Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pakistani Conflict: Missing the Point

Pakistani military commentary from the front lines in the NWFP is highly positive, even while calling for better military equipment and admitting that insurgent resistance has been fierce and evidently continues. The real message that comes through is even more troubling than admissions that the fight is proving difficult. It is the evident militarization of the dispute, both by the insurgents who chose to make a show of arms after winning at the negotiating table in February and by the government with its military response, that should be most troubling to those who care about the stability and progress of Pakistani society. The talk is all about firepower and battlefield results, with the underlying issues of how to organize a society being pushed to the background.

"Democracy vs. caliphate" misses the real issues. Which one wins is in a certain sense irrelevant. Should "democracy" as it currently exists in Pakistan prevail--with military omnipresence, elite corruption, and backsliding of the mass of the people into further hopelessness--no one who cares about the future of Pakistan would have any reason to rejoice. If violence-addicted, power-hungry radicals gorged on their own power and spouting a vicious and twisted version of Islam that hardly any Muslim in the world a decade ago would have recognized or respected prevails, once again no one who cares about the future of Pakistan would have any reason to rejoice.

Justice. One of the many specific issues that must be addressed to resolve this socio-political struggle is justice. To the extent that the insurgents focus on this, as they frequently have in criticizing traditional courts for their delays in settling cases, they have a point and should be listened to. Unfortunately, their rising radicalism (by which I mean death threats, insistence on being obeyed without question, quickness to use violence, and appalling viciousness toward girls) undercuts the legitimacy of their message and demand for power just as much as the government's helicopter gunships and lack of care for refugees undercuts the legitimacy of its position). "We demand justice and will shoot if you don't submit" transforms the debate over justice into a farce, which is a shame because the problem is real and deserves attention.

Civil services. Another issue that must be addressed is the provision of civil services to marginalized groups (whether tribal herders in NWFP or Pashtun migrants to Karachi's slums). Once again, the real issue is being submerged by the rising radicalism on both sides. Insurgents charges about the failure of governance are so much hot air when they use force against tribal jirgas looking for compromise. Such insurgent extremism only helps the corrupt portion of the elite that prefers pocketing government funds to spending it to improve society.

Extremism generates extremism, marginalizing the middle, and oversimplifying the debate. Eventually one bully or another will win, but for the people of Pakistan it won't matter much whether that bully happens to be a modern power-hungry military dictator or a fundamentalist power-hungry Islamic radical. Neither will provide the justice, respect, good government, or economic security that are the real issues.

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