Analysis: Yeats arrives in South Asia —William B Milam
Daily Times, July 23, 2008
I am on a train going through northern France on the way to Paris. The French countryside is as gorgeous as I always remember it in summer—bright and sunny, green fields of corn and other crops still to be harvested, brown fields of stubble from which the wheat has already been harvested, little roads leading to meticulous villages and big silos where the wheat is stored. All seems right with the world I see out of my window.
But perhaps this not the real world I am looking at; or I may be looking at this tranquil pastoral scene through a distorted lens. The distressed e-mail messages coming to me with increasing frequency from Pakistani friends tell a very different and scary story. They write of the violence and threat of violence all around them in Pakistani cities and villages, the continuous erosion of state power and authority, the feelings of despair and powerlessness against the forces of nihilism and destruction that beset them. Such feelings are hard to imagine as one looks out on the bucolic rural France of today. Yet, I realise that 90 years ago this same French countryside would have been ravaged and torn by war, and the people (if there were any) would have shared those same feelings of fear and hopelessness.
WB Yeats and many other poets of the early 20th century wrote of those feelings in the wake of the senseless slaughter of the 1914-18 Great War. Yeats’ best-known poem, “Slouching toward Bethlehem” was written in what must have been a mood of despair over the inability of Europeans to control their worst tendencies and the dangers of blind ideology in a world of such human fallibility. The poem expressed, for many caught in the cauldron of the frequent, almost-apocalyptic conflicts of the 20th century, that sense of a world beyond human control and comprehension that is engendered by ruthless ideological and mindless conflict in which innocent civilian populations became military targets.
“Things fall apart,” Yeats wrote in the most celebrated part of his great poem, “the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In these words, he outlines abstractly the formula for the implosion of a state.
Clearly that tide has been loosed in Pakistan. It has been rising slowly, almost stealthily, for several years. Now it is visible and palpable, even from the other side of the globe, 10,000 miles away. The centre of Pakistan is not holding. Waziristan has been likened to an emirate, an autonomous entity located inside the borders of the state of Pakistan that is now run by the Taliban. Government institutions (weak to begin with) have disappeared. Girls’ schools, barber shops, women’s shops have been shut down—or burned down.
The central government cannot seem to make up its mind whether to push back against the militants with a combination of force and economic development or to “negotiate” with them. Few realise that signing agreements with these militants essentially giving up the state’s writ in the region is tantamount to ceding the territory to them and their jihadist and Al Qaeda partners. From reports that I have seen, it seems clear that one of the high priority items of the extremists’ agenda in the tribal areas is the killing of Shias. For the government to negotiate with them is to sign a blank check for more such killing. It abandons yet another of the principal duties of government—protection of all its citizens.
Swat, a settled area that I remember fondly, is now a Taliban stronghold. Its economy, which used to rely on tourism, is now in shambles. The inhabitants of Swat have accepted the Taliban leaders, though the great majority has no particular fondness for the Taliban social agenda, because the government administration was falling apart. The promise of justice, even that of Sharia, seemed better than what they had before.
Where the extremists have not yet established political or military sway, they dominate the political discourse through the rapid spread of FM radio. Of course, this is enhanced through their mosques. I have heard nothing to convince me that the state, now in the hands of elected civilian politicians has the will, let alone a strategy, to deal with a challenge to its dominance of the public political discourse.
I hasten to add here that this is not an argument for return to the previous hybrid military/civilian form of government, nor to direct military rule, which preceded that. Neither of those governments showed much mettle, or much insight, in pushing back against the extremists’ encroachments on its writ. In addition, the Army itself, which one would have thought to be more aggressive than the civilians in defending the state’s writ, appears to be the leading dove in the dovecote.
What is the Taliban objective? It seems pretty simple to me that, ultimately, they want to prevail in all of Pakistan and bring the country to Sharia-based governance in which secular laws and jurisprudence will disappear. I fear for the Shias and minorities as this happens. At present they appear to have only the tribal and adjacent areas in their sights for such a transformation. This might extend to all the areas west of the Indus. However, why should we believe that they would stop there?
Their strategy to achieve this seems pretty simple too. That is what insurgency is all about—disrupting the normal process of governance until government becomes dysfunctional, then taking over. In our own time, we have seen it succeed more often than not—China and Vietnam are prominent examples. Insurgency is fuelled with large doses of murder, intimidation, bombing (now expanded to include suicide bombing). The aim is to undercut the state’s authority and governance wherever possible. As the government grows more and more dysfunctional, people turn to the insurgents out of desperation and probably fear.
This strategy fits those who are full of passionate intensity. For them it is their truth or no truth—any method of overcoming resistance to their agenda is valid. Thus they do not shrink from terror or from taking the lives of innocents as they go about their campaign to the state.
How can extremists, driven by passionate intensity, be turned back and this blood-dimmed tide be restrained and slowly drained away? The answers are not difficult, the implementation is. Leaders must have the conviction that the state is worth saving and be able to convince the people of that. They must have the vision to grasp the essentials of how to do it—judicious force and greatly accelerated economic and social development. It is not hard to figure that out, but it is hard to implement that kind of strategy when each political party leader is working from a different agenda, one which enhances his power at the expense of other political leaders. Zero-sum game politics will not do the trick.
William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh.