Don’t swat out Swat?

POSTCARD USA: Don’t swat out Swat —Khalid Hasan
Daily Times, November 23, 2007

Washington has more think tanks than Ethiopia has tanks. Some of them, like Ethiopian tanks, are rusted but they continue to creak along, providing employment to some and to others the opportunity to kill a few hours listening to what may sound like learned tomes but may be nothing of the sort, just waffle.

South Asia has been hot in this town for the last several years but since the eruption of the crisis, Pakistan has received the same kind of attention as it did in the dark days of 1971. Carnegie, Brookings and Heritage are three institutes of excellence in Washington with ably-run South Asia programmes, given the stature of scholars such as Stephen Cohen and Teresita Schaffer. Among the area universities, the best South Asia programme is conducted by Walter Andersen at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. This week, one of his graduate students, Joshua White, who spent a year in Peshawar researching the MMA and the situation in the province and the tribal areas made an enlightening presentation based on his investigation into what are now universally known as “Pakistan’s Badlands.” If the cowboy analogy were pursued, wouldn’t Gen. Pervez Musharraf be Billy the Kid?

White’s immersion in Pashtun culture and way of life can be gauged from the fact that Kheyal Muhammad, the Pashtu folk singer, is one of his favourites. White took a detached look at the MMA government in the Frontier and came to the conclusion that it had been highly accommodative of the international community and Western assistance agencies and groups. It had also managed to contain the “Islamic street”. Its most impressive accomplishment was the major push it made for the promotion of female education. It also diverted funds to the province’s least developed areas, which, in the past, had remained neglected. The MMA government was always accessible. All you had to do to meet a minister, White said, was to go to the Friday prayers and meet him in the mosque. Their doors were open; you entered and sat down on the floor with others (and get served with sweet qehva, I add).

That of course is a tribute to the Pashtun tradition of hospitality, human dignity and equality. You may be a Malik but your social inferiors will not genuflect to you as they do in Punjab or Sindh. The MMA negatives included charged rhetoric, inept governance, emphasis on single gender or separate education and a general apathy to NGOs.

White said people often lost sight of the fact that the MMA was not a single entity but an amalgam of six parties that differed in many respects. It was and will always remain an important player, even if marginally. When it came to power, it realised its limitations and with the passing of time, it moderated itself.

The people of the NWFP, White said, had developed a “healthy disillusionment” with religious governance. He said the MMA is not another name for the Taliban. It had also had to operate under federal and constitutional constraints. The Supreme Court had struck down the Hisba Bill three times. The MMA government was dependent on Islamabad, since 90 percent of its budget came from the federal exchequer.

White argued that the international community could play a major role in streamlining the MMA. He said the MMA is not just made up of those who believe in good Islamic values: its constituents are political actors. If externed from the body politic, it will be laid open to radicalisation, he pointed out.

White said the ground realities in the Frontier have changed, which had pushed the MMA from the right to the centre of the political spectrum, a shift the militants saw as a sell-out. Fidel Castro once said that the worst enemy of a revolutionary movement are the promises it makes before coming to power. The MMA realised that soon after taking power, a point White’s study brought out clearly. He said the MMA is anathema to the militants. MMA cadres at lower levels may have linkages to the Taliban but the higher levels of leadership have no truck with the militants who continue to threaten them. He also spoke about the rise of “entrepreneurial insurgency” — groups or individuals who operate on their own and who should not be equated with the MMA. He felt that if the MMA is liquidated or undermined, the federal authority may lose its “centrist Islamic interlocutors”.

Turning to Swat, White noted that the rise of militancy in these areas is not new. A weak Benazir Bhutto government in 1994 made a compromise with Mullah Radio’s father-in-law, now in jail. He said the present situation in Swat is not MMA’s fault. He also stressed that there is no deep support for the Tanzim Nifaz-e-Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM) in the Swat Valley and if free and fair elections are held, the PPP and the ANP will be make gains.

There is a long-standing jirga tradition in these areas, something that must not be lost sight of, he added. The people do not want the military breathing down their necks. Justice under the traditional system is slow and often unavailable. A system that provides quick justice will appeal to the people. He said the present situation in Swat developed over time and was repeatedly brought to the notice of the federal government that did nothing. When it moved, it brought in helicopter gunships.

White said the “blurring of the line” between the Frontier’s tribal and settled areas is a cause for concern. He also pointed out that the NWFP has been neglected by the government for the last few decades and warned that if the present situation is allowed to continue, it will threaten both Pakistan and the United States.

“Right now Swat is doable; it might not remain so later,” he warned. He poked fun at some of the US diplomats posted to Pakistan “who arrive there talking as if they had never left the United States”. They speak a language that ill-equips them for connecting with Pakistanis. He said it must be understood that religious movements are the major drivers of social change, but the US engagement with Pakistan has a narrow base. The US, he suggested, should engage with the MMA and parties like the PPP and the ANP. The “mainstreaming” of the Islamic movements will add to stability while not doing so will produce the opposite result. He was also critical of the present US policy of putting money only into the tribal areas. “The NWFP should be treated as an integrated whole,” he advised.

The pity of it all is that those who make decisions about Pakistan and our region in Washington will pay no attention to this young and enterprising scholar who had his ear to the ground and who in his year in Pakistan came to know the people and understand what they wanted. But those who bomb them from gunships and their local facilitators have no time for the Josh Whites of the world.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is


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