Monday, July 20, 2009

What Might Pakistan's Tribal People Actually Want?

I suppose the “good news” is that Pakistan’s mainstream media are discussing all the bad news in the tribal regions, rather than simply ignoring those areas. Now, for some of the bad news…

A recent article summarized the challenge in these words:

Fata is part of Pakistan in name alone. It is not subject to the laws of the land and the writ of the state holds no meaning in large swathes of the tribal belt. What’s more, Taliban ‘rule’ in recent years has transformed the power equation in the region. The militants have killed or quelled the tribal maliks who once called the shots. True, the old order was also iniquitous but the maliks at least had a stake in a state that awarded them status and privilege. The militants and clerics who now rule the roost are under no such obligations.

A few details make the point more clearly:

Money must and can be found to develop the tribal belt, create employment opportunities, and cater to basic needs such as schooling and healthcare. For far too long, the notion that tribal people just want to be left alone has given the centre a pretext for doing nothing for their uplift. Nobody wants to travel 100 miles to get to a hospital.

The paper then astutely raises another question:

What the residents of Fata want must be ascertained first and foremost. Are they ready to accept a social contract under which they willingly relinquish some of their freedoms in exchange for protection by the state and the rights and privileges of citizenship?

Now, we have reached the nub of the issue.

It is all too easy to argue that past injustice and lack of governance led to the rise of the Taliban, which must now be defeated by a combination of judicious, precision military might (so far a concept that appears to exist only in the minds of “leftwingers”) and a powerful reform of that old bad governance. But if the old society of local chieftains has been destroyed by the combination of Taliban murders and government military destruction, what do the locals—many now in refugee camps—want? The option of returning to the old days seems no longer possible. They have little evidence that anything good will come from a new, close association with “those people in the plains,” as the much mistreated mountain people may think of the somewhat alien society of Pakistan.

So far, neither government nor Taliban seems to be asking the locals what they might actually want. Some vote with their feet and flee…but don’t get much of a welcome in Pakistan. Others vote with their feet and fight against the Taliban…but don’t get much Pakistani support so they tend to get slaughtered. Still others vote with their feet and join the Taliban. I wonder what type of government the people of Waziristan might adopt if they actually had a free choice?

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