Af / Pak — 30 May 2013
The False Narrative of a War on Terror

Moez Mobeen
A Rebuttal of the Official Narrative on the War on Terror in Pakistan

The war on terror continues to be the most important and polarizing debate in Pakistan. Yet, it continues to this day with the most fundamental question still unanswered, is it our war or not? Although since the start of this war, Pakistani public has consistently rejected it as an American war, a section of the Pakistani intelligentsia has been consistently trying to change the overwhelming consensus against this war so as to change public opinion in favor of it. With the idea of peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban doing the rounds, a fresh attempt is being made by this segment of the intelligentsia to establish a narrative which favors military operations and continual war against Islamic militants. Arguments like protecting the monopoly of the state on physical aggression and deploying state power to defend the idea of democracy are being presented to present this war, as a just war. What follows is the rebuttal of such a narrative.

It should be understood that the state and its institutions are in origin political institutions, which are based on a comprehensive idea about the organization of the society. The legitimacy of the state does not merely come from it being the competent authority and hence enjoying complete monopoly on physical aggression. The legitimacy of a state and its institutions come from the idea upon which it stands and its ability to organize the people’s affairs successfully based on that idea. A state which is unresponsive to the needs and demands of a segment of the society would naturally face a challenge to its authority from that particular segment. In such a scenario the state needs to first and foremost review as to why a segment of the society chose to physically challenge it .This essentially means that the state should accept its failure to integrate that segment in to mainstream society. So why was that segment marginalized? Is it because of weak state infrastructure which was unable to cater for the needs of that segment of society denying it access to the resources of the state? Or was it the state’s refusal to protect that segment from foreign aggression? Is it because a new idea has taken root in that segment of the society which contradicts the idea on which the state stands? Is it because the state deliberately chose to ignore the aspirations of that segment of the society for the sake of foreign interests? Such a detailed analysis needs to be carried out by the state to win the hearts and mind of the rebellious segment of the state.

Any physical aggression aimed at the state, from within a segment of the society over which it governs, has political origins and political motivations. It is known throughout history that rebellions take route upon an agenda or an idea. The fact that such physical aggression was aimed at a political entity, the state, which has its own idea and agenda, goes on to show the political nature of such physical aggression. Faced with such a scenario, is the state justified in blind use of force as retaliation to such a physical aggression insisting that its monopoly on physical aggression be accepted at all costs whatever the political considerations? Not necessarily so. The state can deploy its extraordinary power to suppress a physical challenge to its authority, but such a power cannot transform the rebellious segment of the society, it may rather incite it further. Rebellions are not suppressed or quelled by force rather the motivations behind them should be addressed through political discourse and engagement. Ignoring the political dimension of sedition and treason is a flawed approach.

Thus, a state will only be able to subdue a rebellious segment under its authority if it is materially and intellectually superior to it. Material strength alone is not enough unless of course the state plans to physically eliminate the whole rebellious segment. A political solution is an attempt to integrate the rebellious segment of the society in to mainstream society under the authority of the state. What this really means is an attempt at integrating the rebellious segment of the society through either of the two approaches. Either the state would have to reform itself to accommodate the demands of the rebellious segment of the society or the rebellious segment would have to give up its demands. So in reality a political solution is an attempt at intellectual integration.

To suggest that such negotiations are an abdication of the state’s monopoly on physical aggression is in reality oversimplification of the problem. The state does not exist to jealously guard its monopoly on physical aggression; it rather seeks such an exclusive monopoly on physical aggression to use it in the interests of the people it governs, not to use it against them. So this is not really a debate about how institutions function, for such a debate is academic. It is rather a debate about how a political entity functions.

The liberals have previously used the institutional argument to oppose the Taliban militancy and they use it still. The idea that a state should insist on its monopoly on physical aggression, or what is more commonly referred to as the writ of the state emanates from a viewpoint which views the state as an institution which is a function of predefined set of principles based on a historical analysis of state behavior. Such an approach towards the conception of a state’s behavior often results in its proponents divorcing the institution of the state from its real function. It is an institution which derives its legitimacy from the people and hence exists to look after their affairs. An executive authority which does not enjoy legitimacy with a section of the population within its domain should act to establish its legitimacy because it cannot function without such legitimacy. What it means is that state need to be compassionate, not ruthless, in its response towards a crisis or a challenge to its authority and legitimacy. Interestingly liberals argue on similar lines with regards to the Baloch insurgency which they see as secular and nationalist, but do not believe in applying this approach towards the Taliban insurgency which they revile as having Islamic origins.

Recently the liberals have attempted to bring the ideological angle to this debate. The argument is that the Pakistani state is built on democratic principles and the ideals of secularism. As the Taliban oppose these ideals, state power should be deployed against them to defend the idea on which the state is built. Moreover as the Taliban are not willing to accept a democratic state and adopt secularism, no political reconciliation with them should even be attempted.

There are three fundamental problems with this viewpoint. Firstly and the most worrying is the vagueness in the liberal narrative, its objective and its seriousness in addressing the problem of an insurgency. It appears that such a narrative is being developed to keep liberal thought relevant in Pakistan by packaging it as an alternative to the Taliban’s version of Pakistan. As the Muslim World as a whole has marched towards Islamic revival and demanded a more prominent rather central role of Islam in politics and has in fact started demanding political institutions as envisioned by Islam, liberals have felt increasingly marginalized and irrelevant within Muslim societies. It is clear that the Muslim World has rejected secularism with surveys and polls pointing to the increasing demand of Shariah law, such as the recent Pew survey. Even the recent Pakistani elections brought right leaning parties to the fore and despite liberal arguments to the contrary these elections only serve to prove further the society’s march towards Islam. The Taliban phenomenon has given the liberals an opportunity to make liberalism relevant to the Pakistani society. So they have worked hard to build a binary narrative of Taliban versus liberalism in the hope that they would be successful in inciting the population against some practices of the Taliban and as an alternative sell liberalism and democracy to them. So the liberals are relying not on the strengths of secular democracy but the fear of the Taliban to sell their ideology. It can be argued that the liberals need the Taliban and they are not actually interested in ending the cycle of physical aggression, they are rather interested in using this physical aggression to build a narrative which can help transform Pakistan in to a secular state. So the question which needs to be asked is whether the liberals are actually interested in addressing the insurgency problem or using it for their ideological needs?

Secondly, employing state power in defense of an idea has only real meaning and effectiveness if the masses support that idea. The Pakistani public at large does not support secularism and democracy and it rather wants Pakistan to be an Islamic state. The contention that their participation in the recent elections is an expression of their support for secular democracy is deliberately trying to twist the argument. The Pakistani electorate at large doesn’t see the electoral exercise and secularism as being one and the same; they rather see no contradiction between elections under democracy and the demand for Shariah law. For them the two can go side by side. Moreover their participation in the system does not come from their conviction in democracy and the idea of sovereignty of the masses; they rather see these elections in terms of personalities and not a comprehensive system of governance. Moreover the voting patterns in recent elections were inspired by a fear of what more harm democracy could bring, rather than a loyalty and conviction in democracy. This translated in to a drive to vote based on voting for the lesser evil or the smaller thief.

The idea that Islam should be the basis of the governance model in Pakistan has been the founding idea of the Pakistani state and has continued to enjoy support within the society since then. Although the conception of an Islamic state has developed from the early years of a pragmatic struggling for a democratic Islamic state to a comprehensive and radical vision of establishing the Islamic caliphate, the idea of Islam playing a central role in politics never lost its centrality in the Pakistani society. So how can the liberals argue for deployment of state power to protect the idea of democracy, when that very idea is being challenged politically and intellectually throughout Pakistan? Are the liberals any different from the Taliban if they try to impose their idea of the state on the society through the use of force? The only difference between the two being that one is using the resources of a group, the other the resources of the state. The argument that the institution of the state is generally considered to be legitimate and hence any exercise of power in the name of the state is legitimate does not apply here. We have had regimes in Pakistan which were considered to be illegitimate by the liberals themselves, like the Zia regime. In fact the liberals have attacked Zia for using state power to defend and propagate Islam or a version of it. How can they then be justified in advocating the use of state power to defend democracy and secularism which is after all a political idea? So the argument that Taliban don’t subscribe to democracy and hence should be crushed is a flawed argument, it is flawed because the question of the idea of Pakistan has not been settled. Or to be more accurate, it has been settled at the level of the masses who want Pakistan to be an Islamic state, but it is still unsettled at the state level where a select liberal minority is using state power to resist the demands of the society.

Thirdly, and most importantly of all, the liberal narrative is flawed in its entirety because they have based it on the wrong premise. The Taliban phenomenon is not about Islamic militants wanting to overthrow the state to impose their version of Islam on the society. It is rather a rejection of Pakistan’s pro-American foreign policy in which the Pakistani state is trying to protect foreign interests by deploying material force to stop Islamic militants from going to Afghanistan to fight the American occupation. Restlessness in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt is directly associated to geopolitics. This is because in origin this war started for purely geopolitical reasons when the Pakistani regime led by Pervez Musharaf sided with America. It was argued by the Musharaf regime that not siding with America would result in the destruction of Pakistan at the hands of the US. Although Musharaf’s assessment was disputed by some as based on his pro American leanings rather than actual geopolitical reasons the absence of the argument that Islamic militants are planning to overthrow the Pakistani state was quite obvious.

Moreover the international narrative on the war on terror within Pakistan is also overwhelmingly geopolitical. The West has accused Pakistan for providing safe havens to Islamic militants in FATA who use these havens as a launching pad to challenge the American occupation in Afghanistan. The accompanying debate about violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US drones and attacks on Salala and Abottabad, the continuation of NATO supply line through Pakistan, American financing for Pakistan’s war efforts and the arrest of American spies in Pakistan point to a direct American link to this War within Pakistan so much so that American policy makers consider the Afghan and Pakistan territories as a joint War Theatre. The US has a direct interest in ensuring that Islamic militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas do not target its forces in Afghanistan and rather clash with Pakistan’s security forces resulting in continuation of its presence in the region without any major threats to it. It has therefore ignited the war between Islamic militants and Pakistan both physically as well as intellectually and has supported the development of a narrative in Pakistan where the War on Terror is seen as Pakistan’s war, for such a narrative helps her strategic objective.

The direct US support for this war within Pakistan makes a strong case for the War on Terror to be viewed in geopolitical terms. Even in the intellectual debate regarding this War the US has involved itself by funding political forces like the Sunni Itehad Council which openly opposed the Taliban. Therefore anyone who is serious in ending the chaos and anarchy which has gripped Pakistan in the last decade should forcefully argue for the termination of this war by challenging the main source behind it, the US presence in the region. Nothing else will end the cycle of chaos and anarchy.

The author is a freelance columnist who regularly writes on Muslim Affairs and tweets @moezmobeen

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