Thursday, May 07, 2009

PAKISTAN: Talking Taliban around the clock ...

You only need a smattering or Urdu and access to Pakistani cable TV news channels to understand just how worried many Pakistanis are about the Taliban incursions. Government officials surely must be worried about the Taliban's ability to win hearts and minds, especially if this report in the New York Times is anything to go by.

The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants, according to government officials and analysts here ...

In Swat, accounts from those who have fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power.

To do so, the militants organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops, the residents, government officials and analysts said.

The approach allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through terror and intimidation.

“This was a bloody revolution in Swat,” said a senior Pakistani official who oversees Swat, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan.”

The Taliban’s ability to exploit class divisions adds a new dimension to the insurgency and is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal.
The government in Islamabad is seen as representing more of the feudal economic status quo. One can hardly expect the Pakistan Peoples' Party government to do much about land reform when the PPP is dominated by wealthy land owners. Even the Predident Asif Ali Zardari comes from a land owning family.

Successive Pakistani governments have since failed to provide land reform and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist.
But why would people turn to the Taliban for social justice? After all, they know that the Taliban will close down girls' schools and stop women from going into the marketplace. The Taliban are also notoriously anti-Shia, and will close down many traditional Sufi shrines that play an important role in the indigenous folk Islam.

Mahboob Mahmood, a Pakistani-American lawyer and former classmate of President Obama’s, said, “The people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for a revolution.”

Sunni militancy is taking advantage of deep class divisions that have long festered in Pakistan, he said. “The militants, for their part, are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling,” he said. “They are also promising Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution.”
The strange thing is that at the last Pakistani elections people in Swat, like in so many places in the "tribal areas", refused to vote for religious parties. Instead they opted for secular parties.

Some nights back, I saw a TV debate on Aaj TV in which Pakistani analysts were questioning the Pakistan Army's ability to defeat the Taliban. It's impossible to overstate the impact that the takeover of Swat has had on the country. Swat may be among the "tribal areas", but it is still only within 100 miles of Pakistan's capital Islamabad.

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