Neo-liberalism and Militancy in AfPak

Posted on 10/11/13
By Syed Irfan Ashraf | ViewsWeek
Masked terrorists of Pakistani Taliban.
Masked terrorists of Pakistani Taliban. (Photo of video stream)

In Pakistan, over 24,000 containers carrying arms for NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan have been allegedly missing for the last four years or so, but the Coalition authorities are silent. From retired Pakistani army generals to serving bureaucrats and from politicians to the Taliban, beneficiaries of the scandal belong to powerful institutions. This seems the reason behind Pakistani media’s reluctance to make the issue a part of the mainstream discourse. This whole scam is interesting, if not surprising.

Due to widespread insecurities, no difference can make a real difference in the post-9/11 world. If economic exploitation at the global level is the outcome of a neo-liberal turn, militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan is the product of what Michael Watt calls military’s neo-liberalism: Force and favors dovetail to promote social and economic anarchy, which snatch from the poor to enrich the powerful.

Riding on the neo-liberal tide, the Taliban emerged much before the 9/11 attacks. But their fighting strength increased after the U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan in 2001. Therefore, people believe that strident militancy in the AfPak region is the consequence of Taliban’s strategy to fight the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. This over-simplification, however, blinds us to the presence of many contradictory patterns, which otherwise could help us better understand the ongoing exploitation in the name of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Foremost of all is the question: Isn’t the US-sponsored militarization in tandem with talibanisation?

For example, the passage of the NATO supply through Khyber Agency, one of the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, is the source of strength for over half a dozen militant groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Vying for an access to the supply line has led to their persistent infighting, which has continued for the last one decade. Not only has it strengthened militancy in the agency that borders Afghanistan, but also the looting and plunder of the NATO logistics has helped such groups to enlist manpower from the local population.

Inside Afghanistan, ensuring a safe passage to the NATO supply requires the authorities to pay the Afghan Taliban through local contractors. Therefore, a chunk of the NATO logistics is not only looted, but they are sold away later in the Afghan and Pakistani markets. In other words, the logistics meant for fighting against the Taliban end up feeding militancy in the two countries. This growing black economy carries a deep impact on the sociology of militancy in the AfPak region.

Living close to the NATO supply route in Hayatabad town—a posh locality in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar—I found tribesmen visibly disturbed at the growing strength of militants in the adjacent Khyber agency. Following a military operation in 2009, pessimism replaced the initial uncertainty: tribesmen realized that political promises to defeat militants have given way to a military rhetoric. Social life was already crippled in the tribal areas of Pakistan under militants as daily curfew dismantled the public sector. Consequently, over 70,000 families were uprooted in which 14,000 ended up in Jalozai camp established for Afghan refugees from the 1979 Afghan war on the outskirts of Peshawar. With less challenges and more money at their disposal, Taliban militants found new confidence and comrades.

Drinking from the same stream does not mean that talibanisation is the offspring of neo-liberalism. Differences do exist between the two. But such differences relate to form, not content. For example, the representative forces of neo-liberalism control public sector from the top. The Taliban follow a bottom-up model by strangulating cultural forces. They fill terror in every inch of public space—on the streets and the roads. Second, transnational corporations usually apply economic means to control social and cultural drivers. The Taliban, on the other hand, derive their identity through the perversion of tribal values—blending religiosity and nationalism with revenge.

All NATO containers arrive at Karachi port and then are transported to Afghanistan. (Photo by Salis, Creative Commons License)
All NATO containers arrive at Karachi port and then are transported to Afghanistan. (Photo by Salis, Creative Commons License)

Therefore, the use of brute force, market fundamentalism, and resource monopolization are not limited to economic neo-liberalism; such attributes characterize militancy as well. From semi-precious stones to forest reserves and from transit trade to non-custom paid vehicles, black economy in the militancy-hit bordering areas of Pakistan was never as organized as it has got under the watchful eye of the Taliban. Militants even have changed the public perception of crime due to the pervasive use of violence. Earlier criminals in Pashtun belt were social pariah, but the Taliban’s strategy to paint crime with an ideological brush has made crime part of power and prestige. That is why the bigger the crime the more is its power.

Starting from the elimination of tribal elders right up to killing Pakistani judges in targeted incidents, the Taliban have connected to the bottom by creating a social vacuum. Consequently, militants adjudicate among people to maintain their influence and force the resourceful to pay them. Before the 2008 general elections in Pakistan, a militant commander Mangal Bagh corralled political contestants and their voters in a ground in the Khyber Agency and invited media to cover the event. Spectacles were staged as a public service for which politicians were allegedly made to pay to their militant overlord. This is a classic example of neo-liberalism: power is detached from public representation and the former controls the latter from a high vantage point.

From Pakistan to Afghanistan, and from Iraq to Syria, terrorism is no more a weapon in the hands of the poor. It is not a means to control the public sphere either. Instead, violence is used to stir public emotions to help fill terror and violence in the social fabric. In the presence of impotent representatives, the non-democratic wielders of power—both at the top and bottom—have been successful so far. They have managed to mobilize military means to transport the military neo-liberalism to every such corner capable of creating ideologically motivated reactionary ripples in the social and cultural arena.

In other words, though the global neo-liberal forces and their local militant rivals seem mutually exclusive, they all are interdependent and, therefore, abet each other. In the presence of serious challenges, Pakistani leaders need to show some strength of character. The missing NATO/ISAF containers are a test case for the newly elected Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan to assert its role. The present politics of reconciliation will not only encourage corrupt elements at the top, it is also not a check on militancy at the bottom. Both these unchecked forces are thriving on deprivation and exploitation, which is the neo-liberal project to dismantle any state that is not willing to cooperate.

The author is pursuing a PhD in Mass Communication at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. 

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