Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan | Tags: drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon, Taliban
A Pakhtoon representative for international aid groups travelled for two days by foot and bus from the his tribal area in South Waziristan, to meet with us in the Rawalpindi, the partner city of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A kindly but firm man in his early thirties, he described his work. There was no edge in his voice as he outlined the lives of Taliban in the villages he knew best. People in his communities all know the Taliban because family members are Taliban, he told our five person delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, visiting Pakistan in May and June of this year.
Our new friend’s voice rose with fear when he spoke of drones, his word for the remotely piloted US Predator I or II aircraft that occasionally are observed in the skies above tribal villages where he is at home. “Even the children have learned not to play in groups at the slightest sighting of a drone. They whisper that a Hellfire missile may target them.” For sixty years villages in his Pakhtoon tribal area have not experienced significant government presence from Islamabad. This policy is a continuation of British colonialism’s rule reaching back another100 years.
In May the Pakistan army entered the Swat Valley, the lush Swiss like mountainous home to more than two million Pukhtoon people. The army’s announced goal was to push out the Taliban who had consolidated their power and were beginning to extend their influence even further towards Islamabad. A banker I met who had fled the Swat valley with more than a million other people when the Pakistan military arrived was animated about the Taliban. “We must be rid of them.” he said, “I don’t care if they are chased out by the Indian Army or American drones. I want them out dead or alive.” The banker, an ethnic Pukhtoon, warned me not to listen to the attitudes of the poorer classes because they didn’t understand the real situation.
The Internally Displaced People (IDPs or refugees) from Swat Valley and other Pukhtoon tribal areas were tentative in speaking their minds. They may have been cautious about our peace delegation or worried about other Pakistanis listening in to our conversations. We were alarmed by their stories of a harrowing flight in the wake of Pakistani army commands. “We were ordered by Pakistani army people to leave immediately. We fled with nothing but the work clothes on our back,” said one farmer. Another refugee told of a neighbor women who asked her husband to grab her new baby sleeping in a blanket. Only after they had fled for some distance did the family discover that there was no baby inside the blanket. The husband had grabbed the wrong blanket. The family was prohibited from returning to find the child. Stories abound of parents separated from their children, spouses and other extended family members. Some IDPs have begun to return to the Swat Valley.
More than anything the displaced people are confused. For two years they have watched Pakistani military units stand by as Taliban forces took over local police detachments and asserted control over schools and the local judiciary, and rolled back women’s opportunity in society. Some told of assassinations, particularly beheadings. A Pakistani photo journalist we met has been in hiding because she fears government reprisals since her pictures of the persecution of women in Swat Valley gained world wide attention earlier this year. Others described grass roots sympathy for the Taliban religious teachings. These teachings are disseminated by daily radio broadcasts. We were told by different people that the real enemy was Central Asian peoples with the Taliban, America, China, the Pakistan military, the Taliban, India, even Israel.
For the Pukhtoon people “Talib” means student. Taliban (students) are young boys who come from poor families and attend Madrasas, Islamic schools sometimes called seminaries. A Pukhtoon leader from Peshawar told me that a poor family has three choices for their children, “send them to government schools if they exist and let them remain hungry, stay out of school altogether and remain hungry, or attend a Madrasa where they memorize the Koran and eat decent meals”. Thousands have chosen the foreign financed Madrasas since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago. Many of those young students are now grown Taliban fighters in places like the Swat Valley and Afghanistan. The Taliban movement was a project of the military intelligence services of Pakistan. It began with generous support from US military and intelligence agencies.
The Taliban is not the only Pakistani movement pushing for stricter Islamic law. For example, the much older Jamaat-e-Islami has been hard at work expanding its support among Punjabi and Sindhi peoples where it has exercised significant influence in University student movements and led relief efforts for IDPs. “We want you to stop giving money to the Pakistani military now.” said one representative of the JI, “because your money makes our society more violent and it supports the Taliban.”
Other people representing a more secular thread of Pakistan are worried that the Taliban and militant Muslims of other stripes are gaining. “You actually have militants in the nuclear program,” a nuclear physicist told us. “The Taliban drift is a major problem. This will be a drag on us for at least a decade.” As the Taliban have taken their war of truck bombs and road side explosives from Pukhtoon country on Pakistan’s western border and Afghanistan into the majority population centers including Lahore and Karachi the mood in much of Pakistan has turned dramatically against the Taliban – so much so that the Pakistan military must get serious about confronting its erstwhile “asset”. The Pakistan military intelligence developed the Taliban in the early 1980s to provide security on its western border while its main units of the army faced India on the eastern Punjabi plains and Kashmir.
The cultural distance between Pakistan’s great urban centers and the remote villages that support the Taliban is enormous. Even sending the military into some of the tribal regions not under direct government rule like North or South Waziristan may be akin to sending out former Wall Street finance wizards to Iowa to run a tiny organic farm. A Human Rights worker told us, “The Taliban did deliver law and order where the government failed. Pakistan authority had not entered some tribal areas for 60 years and finally when it is entering those areas it is with a gun.”
Although Pukhtoon tribal society encourages revenge, elements of traditional modes of reconciliation survive in the village jirga (councils of elders). “If you go to the elders in civilian clothes they will welcome you with an honour and protection reserved only for guests.” The pattern of an eye for an eye, the ideology of all sides, can be broken with sincere words backed up by actions over time. I believe this is the partly the work of Richard Holbrook, the special US negotiator for Pakistan and Afghanistan. If he searches he will find Pakistanis in all parts of Pakistan anxious to be partners and give leadership. Such a movement needs support from inside and outside the Obama administration to overcome the residue of revenge that still survives from 9/11.
The ideology of a primitive reconstruction of law and religious order that is the record of the Taliban frightens Pakistanis and some Americans. For us in the US, Christian reconstructionism and Dominion theology reminds us that our faith can be hijacked too. By engaging with the hard face of Christian theology more deliberately we can at least become familiar with how “Talibanization” is not just a phenomena of western Pakistan.
Pakistan is gifted with a layer of South Asian wisdom that views the Taliban and all the world beyond the simplistic and confining categories of good and bad, light and dark. I was the recipient of some of that insight during my recent visit. Some of these voices will probably be silenced and imprisoned in the coming months as has been the pattern in Pakistan over the last 60 years but their influence will endure. Our delegation found discussions of peace and nonviolence welcomed by various religious and ethnic camps. There is a depth of conviction and hints of hope within Pakistan. Hopefully those in power will listen before the violence brings down another Pakistani government and perhaps its long time unreliable patron, the United States.
Our work on this side is to find ways to lift the veil of secrecy. This situation is complex but complexity should never deter us from working through the fog towards the cultural nodes that hold out promise for reconciliation. The US embassy is scheduled for a 736 million dollar face-lift in Islamabad with Marine guards, and civilian-military contractors. It will be protected by advanced digitized security gimmicks. A quirky Iraq-like US green zone in another Muslim country may in fact constrict the space so needed for experiments in peacemaking. Most of all Pakistan needs room to sort out its own priorities and determine how Muslim convictions in the context of the rainbow of Pakistani cultures can energize it into the future.
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