Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

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It also indicates that many people have misunderstood this entire dialectic between U.S.-led imperialism and Islamist insurgencies. We are concerned here especially with progressives, liberals and even Marxists who have effectively espoused a narrative of “clash of civilizations,” with secularism, liberalism, and civilization on the one side combating Islam(ism), fundamentalism, and barbarism on the other. For them, the primary contradiction is between secularism and religion (or religious extremism, in the abstract). Such analysts claim the mantle of the progressive left, but side with imperialism to combat the threat of “religious extremism.”  Yet, these dichotomies may not be so stark. For one, Islamisms may themselves mask imperialist designs, and they may serve the interests of local hierarchies integrating them tightly with imperialism, despite claiming anti-imperialism. For example, the U.S. and Gulf states backed Sunni sectarianism in Pakistan to counter Iranian influence after the 1979 revolution. Similarly, the rivalry between the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is marketed as a Sunni-Shia divide, helps the U.S. to implement its hegemony in the region. These rivalries not only feed off of imperialist design, but also prevent common resistance against imperialism. Alternatively, it is possible that forms of Islamism, despite articulating with local hierarchies integrated into imperialism, may well be resisting imperialism in certain forms – these may be real relations of contradiction. The point we are making is that reducing such problems to ideology in and of itself, and in general, will often be misleading. Ideology in its particularity must be studied in relation to its materiality. That is, we seek to avoid the oversimplifications of liberals and Islamists alike.

Other progressives and leftists may not take such a pro-imperialist line as Pervez Hoodbhoy. Nevertheless, their views on religion tend to homogenize very complicated phenomena into flat narratives that revolve around culture and identity and ignore the materiality of ideologies. In this, they show themselves to adhere to the same essentialist, neo-Orientalist paradigm that interprets all phenomena of religiously-inspired militancy or even growing religiosity through the civilizational grand narrative of a “clash” between modernity and tradition. Accordingly, one article argues that “distinct militant groups” and “everyday reactionaries found in the workplace, neighborhoods, and mosques” are all part of the same fundamental, ideological problem: religious extremism. In another instance, the manifesto of a leftist party asserts that “religious extremism” or “fundamentalism” in the abstract is a “fundamental contradiction.” Another, version of an essentialist narrative is that of the “military-mullah alliance.” The argument often implies that if the Pakistani military simply turned off material and ideological support for extremists, then militancy would suffer a decisive blow. Yet again, all militants are collapsed into a singular phenomenon, coextensive with increasing religiosity in society. These obfuscations play into emphases on state violence such as military operations, seen sometimes as the “final solution” and other times, as a necessary aspect of larger political projects to eradicate extremism and militancy once and for all.


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If a misunderstanding of the relationship between the state and class forces, and the production of imperialist grand narratives has led us to this, it is interrogating the materiality of particular ideologies – the practices, shapes and forms they take in specific contexts – and not ideology-as-abstraction, that can help to explain the nature of contradictions and consequent struggles. This means that any analysis that reduces politics to a clash of civilizational paradigms – to two abstract ideologies fighting each other – is misleading and doing more to obscure realities than to reveal them.

Inevitably, then, we must ask: Who are the militants in North Waziristan? What is their ideology in the concrete and relatedly, what is the class analysis of the society of North Waziristan?

From mullahs to militants

It has to be remembered that militancy in Pakistan spiraled because of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which remains highly unpopular with the vast majority of Pakistanis. From 1996 to 2001, many FATA residents had no systematic relation with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers. As the Taliban and other militants left Afghanistan in defeat, they sought and paid for refuge in FATA and Balochistan across the porous border. New networks of militant groups sprouted up amongst Pakistanis with their main focus on combating U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; they also began to intervene in the local conditions in FATA and Waziristan, in particular.

Read TQ's story: "Black Like Charcoal" I Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud

Black Like Charcoal” | Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud

The U.S. pushed the Pakistani ruling classes to attack these groups, and military campaigns began in 2002–03, with full-scale military assaults starting in 2004, along with drone attacks. Before that, the Pakistan Army had not stationed troops in FATA since the formation of Pakistan in 1947–48. It was in 2004, after the military operations, that militants based in FATA began striking targets in Pakistan in earnest. (It bears noting that never before had the military’s very headquarters or generals been directly attacked by any group.) After the state’s operation against Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007, various militant groups, often working at cross purposes, also sought unity under the banner of the TTP. It should be evident that the increase in militancy and religiously-inspired violence in Pakistan is a direct result of U.S. invasion and military operations.

So, what were the local conditions in which new Pakistani militants, including the Taliban, intervened? How could they go from taking refuge to becoming major power-holders in FATA?13

FATA is far from isolated and remote. The people of the tribal agencies have been involved in broad cultural, political and economic networks that extend into Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond, for hundreds of years. The British ruled FATA through the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) where a political agent is appointed to govern through intermediary maliks (tribal heads). The Pakistani state has left the FCR largely intact and it – rather than the Pakistani constitution – still applies in that region. Under the FCR, maliks are supposed to govern entire tribes for the PA, and if they are unable or unwilling to comply, then all members of a family, clan or tribe may be collectively punished. Maliks now also elect members of the National Assembly for the agencies, the seven administrative units that make up FATA. However, the FCR arrangement has not meant that FATA has been petrified in unchanging conditions.

In FATA, as elsewhere in Pakistan, access to the government itself can be very lucrative. In his overview of the Taliban in Pakistan, Brian Fishman, an analyst at the New America Foundation points out that political agents tend to preside over the agencies as if they are their personal fiefdoms, handing out money and resources to the “wealthy and well-connected.” Civil service postings to FATA are rumored to be highly sought after and can cost millions of rupees.14 Akbar Ahmed, who served as a political agent in South Waziristan and currently holds the Islamic Studies chair at American University, has explained how the maliks, too, are entrenched into the current system, their status and power tied to the governance of the area. For most of FATA’s residents, therefore, this system perpetuates poverty and systemic underdevelopment because government funds earmarked for public or development projects appear to end up lining a few private pockets.

Media Watch: on Operation Zarb-e-Azb - Our Biased Opinions | M. Kasana and M. Ahmad

Media Watch: on Operation Zarb-e-Azb – Our Biased Opinions | M. Kasana and M. Ahmad

Consider for example, that despite the fact that the majority of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, less than half of the land that is arable (which is not much to begin with), was irrigated in 1998 according to a 2010 report by a local think tank, the Community Appraisal & Motivation Program (CAMP). FATA has long been among the most underdeveloped and poorest areas in Pakistan.

The survey by CAMP also indicates that land is the main reason for conflicts in FATA, ahead of “extremism,” making FATA very similar to the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Contrary to Islamic law, women tend to be excluded from land inheritance. Though some have asserted that there are egalitarian patterns of landholding in this region, there has been no systematic study of land distribution in FATA.15 However, the scarcity and controversial distribution of land inheritance does give rise to conflicts.

The limits of agriculture combined with the lack of industrial development in or around FATA have meant that unemployment and underemployment are very widespread. Men often migrate to other cities or abroad in search of employment, but typically poorer or less “connected” people find it harder to leave. In her 2012 dissertation, Between the Mosque and the Market, the scholar Aisha Ahmad has documented how cross-border transport, and particularly smuggling (including arms and drugs), have become very lucrative, important sources of employment.16 This has especially been the case since the area was flooded with arms and other war-related supplies during the Cold War in the 1980s, and again when the “war on terror” began in 2001. The capital accumulated through this and other trade by elites from FATA is usually not re-invested in that region as many of them have significant investments in transport and construction throughout Pakistan, and especially in Karachi. There are thus emerging centers with great resources seeking power and different forms of integration with the Pakistani state. Read on >>

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  1. It is important to note that little has been systematically studied about the contemporary dynamics of society in Waziristan and FATA, and what does exist is almost largely from a “security” perspective, enumerating militant groups and their connections. Yet, popular conceptions abound of the “tribal” Pashtuns as a people without history, devoid of political economy as such, steeped in unchanging and unyielding cultural obsessions, isolated from broader social dynamics, except for Islamic ideology — which, in any case, is an unyielding cultural obsession. Even recent academic interventions around FATA and Waziristan have largely sought to examine British colonial archives, especially for tips on handling insurgents now. []
  2. In much of Pakistan and especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, getting the right civil service job is often a matter of bribing politicians or senior bureaucrats. []
  3. It is worth noting that in the 1970’s and 80’s, conflicts between landlords and tenant farmers in settled areas also impacted Bajaur Agency, with malik-landlords complaining to political agents about the protests and militancy of their own tenants. The political agents sought to settle these conflicts quickly and on side of the maliks, reminding them, however, that older forms of oppression and exploitation were no longer in vogue. See Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Archives files GS B. 26/S. 206 and GS B. 35/S. 308. Moreover, sectarian conflicts in Orakzai Agency have apparently been underpinned by Shia-dominated areas having more fertile land, and comparatively greater wealth. See also: Fishman, “The Taliban in Pakistan,” 364. []
  4. Afghan customs being less than Pakistani customs, traders sought to avoid customs by shipping to Afghanistan and then smuggling back into Pakistan. The volume of trade has increased since 2001 again. In the 1990s the Taliban relied on the support of traders and smugglers in order to become predominant, before they received support from the Pakistani state. See Aisha Seemi Ahmad. 2012. Between the mosque and the market: an economic explanation of state failure and state formation in the modern Muslim world. Ph.D. dissertation. Montreal: McGill University. []

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46 Responses to Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

  1. TQ Chāt | # 17 | Tanqeed on Aug 2014 at 5:33 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality [x] […]

  2. Storage on Sep 2014 at 5:31 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality […]

  3. Cornell Daily Sun on Sep 2014 at 12:02 AM

    […] values, placing Islam itself as the root cause of terrorism (relatedly, one could argue that  a cycle of American military and cultural dominance feeds fundamentalist, anti-American sentiment), the oppression of women, and irreconcilable cultural differences. Kairey’s column relies on […]

  4. […] Syed Azeem and Noaman G. Ali: Accordingly, the responsibility of anti-imperialist struggle falls on the shoulders of the working classes of Pakistan. There should be no doubt about this point. Finding any solution to problems like militancy or economic development as suggested by the petty bourgeois “civil society,” reliant as they are upon imperialism, will lead Pakistan towards a situation like that of Libya, Syria and Iraq. That is where half of the population is fighting against the other half. Let us stop right here. There should be no more wars on the people of Pakistan, not least of all because that is what imperialism wants. Being anti-imperialist is being in favor of those vast masses who find themselves squeezed by the daily grind of an underdeveloped economy and a repressive politics and especially those who find themselves the victims of the violence that has exploded as a result of imperialist misadventures. In terms of practice, the first step in this regard is to embrace the people of Pakistan – that is, the working classes, the poorer peasants, the unemployed and underemployed, the oppressed women, the minorities – whether they are of North Waziristan or Balochistan, regardless of whether these people are “conservative” or “progressive.” They are suffering, and no one can tell us better than them why they are suffering and what problems require what kinds of solutions. If they say imperialism is the enemy, we should not try to convince them that it is necessary to first evacuate oneself of Islamic sentiment and fight “religious extremism” in the abstract in order to be progressive. We should critically examine the history of leftist struggle in Pakistan and advance our own understanding in a way that provides lessons for our current practice. How did the left degenerate so much that it started standing with imperialism and the ruling classes against the people of Pakistan? A comprehensive and self-critical assessment will be a sign of the ideological strength of the left, not its weakness. More here. […]

  5. […] this sense of justice also implants in us a responsibility to be critical of power holders who have capitalized on horrific ordeals — such as last week’s tragedy —  for their own interests. It is this […]

  6. jaffer on Sep 2015 at 12:01 AM

    very very strange analysis, dont put any blame on mil alone , u may nat be knowing actual sit ion ground in NWA it is easy to make dramatic analysis in ur drawing room rather be upfront against those elms. poor analysis

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