Pakistan’s Hydra-Headed Problem: Feudalism and Talibanization

PK-tyrant-boot-posterAs refugees begin to slowly return to Mingora, the main city in Swat, the New York Times reported that wealthy landowners remain reluctant to return to the Swat Valley. The Times here follows up on its earlier report regarding the Taliban’s capitalization of class fissures in this rural society, where they pitted land-owners against their landless tenants…as a result of this singling out, local prominent landowners are now slow to consider a return to their lands, fearing a lack of protection. While there has been much written in recent years about the mosque-military alliance (see Husain Haqqani) and on the military-industrial complex that has reached its tentacles into all civilian and economic aspects of the state (see Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military, Inc), lets not forget another party to this equation: military-mosque-feudal.

First, a slight tangent on the use of the term “feudalism” in this context, so that my use of it further below is a little clearer. To be sure, feudalism in the sense of the medieval definition of the word, is not seen in Pakistan. However, lets consider the existence of power structures … that there is a landed gentry (waderas/pirs/mirs/sardars etc etc) that rules supreme on the pecking order of the rural areas, at the very least. Then there is also the urban privileged elite with its imitation of a decadent aristocracy. If we are to judge the presence of feudalism in Pakistani society, lets look beyond the traditional agrarian parameters and broadly define it as the existence of a local and coercive form of power, in the form of a pyramid system…then I find it hard to argue that “feudalism” does not exist in Pakistan. After all, our political movers and shakers overwhelmingly rise through this strata of society (the PPP continues to be a great example) and it is the presence of this mindset of subjugation and control, in the hydra-headed monster that has ruled over Pakistan for so long—this “feudalism”, the military, and the power-plays of Washington, D.C., London, etc—that have led to the mass discontent and polarization from the state that we see today.

Given the above its not hard to make a connection between feudalism and the rise of militant groups in Pakistan. The long-entrenched feudal system perpetuates poverty and deprivation in the rural masses. In addition, feudalism is a contributor to poor governance, where wealthy landowners operate mini-fiefdoms and often serve as barriers to access to justice. The resulting lack of education, abysmal standards of living and rampant corruption has had a debilitating affect on the masses. Its not a difficult jump: poor governance coupled with extreme poverty has allowed extremism to flourish in Pakistan. As mentioned at the very beginning, the Taliban in Swat are said to have exploited these class resentments (rightfully earned resentments, I would say) and fissures between the wealthy few and the deprived masses, to garner support.

The Taliban forces in Swat are not made up wholly of foreign fighters pouring into this former resort area. A significant part of the militant movement there is made up of locals who are signing up of their own accord, a result of the Taliban’s clever exploitation of the socio-economic differences between the local landowners (who benefit from Swat’s natural resources of fertile land, timber, and mines) and their subservient and unhappy landless tenants. But militancy is on the rise not only in Swat or FATA but in the heartlands of feudal Pakistan as well (see this excellent article on the threat of the Punjabi Taliban here and this attempt by Hassan Abbas to define the Punjabi Taliban network).

So I’m hesitant to see traditional power structures/feudal relationships as being entrenched enough to serve as a deterrent to successful militant recruitment. A large number of the militants in Waziristan are in fact recruited from towns such as Rahim Yar Khan, Multan and Bahawalpur in Punjab. Its not hard to see that it is precisely because of the social inequities and power structures present in the Punjabi heartland that disillusionment has set in and made people more amenable to aligning themselves with the Taliban.

We know that feudalism and democracy cannot co-exist and while de-feudalization might seem like a tired old-world Socialism cry at this point, there’s no point trying to exorcise the military from civilian politics, if we don’t tackle the flip side. The military-feudal alliance in Pakistan has contributed to the profound schisms that exist in the Pakistani population, and have provided to be a fertile source for that third beast, militancy, to increasingly influence “the hearts and minds” of those who are constantly written out of the power structure. If Pakistanis are stuck between the military-feudal elites, the growing discontent borne out of this political exclusion (from the middle classes, as symbolized in the lawyers’ movement that led to the ouster of Musharraf to those joining the ranks of the Taliban) will only lead to further fragmentation and upheaval. Its hard to deny that this cleavage from the state is spreading and that Pakistanis increasingly feel “outside” of the state (this has nothing to do with identification as a Pakistani/state ideology but rather, a disillusionment with the state apparatus). When the system fails to provide for the voices of the ordinary, they are less invested into the functioning facts of government and will be forced to look at alternative sources of justice/government. There is no trade-off between democracy and security because of the causality between an undemocratic/non-representative system and a state of insecurity.

So as we declare victory in Mingora, lets not forget the corrupt and self-serving system that nurtured this descent into chaos to begin with…selectively cutting off some of the monster’s heads (either by ousting Musharraf and inducting a farcical civilian government or running over the Taliban in one valley) doesn’t mean Pakistan is “saved”.