuns, I have found them to be overwhelmingly loyal to the Pakistani state. The reverence shown towards Jinnah and the concept of Pakistan in NWFP is no less than that in Punjab. But if, piece by piece, territory is ceded to Taliban-style rogues and the people are left to the mercy of these criminal elements, then will their love for Pakistan diminish? And if it does, who will be to blame for it?
The ANP politicians do not feel that they have the support of the army, and that is the reason that they have entered into these wayward “peace deals”. Their mistake, however, is that instead of taking the people into confidence about the real issue, they have owned the peace deals, and this will be politically detrimental for them in times to come.
As I watch reporters from various Pakistani networks interview men in Swat about the “peace deal,” I wait ardently for the day when any network will bother to interview the women of the area so they too can give their views. When Rahimullah Yusafzai reported that Chand Bibi had denied the flogging, how credible can the story be when the girl in question is inaccessible and the only quotes Mr Yusafzai is able to produce for his article are from a politician?
When Mushtaq Minhas on Bolta Pakistan, after condemning the incident for its brutality, diminishes its importance by equating it with other gruesome feudal traditions which result in the rampant abuse of women’s rights and Shireen Mazari argues similarly in her piece of 8 April 2009, they are wrongly equalizing. One cannot equate the flogging with other gruesome abuses for three reasons. First, the flogging was done in the name of Islam. When religion is maligned and misrepresented, it is not only an abuse of a woman but an abuse of God.
Second, in the case of barbaric feudal traditions like swara, vani, karo kari, etc., the aggressors can be produced in a court of law with relative ease. Therefore, if the judiciary is functioning as it should, then they will eventually be punished. Prior to the chief justice being deposed, Mr Bajarani did appear in court in the vani case in which he was implicated. The good Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has asked to produce before him both the aggressors and the victim, but in this case, it will be far more difficult, because the aggressors do not acknowledge Pakistani state institutions, and always use the excuse of purda to prevent giving the women what is their due.
Finally, although in feudal abuses the victims and witnesses are afraid to come forth due to the power of the feudal lords, increasingly, the fear is being overpowered by the willingness to struggle for rights. We saw this in the Manoo Bheel case with peasants in Sindh and we saw it in Punjab recently when the demented man who killed his three beautiful daughters in cold blood is cursed openly by his wife and neighbours. Media outlets moreover are free to film and interview all sides.
In the case of the Taliban however, people are just too scared to open their mouths. They stood and they watched in silence and thus aided and abetted in the crime because if they hadn’t, they would have suffered a beheading or a kidnapping of their own. So there is a difference, and a reason why the flogging in Swat is far more critical for Pakistan than the other abuses.