Some observations on the war in Swat

Thursday, January 29, 2009
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Over the past few weeks a vigorous debate has raged on these pages about the nature of the war taking place in Swat. It is important to congratulate the editors of these pages for providing space to this debate; one of Pakistan’s most pressing crises is an intellectual one, deriving from a lack of exchange of ideas without fear of suppression.

The debate has pitted those who claim that the situation in Swat is a reflection of long-standing class inequities against those who refute this notion of ‘class war’; while the former suggest that the ‘Taliban’ has generated support amongst the subordinate classes the latter argue that the ‘Taliban’ has imposed itself in the area on the basis of brute force. At the risk of generalization, let me venture that those who argue that there is a clear class dimension to the war in Swat are convinced that US imperialism and its client Pakistani military are bigger enemies of the people than the ‘Taliban’. On the other hand, those who emphasise the brutality of the ‘Taliban’ above and beyond the machinations of the US and Pakistani militaries argue that the ‘Taliban’ is the biggest menace facing society.

There is a need to move beyond the binary of the ‘Taliban’ and the Pakistani/American militaries. This is not to suggest that the principal protagonists of the so-called ‘war on terror’, namely the Pakistani and American militaries should not be identified as such, but only to make clear that the relationship between the ‘Taliban’ and the Pakistani military is very, very shady.

Nonetheless there is a need to transcend the superficial analyses that are floating around in the popular media where conspiracy theorists typically identify the age-old ‘enemies of Pakistan’ as creating chaos in the shape of the ‘Taliban’. However, even some of the more historically accurate narratives which acknowledge the deep consensual relationship between the religious right and the military establishment do not consider how this relationship has evolved and why the religious right is able to make inroads into society (regardless of whether it is supported by the establishment or not).

In short, I concur with the proposition that there is a class dimension to the war in Swat in the sense that long-standing social schisms have been exploited by the ‘Taliban’ to generate support. I believe however that there is a need to recognize the tremendous ideational power that Islam plays in the wider society. If the ‘Taliban’ engenders at least some support from historically marginalized social groups by promising to attack the edifice of class and state power in the area, then these same social groups are also moved by the promise of eternal salvation.

I recognize the points that have been made about the changes in society on account of migration that has spouted now sources of wealth and attendant worldviews. But here it is worth pointing out the sociological roots of the original jihadi/sectarian organizations, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) which was supported by the relatively mobile urban merchant classes of small-town Punjab who wanted to challenge the monopoly on political power of the incumbent landed class (that happened to be primarily Shia and could be made the target of a Sunni supremacist politics of exclusion). Thus the new wealth that has changed the landscape of Swat society may not necessarily have changed the configuration of local politics and the ‘Taliban’ may be seen as a vehicle to challenge the prevalent political hierarchy.

I also think that the romance of the ‘Taliban’ amongst ordinary people in Swat has worn off to a significant extent. So historically marginalised social groups were originally enamoured by the ‘Taliban’s’ lure of salvation in both ‘deen’ and ‘duniya’. However even if the ‘Taliban’ has provided material benefit for some segments of Swat’s population, it has also resorted to unbridled use of force to operationalise its ‘Islamic’ dictates to the point where it has become clear that it does not offer the glorious alternative order that it claimed to do.

Having said this, by continuing to rain bombs down upon innocent people, the Pakistani military is providing every incentive to the local population to look at the ‘Taliban’ as an alternative to the violence of the state. And thus the nebulous relationship between the ‘Taliban’ and the military emerges as a central part of the tragic story of the Swat war.

In conclusion, by suggesting that the ‘Taliban’ exploits historically evolved conflicts within society, one is not arguing that it’s warped millenarian vision actually represents a progressive alternative. But it is also true that simply decrying the ‘medieval’ and ‘barbarian’ project of the ‘Taliban’ and therefore implicitly providing a mandate to the militaries that have imposed war on Swat and other parts of the Pakhtun belt will serve only to sharpen the appeal of this millenarian vision. What Swat really needs is a genuinely anti-imperialist force to resist the so-called ‘war on terror’ and build a progressive and equal society not through brazen coercion but through popular mobilization. (The News)

The writer is a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement. He also teaches colonial history and political economy at LUMS. Email: