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

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In the context of FATA’s political economy, the mullah or religious instructor has historically been an outsider in the system of distribution of resources and power amongst tribal leaders. Mullahs and their students were dependent on the patronage of wealthy families who also undertook the financial burden of maintaining the affiliated mosques as well. Many of the seminary students come from poorer families or junior lineages; some are even orphans, explains Akbar Ahmed. In his book, he notes that a member of Waziristan’s elite referred to mullahs as “shudras,” a term for the lower-castes of Hindus, reflecting the low view in which mullahs (and Hindus) were held. The status of these mullahs and students changed in the 1980s and 90s as they found themselves held in prestige as vanguards of the Islamist anti-Soviet resistance. They also found a lot of cash flowing to them. Aisha Ahmad outlines how traders began to give money to religious causes in order to morally launder the money they were making from all of their business, licit or not.

As the political economy of the region has developed and changed, new centers of power have emerged, sometimes collaborating and sometimes resisting against local power-holders. Cultural politics have also transformed, especially as relatively elite layers of FATA residents sought education elsewhere in a society dominated by illiteracy. Regular and intense conflicts have multiplied, such as disputes over land or business; yet, the tribal jirgas (judicial committees) led by maliks, and sometimes involving political agents, are often widely considered to be slow, unfair and corrupt.

Not surprisingly, many people in FATA continue to oppose the nexus between the maliks, the Pakistani government and the FCR, arguing that these elders are corrupt and self-interested; they have also protested the jirgaprocess. Some seek the integration of FATA into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while others want FATA to become a province on its own.

While not everyone welcomed the Taliban’s arrival in Waziristan and their increasing intervention in local affairs, Fishman observes that many were swayed by the militants’ promises of swift and fair dispute resolutions. Indeed, initially, the Taliban courts delivered quick judgments and enforcement, and even limited the corruption of the political agents and, along with them, the maliks. As the insurgents consolidated their control, they began to target maliks — especially, those they considered pro-Pakistan, once the Pakistani state began to attack them. Ahmed observes that the militant groups’ anger and frustration against elders and influentials preyed on resentments the “younger”17 generation already harbored against them. Attacks on maliks soon went forward at a brutal pace in Waziristan and elsewhere.

Simultaneously, the Taliban’s resurgence in FATA raised the profile of mullahs— at least, those who agreed to work with the groups. Moreover, militant groups taxed and profited from the local population, including by governing trade and smuggling, and they provided work to a severely underemployed male population.18 Some commentators, such as Fishman, suggest that the Taliban gained broad political support from everyday people in FATA for these reasons. Indeed, Akbar Ahmed quotes one member of the Waziristan elite who laments, “At the end of the day, those who had no worth have become worthy and those who were noble are disrespected and disregarded.”19


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The underdevelopment of FATA and the other social dynamics of the region show that the Taliban and other militants are not foreign, but are part of Pakistan’s social fabric. It is important to note that this underdevelopment is in no small part a result of imperialism’s rule in Pakistan. Now, of course, widespread antipathy to the Taliban and other insurgents in FATA exists, especially as they became more rigid and brutal in response to attacks by the Pakistani military and drone bombing. It bears repeating that the above analysis does not mean that the insurgents are liberators. However, if we are to find solutions, it is critical to highlight the concrete conditions that led to the rise of these actors and to recall that there is considerable polarization in FATA societies along various lines, which reflects polarizations in broader Pakistan society.

This leads us to our main point here: There was no pre-packaged ideological conspiracy to spread Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan through terrorism. This was an outgrowth of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent U.S.-enforced military operations pursued by the Pakistani military in Waziristan and other regions of FATA after 2004. The cycle of killing and revenge killings then led to terrorist attacks in Pakistan proper and the establishment of operational and ideological linkages between militant groups inside and outside of FATA. Religiously mobilized violence may well have been a problem before 2001 in Pakistan, but the scale and intensity it has acquired is a direct result of the U.S. invasion. Rather than resolving the issue, military operations can only exacerbate it.

Moreover, not all militants have the same agenda. Even after the Pakistan military invaded Waziristan in 2003 and then in 2004, not all insurgents were in favor of attacking Pakistani targets; some have continued to restrict themselves to fighting the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is these groups against which the U.S. has fought hardest (rather than, for instance, many of those who sit in Punjab and elsewhere and attack Pakistanis, particularly minorities). This is related to the U.S. failure in Afghanistan.

It is true that there are foreign fighters, such as Uzbek militants, operating in Waziristan. Their initial entry appears to have had to do with shared resistance against NATO in Afghanistan and their monetary contributions, aside from ideological affinities, but their intervention in local affairs in Waziristan and FATA has led to different responses from Pakistani militants. Simply put, while some local militant groups are stringently opposed to these foreign fighters, other local groups work closely with them, and others still are lukewarm toward them.20 (Generally, those militant groups who are not in favor of attacking Pakistan are also reluctant to work with foreign fighters, but there are other local issues and factors at stake as well.) Again, this signals that not all militant groups can be collapsed into a singular category based on Islamist ideology alone, and even the activity of foreign fighters in Pakistan has to be understood in conjunction with the ways that they mix with and alter local dynamics and fault lines.

The enforced silence about the material reasons for the rise of the militants as a potent social force has meant that the grand civilizational narrative, of a foreign Islamic fundamentalism corrupting the minds of “backward” tribal people, has continued to flourish. Alongside it, the idea of the Pakistani military as an omnipotent, solely capable force that nurtures all stripes of militants for its own ends without any complicity from other classes, or without the possibility of relatively independent emergence of at least some militant groups, has taken hold. The reality is, unfortunately, more complicated than that.

The primary enemy

For many progressives, the militants and religious extremism, in general, constitute the primary contradiction in Pakistani society. As one article opposing these particular operations puts it, the Taliban is the “biggest immediate threat to working classes in Pakistan.” A vocal proponent of the operations has argued that the “forces [of religious fundamentalism] have become the most important impediment to the emancipation of the people.” To call something a primary contradiction implies that it is the fulcrum around which all other contradictions revolve, and it is our contention – in contradistinction to these progressives – that imperialism is that primary contradiction. Yet, the kinds of positions taken by progressives are not all the same, and it is worth considering how they have evolved, mainly to demonstrate that even when they do speak of imperialism, they fail to consider its pivotal role. Within progressive discussions, the analysis of imperialism has gone through roughly three phases.

First, civil society liberals and certain progressives in Pakistan began with the premise that the Taliban, that is, the movement in Afghanistan and its networks in Pakistan, are the real and primary enemy. When the Taliban came to occupy the vast majority of Afghanistan by 1996, it appeared as if Islamic fundamentalism had won a major battle, and it needed to be resisted by any means necessary so that it would not win the war. By 1999, liberal intellectual collectives, like the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), had effectively endorsed and joined the project of good governance and “enlightened moderation” led by Musharraf.21Moreover, Pakistani liberals (like their American counterparts) made no condemnations and declared no resistance to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, restricting their engagement to discussions of peace walks, in response to international initiatives. Even much of the progressive left, with few exceptions, was silent. There was no sharp anti-imperialism in all of this, nor were the implications of such silence clear to liberals and progressives. Read on >>

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  1. It is important to note that “younger” need not refer merely to age, but also to social standing. Influential persons, even if young, can be “elders,” whereas those who are poor or from junior lineages can be “younger.” []
  2. Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud and Brian Fishman. “The Taliban in North Waziristan.” In: Talibanistan: Negotiation the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, eds. 128-63. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also: Shinwari, Understanding FATA, where most of the interviewed FATA residents believe that unemployment and lack of education are leading causes of youth joining militant groups. []
  3. Ghulam Qadir Khan qtd. in Ahmed, The Thistle, 77. []
  4. Gopal, Mahsud and Fishman, “The Taliban in North Waziristan,” and Mahsud, “The Taliban in South Waziristan.” []
  5. The liberals of the SDPI collective were at the forefront of facilitating Musharraf’s agenda related to imperialist international financial institutions. Shahrukh Rafi Khan gave a cost-benefit analysis of decentralization and local government to the National Reconstruction Bureau to convince them that the project was viable. See Shahrukh Rafi Khan. 2000. Costing the National Reconstruction Bureau’s Local Government Plan. Policy Research Series #1. Islamabad: SDPI; also Tariq Banuri & Ahmed Afzal. 1995. Democratic Decentralization in Nature, Power, People: Citizen’s Report on Sustainable Development. Islamabad: SDPI. It was later developed as Mohammad Yasin & Tariq Banuri, eds., 2004. The Dispensation of Justice in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press and Islamabad: SDPI. []

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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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