Blowback, Pakistan-style

Blood, politics and tribes prove a deadly brew in Pakistan.

Bhutto’s homecoming turned into a tragedy
after a suicide attack on her convoy [AFP]

The carnage that greeted Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistan prime minister, upon her return to the country may have occurred in Karachi, but there is little doubt about where the orders came from: the badlands of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the home bases of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Those who gave the orders for the bombing intended not merely to decapitate the soon to be consecrated government before it could assume power.

As important was the need to pre-empt the well-advertised assault on the militants in the frontier and tribal regions by the Pakistani military that was scheduled to start any day.

Bhutto’s return was the public symbol of the government’s new, get tough attitude. “I know who these people are, I know the forces behind them,” Bhutto explained to the New York Times.

Left unsaid, and unquestioned, was why Bhutto is so familiar with “these people,” most of whom are hiding out in the NWFP: The governments she led during the late 1980s and mid 1990s were, in conjunction with Pakistan‘s notorious intelligence services (ISI), among the most important sponsors of the Taliban.


Successive Pakistani governments supported the Taliban and the militants who would form the core of al-Qaeda not just because of their role in expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan.


As important was the need to co-opt and keep busy this potentially destabilising new force in the complex political landscape of the NWFP.


The problem is that Pakistan‘s leaders were viewing the NWFP and FATA through the same distorted lens as the British did before them, seeing the region as a bastion of backwards tribes which could be manipulated and cajoled into preserving a status quo that left most of the people living in the region among the most underdeveloped people on earth.


The trouble with tribes


The justification for such policies has long rested on the view of the region by outsiders as a primitive tribal system that is incapable of developing on its own terms, if at all. (As one friend in Peshawar, a law professor and rock artist, told me: “People call us walnuts; that is, hard-headed and stupid. I’m regularly asked by Pakistanis in the south if I live in a mud hut.”)


This perception of supposedly primitive tribal peoples is not unique to Pakistan. Ever since Europe “discovered” the Americas and began to gain control over Africa and southern Asia more than half a millennium ago, tribes and tribalism have been the object of fear, fascination, and above all confusion.


In video

Chaotic scenes in Karachi

And American no less than Pakistani fall prey easily to the allure of “tribes” as the explanatory catch-all for what ails the world.


American history is unimaginable without the ubiquitous image of the Indian “tribes”, and their role as “noble savage” against whom the country’s “frontier personality” developed.


The Dutch, British and French empires also had an ambivalent relationship with what they defined as the “tribes” living in the societies with whom they came into contact.


Dividing, classifying, and managing them (often against each other) was central to successful European trade with, and ultimately control over the Americas, Africa and South Asia.


Definition debate


Scholars have had a particularly tough time defining the term. A 1963 article in the British Journal of Sociology well summed up the problem, explaining that tribe was “an everyday word with a

vengeance: probably everyone is quite sure what it means”.


The problem, of course, was that most people, including many academics, didn’t quite know what it meant, and still don’t.


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The views of journalists, commentators and the public at large have been even more problematic.


By and large, most people have simplistically assumed that any society that possessed tribes was technologically, politically and morally “inferior” to and “backwards” vis-a-vis Europe and later the US.


This view has changed little in mainstream policy-making or journalism, as demonstrated by the writings of many commentators, who have often had a disproportionate influence on the formation of US foreign policy in the Muslim world.


For instance, Thomas Friedman famously argued in his first best-seller, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Arab peoples are fundamentally different from the West because they “have not fully broken from their primordial identities”.


The best way to understand the “tribalism” governing Arab societies, he argues, is to return to the “nomadic Bedouins of the desert” in 7th-century Arabia.


In other words, an Arab living the Moroccan Sahara in 1989, the year the book was published, differed little from their ancestors who migrated from Arabia 1,400 years ago (later Friedman would come to believe that globalisation was the one force that could flatten out local particularities and open the way for the full modernisation of the Arab/Muslim world).


‘Ancient hatreds’


Robert Kaplan, whose articles and best-selling books have equally influenced government policy-making, also draws on tribal imagery for his analyses.


In his Balkan Ghosts, which influenced Bill Clinton‘s decision not to intervene in the Yugoslav civil war, he argues that the war was the result of irrational and irreconcilable “ancient hatreds”, which made it Western intervention futile and even foolhardy.


More recently, Kaplan has argued that the “lawless frontier” and “unreconstructed” – that is, backwards and uncivilised – “tribal people” of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier are principle causes for the spread of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in these regions.


Perhaps the most well known and influential tribalist argument is the Clash of Civilisations thesis of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.


This theory enlarges the tribal model to the level of civilisation, and then argues that Islamic civilisation – as if Islam can be reduced to one simplistic representation – is incapable of change, development, or even rational behaviour.


Because of this, the Muslim world must inevitably clash with the secularised, rational and enlightened West.


Tribes and tribalism


Of course, the fact that tribes and tribalism are politically charged and confusing terms doesn’t mean that there aren’t political groupings in the Muslim world define themselves in ways that roughly correspond to the English word tribe.


From pre-Islamic times through today, Arab and Muslim societies more broadly have defined and differentiated their identities through kinship and similar relationships that fit the broad usage of the term.


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They trace their lineages back to common ancestors, and ensure communal solidarity – what the great Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun famously termed asabiyya – through marriages to members of the same kinship networks and other mechanisms for securing loyalty to the tribe (qabila, a word whose Arabic root connotes hospitality and agreement).


Tribal affiliations and loyalties have long played a crucial role in securing rights to land, particularly in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions that today are part of the NWFP and FATA.


Both regions, which together comprise almost 100,000sq km, are composed of at least a dozen tribes belonging, largely, to the Pashtun ethnic group.


Pashtun pride


Pashtuns have long been known for their refusal to submit to foreign domination, and the more than a dozen tribes of the regions that would become the NWFP and FATA fought a succession of outside powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Mughal, Afghan, Persian and British empires, in their quest to retain as much local autonomy as possible.


Pakistani government forces are engaged in
a difficult battle in the tribal areas [EPA]

The British alone engaged in well over four dozen “expeditions” in the frontier or tribal areas between 1847 and 1908, as part of the struggle for control of these strategically important regions against Czarist Russia.


Despite the regular and large scale use of force – in the first war with the Pashtuns, 14,800 soldiers went into the Tribal Areas, only one came out alive – the British never managed to secure full control over them.


This was a primary reason why the government of India acquiesced to relatively wide local autonomy for the regions compared with much of India or in other colonies.


Indeed, by 1877, the British administrator of the “frontier districts” described the regions as “a spectacle unique in the world … where, after 25 years of peaceful occupation, a great civilised power has obtained so little influence over its semi-savage neighbours, and acquired so little knowledge of them … There is absolutely no security for British life a mile or two beyond our



Significant autonomy


The NWFP was created by the British in 1905 as a reflection of the need to offer significant autonomy to the region’s Pashtun majority if a semblance of order was to be maintained.


Its seven agencies or districts reflected not just the power of Pashtun identity, but the enduring impact of Arab, Hindu, Sikh, Dravidian, Sindhi and Punjabi influences, and the confusing interplay of caste and tribal structure as well.


Religiously, Sufism rather than the orthodox Islam today associated with the Taliban was dominant in the region.


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Given the circumstances that led to its creation, it’s not surprising that the tribes of the NWFP have born the stamp of criminality since the days of British rule.


First, they were defined by the “Criminal Tribes Act” of 1871. Until 1917, tribes were classified as “Backwards Classes” or “primitive”, and were divided into “criminal and wandering tribes, aboriginal tribes, and untouchables.” Even today, the region is governed by the “Frontier Crimes Regulation Ordinance” (FCR), which continues the centuries old tradition of governments equating the frontier regions with lawlessness and criminality.


The British placed Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, under direct federal administration to ensure a modicum of control of the surrounding areas by the central government. But in the NWFP and what would become the FATA, tribal customs were allowed to govern most aspects of people’s lives, as they do today.


Politically, when provincial elections were held beginning in 1935, the leaders of the main tribes, or maliks (often referred to as “feudal lords” in the West, and by some Pakistanis as well) were most often elected to the local or national assemblies, extending their local power by participating in the emerging British, and then Pakistani, state structures.


As the central government attempted to exert greater power over the frontier and tribal regions, however, the long-standing tensions between the secular laws of the state, the Sharia, or Islamic Law, and urf, or local customs, grew.


Aggravating the situation was the fact that the NWFP and FATA were home to a particularly powerful code of ethics and behaviour, known as Pashtunwali, or the Pashtun way.


Powerful obligations


Pashtunwali is based on the powerful obligations to provide hospitality and sanctuary, even to one’s enemies, yet at the same time to exact revenge at all costs against any slights against one’s honour, or that of members of one’s family, clan or tribe.


Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted as he
prosecutes an unpopular war on terror [AFP]

The code also requires Pashtuns to abide by the decisions of the council of tribal leaders when they meet in the assembly known as the jirga, which adjucates disputes and feuds.


The overall system long served not just to maintain honour (which is what most Western commentators focus on), but equally important, to maintain a rough equality and balance of power between and within tribes.


This function is crucial because in the imperial as well as globalised eras, external forces have exercised power precisely by disturbing local  equality, or at least stability, in order to create new political orders more favourable to their interests.


Indeed, this process generated significant instability in the tribal regions in the decades leading up to the creation of Pakistan, as economic transformations in India and neighbouring regions increased the power of previously minor tribal leaders at the expense of the more established maliks.


They in turn aligned themselves with the British and later central Pakistani governments to retain their hold on power.


Threat of instability


As is so often the case in countries under colonial rule, the very system that the British imposed to maintain order politically was threatened by the instability their economic and military policies



As time wore on, the increasing power, corruption and exploitation of the “big Khans” (as the maliks are also known) encouraged the rise of a new generation of charismatic religious figures, and eventually the Taliban.


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Pakistanis voice anger over
Karachi bombings

Their egalitarian and purified vision of a just Islamic order was more in line with local customs and ideals than were the actions of the politically connected major land-owning maliks.


What is particularly dangerous about this dynamic is that the coming together of the Taliban and the tribesmen brought into synergy two seemingly contradictory positions.


The anti-nationalist and pan-Islamic identity of the often foreign-born Taliban (much of it inspired by the writings of the Pakistani theologian and activist Mawlana Mawdudi), ranged against the particularistic and locally rooted identity of the region’s tribal groups.


As important, the Taliban brought in their own, much needed financial resources to the region. Their activities were supported by a succession of Pakistani governments, by the US and Saudis, and by remittances sent home by migrants working in the wealthy Gulf countries.


History of rebellion


The local people offered hospitality, generations of anger at the central government, and a history of violent rebellion under the banner of Islam.


This combination of economic, geostrategic, political and ideological interests made the NWFP and FATA a natural base for the jihadi movements after the Afghan war.


The growth of the heroin and arms trades, and other cross border smuggling (especially of Chinese-made goods, much of them pirated), also increased the power of the new religious forces and the growing number of tribal leaders who were aligned with them.


As the US Institute of Peace concluded in a 2002 conference on the NWFP, “These new leaders have effectively captured the various forms of simmering discontent within the tribes and have emerged as more legitimate defenders of tribal interests.


“The foundations of Pashtun identity have changed with perhaps a permanent turn towards Islamism and movement away from traditional secular, tribal leadership.”


Complicating matters even more was that the central government’s main intelligence network, the ISI, simultaneously encouraged, infiltrated, and sometimes fought against the Pakistani Taliban and various jihadi groups.


Dashed dream 


The founders of Pakistan, Muhammad Jinnah, and Allama Iqbal imagined their hoped for country as a “land of the spiritually pure and clean” people.


In video

The aftermath of the attack

Bhutto’s defiant speech

Political ramifications for Pakistan

Their vision never approached reality, as from the start Pakistan was plagued by rampant poverty, lack of development, government repression and systemic corruption.


Indeed, the new state quickly reinforced the most corrupt and exploitative dynamics of British rule, a reality that helped drive the leadership of East Pakistan to declare independence as Bangladesh in 1971.


The Pashtun peoples of the NWFP and FATA have never had a cohesive enough nationalist identity to break away from the rest of the country.


In fact, their relative independence depended on the region’s continued function as a buffer between Pakistan and its western neighbours, as well as on the very absence of state authority that has been an important cause of the region’s many economic and political woes.


The ambivalence towards the state by local forces reflects the larger contradictions of life in the NWFP and FATA, which literally jump out at you when you travel through them. Signs welcoming you to the “land of hospitality” alternate with those that warn “Foreigners, keep



Rampant illiteracy


Smugglers markets sell the latest high tech electronics, as well as advanced weapons, drugs and pornography. Innumerable English language and computer schools, and one of Pakistan‘s most venerable universities, Islamia College, sit next to squalid refugee camps, in a region plagued by rampant illiteracy.


The two regions are awash in money, but most is derived from the local gray and black economies.


The state pledges increased funds for local development, yet 60 years after independence it has not managed to build a modern road into the provincial capital of Peshawar.


The ambivalence towards the state reflects the
 contradictions of life in the tribal belt [GETTY]

The government decries the prevalence of tribal customs, yet it continues to administer the regions based on customary practices such as the collective punishment of tribes. 


Dictatorship is defended by appeals to fighting the terror it helped breed, while agreements designed to rein in the Taliban (such as the much-criticised 2006 Miranshah agreement between the government and tribal and Taliban leaders in North Waziristan) wind up helping the

Taliban and al-Qaeda to regroup and grow.


And now, the political situation has become so contradictory as to border on the absurd.


Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is being called upon to save the country from the Taliban, when her government did perhaps the most to build up the Taliban.


She is supposed to bring a breathe of political fresh air (which would be much appreciated, given the pollution levels across the country), but she was twice removed from power because of corruption.


Interpol even issued arrest warrants for Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, otherwise known as “Mr Ten Percent” for the kickbacks he allegedly demanded from businesses during her time as prime minister.


What can Bhutto do?


It is hard to imagine what Bhutto will do that Musharraf hasn’t already done, or how she will succeed where he has, at least in Washington‘s eyes, failed.


Indeed, it should surprise no one when, despite the horrific attack against her, Bhutto proves as incapable – or unwilling – to crush the Taliban and al-Qaeda as previous governments have been, including her own.


It is hard to see what Bhutto can what Musharraf
hasn’t already done in the war on extremists [AFP]

That’s because ultimately, the tragic reality of Pakistan is that the forces tearing the country apart are the same ones that are holding it together.


The central government is too weak and corrupt to implant or impose a strong, national identity or programme of development in the manner that Ataturk did in Turkey or Lenin and Stalin did in the Soviet Union.


The very process of doing so would likely trigger widespread social unrest, disintegration and even civil war.


The suicide bombings against Bhutto’s welcome home procession are only a taste of the chaos and large-scale violence that would erupt if a politician or party actually challenged the finely honed corruption and horse-trading that has defined Pakistani politics for generations.


Although its causes would owe as much to economic and political inequalities as to religious or tribal ideologies, such a development would inevitably be interpreted as yet another example of “ancient tribal hatreds” dooming a developing country to perpetual war and



Only this country is a nuclear-weapons state that is home to the world’s most dangerous terrorists.


And unlike Bosnia or Rwanda, the US would be forced to intervene, fulfilling Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams when he turned commuter planes into cruise missiles on that warm September morning over the island of Manhattan, six years ago last month.

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine in California, USA, and author and editor of half-a-dozen books, including Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005) and the forthcoming Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Verso) and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books). He is a regular commentator on Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post.

Source: Al Jazeera

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