Political Economy of the Insurgency in Pakistan's Tribal Belt
By Faisal Shams Khan: Dawn, November 19, 2007
THE insurgency in the tribal areas is largely understood through the use of meaningless caricatures of extremism and Talibanisation. Such explanations construct a mono-causal and simplified understanding of the insurgent movement in the tribal areas.
They are largely based on the assumption that ‘extremism’ is an autonomous and unitary ideological force taking over the hearts and minds of the Frontier tribesmen. The expansion and resilience of insurgent violence is presumptuously linked to the growth of ‘extremism’. There is no evidence to substantiate that it is only or largely the growth of a religious extremist ideology and activism that is driving the dynamics of the insurgency. The mounting empirical evidence points towards the fact that the participation in and support of the insurgency manifests through multiple motivations, constraints and pressures that are not necessarily always tied to an adherence to militant ideology and agenda. The emergence, growth and impact of the insurgency in the tribal areas can be better understood through a political economy perspective that highlights the interactive role of political power, economic motivations, survival strategies and war finance.
A number of varying economic dimensions of the insurgency have been clearly visible. Many local militants and tribesmen have received exorbitant payments from foreign militants and the Pakistani Taliban in return for shelter and logistical support. However, the large amounts reaching Rs50, 000 for mud houses indicate that the militants are not always simply paying for hospitality. In many cases the hefty amounts are a form of patronage and pacification of local tribesmen and tribal elders. Hence, the influx of insurgent finance has allowed certain tribesmen to accumulate substantial wealth voluntarily while coercing others into becoming dependent on and indebted to the militants.
Military operations have also presented unique economic constraints to local tribesmen. For example, economic deprivation and uncertainty during periods of government-imposed economic blockades has compelled many local tribesmen to join the militant’s fold by accepting their allowances. At the same time conflict has also brought new opportunities for many tribesmen. The inflationary markets of conflict and economic blockades have allowed economic entrepreneurs to exploit opportunities for profiteering.
For example in a stand-off between the military and militants in South Waziristan in 2004, local tribesmen used great entrepreneurial skills to take advantage of the economically precarious conditions of conflict. Militants had to pay exorbitant prices for essential items in dollars.
We can see at least three variegated economic effects of the insurgency: tribesmen coerced to participate in or support the insurgency by militants through hefty monetary pacification and tribesmen coping with conditions of conflict by assisting militants and local economic entrepreneurs benefiting through exploiting the markets of conflict. If we go by the studies on war economies of Afghanistan, we can probably say for the majority of the tribesmen, involvement in the resistance economy is motivated by the instinct to cope or survive. It is only in the hands of a few that the bulk of the wealth generated through insurgent finance is accumulating. Profiteering and financial flows at times drive the dynamics of war and certainly play a role in its perpetuation.
The insurgency is also transforming the local labour market and supply. In many cases warfare has destroyed markets, transport infrastructure, residential structures, and personal assets. The local population is increasingly becoming displaced separating people from their land, employment or subsistence activity. This has led both to migration to settled districts and more importantly a local surplus supply of wage labour.
As conflict destroys certain forms of employment activity, it also creates new forms of labour demands. In many cases this had led to the direct employment of tribesmen as fighters by the militants. Newspapers have reported that young recruits are being paid around Rs5, 000 to Rs7, 000 every month while also receiving modern weapons. This negates the commonly held notion of extremism as some ideological force taking over the hearts and minds of the Frontier tribesmen.
There is also indirect evidence that the employment of local labour in the local and regional illicit economy of drugs, arms and smuggling is expanding. Opium production in Afghanistan in the last two years has reached unprecedented levels largely in the two southern border provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar neighbouring the tribal areas. A large part of the opium trafficked through Pakistan to Asia and Europe and Pakistan itself finds its market in this area. The Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan is largely responsible for the increase in opium cultivation, production and trafficking. Otherwise, the UN has also reported that local opium cultivation and production has also been increasing since 2001-2002 within the tribal areas and blooming in the neighbouring Pushtun districts in Balochistan.
This has two implications for the tribal areas. First, the growth of the opium trade indicates to a certain degree that an increasing number of agency tribesmen are becoming involved in the opium trade at different levels. The local involvement in the opium trade is further intensified as the tribal areas insurgency threatens existing livelihoods. Secondly, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan maintain strong political links visible in the Afghan Taliban’s influence over the peace agreements in the agencies. It is safe to assume that these political linkages work alongside cross-border shadow economic networks. This only reinforces the increasing role of local militants and tribesmen in the opium trade and its larger role in the tribal areas’ insurgency.
The local opium economy therefore provides an avenue for financing war, economic entrepreneurialism and coping or survival strategy. The multiplicity of motivations, strategies and economic changes driving the growth of the insurgency clearly shows that we cannot attribute the insurgency simply to a monstrous outburst of passionate ideology and activism. The issue of illicit economies brings up an interesting point regarding the alleged ‘criminality’ of the pro-Taliban militants who have at times been used as a justification for acquiring coercive control over law and order. What is ‘criminal’ in the tribal areas? ‘Criminal’ is a deeply problematic and value-laden term, particularly in a context where there is a legal vacuum. Combating criminality allows militants to appropriate lucrative criminal activity while also seeking legitimation for their agenda.
Similarly, in many cases business, non-profit organisations and political parties have also been targeted by the militants. These groups are threatened to stop their activity and leave because of their un-Islamic activity. At the same time hefty ransom payments are demanded that finance militant activity. These examples conflate the ideological, political and economic imperatives of militant strategy and are evident of the fact that these cannot be easily separated as exclusive causal factors in explaining the spread of militancy in the tribal areas. They are in many ways mutually constitutive and reinforcing in explaining the dynamics of insurgent agenda, motivation and strategy.
Therefore, vigilante activism against ‘criminality’ and un-Islamic activity are evidence of a superior political economic strategy that works towards building militant authority, power and legitimacy. Religious ideology and affinity supports political economic strategy and is a crucial mobilising agent. However, it is not the supreme catalyst for all ‘extremities’.
Peacebuilding in insurgent zones therefore requires an understanding of how conflict economies can be transformed into peace economies. The participants and agents of conflict display multiple motivations and strategies including war making, profiteering, coping and survival. Peacemaking will require building an environment for these multiple actors and interests with relevant transformation incentives and political settlements.