The initiation of a military operation against militants in North Waziristan was readily accepted, by the national and international media, as a decisive showdown between the state and its erstwhile militant proxies. It was also readily supported by liberal intellectuals and civil society groupings and their discourse was allowed to play out on the media. These events raise, again the question of the liberal civil society’s connection to state violence and its legitimization. They also suggest hegemonic control of the media by the state.
The liberal response to a military operation in Waziristan is mainly informed by the media, which for the past six months played a vital role in constructing a debate in favor of a military operation much to the chagrin of the ruling political elite. The government was criticized for its indecisiveness, and the army projected as fully capable of neutralizing the militant threat. Dominated by ex-army officials and self-proclaimed ‘FATA’ experts, these debates revolved around the strategic aspects of a military operation, completely ignoring its impact on the regions people and their habitat. It played a vital role in generalizing, otherwise a very complex issue, into a simple binary: either appease them or kill them.
Media successfully portrayed a Waziristan inhibited by throat slitting terrorists hell bent on destroying Pakistan: a Waziristan devoid of human beings having social and family relationships. It was depicted as a wasteland from the past: anarchic and mysterious, oblivious to the march of history, ‘frozen in time’. It convinced a common Pakistani that these enemies of the state, working on foreign agenda must be dealt with assertively, but it was surprising to see the liberal sections of the society falling so effortlessly to state propaganda! After all the only source of information, coming out from the conflict zone, is the military information wing, the ISPR. However, reality is far from as simple as the ISPR would want one to believe. Historical contextualization of the region reveals the active presence of the state in manufacturing violence on the one hand, and disseminating stereotypes on the other.
In order to understand the problem of militancy in FATA, it is important to historically analyze the role of the colonial and as an extension the post-colonial state. While it served as an additional buffer zone for the former, it morphed into a jihad factory churning out militants for the latter’s regional strategic designs having an important corollary in the form of war economy. During the colonial era, indigenous resistance to the state was de-politicized by attributing it to the primitiveness and unwillingness of the tribesmen to accept modernity and civilization. The post-colonial state retained the structures of violence and exploitation which were in place during the colonial rule. So while the colonizers changed hands the colonized (social formation) did not experience any difference vis-à-vis the state. Here, it must be kept in mind that the people of FATA were denied the right of franchise until the mid 1990s, while the juridical-legal status of the region remains the same as it was under the colonial rule.
The Orientalist approach, which provided intellectual legitimation to imperialism, continues to justify the direct intervention of the post-colonial state in FATA. Scholars and experts on the region (including ex-army men, bureaucrats and media ‘intellectuals’) continue to view and explain the reality with an Orientalist approach. The deliberate attempt on the part of the state and the ruling political elite to keep the region backward and under-developed is readily linked to incapability of the tribesmen to understand their interests and represent them. Neo-Orientalists continue to shield the ever increasing interventionist role of the state in reproducing violence in the tribal areas.
The notion that the current ‘showdown’ between the state and militants is a decisive one is based on false premises. It fails to appreciate the fact that, on the one hand, the latter makes for an important element in the state’s strategic calculus. On the other hand, religious forces had always played an important role in the ascendency of the state elite to the apex of power. Over the years religious elements have had a legitimizing effect over the army’s overt and covert intrusion into the political domain. Given the non-hegemonic nature of the state, intolerance for ethnic identities, its reliance on naked force when it comes to the peripheral areas (in terms of their share in state power), and its aid dependent (crisis driven) economy and the false sense of acute insecurity leaves little room for a policy shift. The state continues to engage in structural violence in order to sustain and perpetuate its own existence. Furthermore, the state enjoys a near monopoly on the dissemination of information, thus finds itself better positioned to reinforce a sub-human image of the Pashtuns.
Those demanding military action in FATA, lest they underestimate its importance, must start and end their criticism of militancy with the state. Without a radical recalibration of the strategic calculus in Islamabad a military operation is unlikely to yield any results. This stands apart from the fact that militants had already vacated North Waziristan leaving for ‘safer’ areas. The liberal response to the latest state-made crisis in North Waziristan, which has rendered almost a million people homeless, not only absolves the true culprit responsible for the mess we find ourselves in but put a serious question mark on their own pluralistic and progressive credentials.
Will the liberals demand similar action for centers of religious extremism in Punjab? Will they yell for blood and more blood the same way as this mass of people is demanding in the case of Waziristan? Are not the Taliban (who are not limited to the tribal people or Pashtuns only) a by-product of the state ideology which is based on a millenarian view of history? But it is also a fact that the liberals owe their current position to the existing status quo, to the order of things as set by the state. Thus, while the state is an instrument of oppression for some, it is a source of patronage for others. The veracity of resistance to state oppression becomes an inconceivable, discomforting reality for the liberals, as such resistance stands in diametrical opposition to the very edifice [Pakistani state] which sustains them.