Thursday, April 30, 2009

The ANP Struggles to Stay Ahead of the Taliban Parade in NWFP

The most interesting question in the North West Frontier Province mess is the stance of the Awami National Party (ANP), the secularist Pashtun party that triumphed over the Islamist parties in the 2008 provincial elections and formed the NWFP provincial government.

The ANP, which supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was regarded as the bulwark of reason, the popular force that would turn the tide against the Taliban in NWFP.

The precise opposite seems to have happened. The ANP is literally on the run: its local officials, with a few brave exceptions, fled Swat for Peshawar; many of its provincial officials have left Peshawar for havens in Sindh, Punjab, and overseas.

And the ANP pushed for the Nizam-e Adl Regulation of 2009 (NAR), which authorized the implementation of sharia in the Swat valley.

Did the ANP champion the NAR in an attempt to get in front of the sharia parade and take credit for a regulation that could be spun as an affirmation of Pashtun cultural and political autonomy?

If so, the effort failed miserably. The implementation of the NAR is regarded, rightly so, as a capitulation to the demands of the Pakistan Taliban forces that dominate Swat (and forced out the ANP).

I’m willing to believe that the ANP is employing a rope-a-dope strategy: to lure the Pakistani Taliban groups away from the military battlefield onto the political battlefield, where the cosmopolitan, connected ANP expects to enjoy a decisive advantage.

The question is, who’s the dope?

Part of this strategy seems to be creeping acquiescence to the legitimization of elements of the Taliban as a conventional political pressure group, first in Swat and then perhaps in other areas of the NWFP and then the nation.

Divide-and-rule is, of course, the default solution for politics in the Pashtun zone. Western Pakistan is already fragmented into Islamicist parties like the JUI and JI, which habitually line up on different sides of the political fence (currently JUI+PPP vs. JI+PML-N) and one more Islamicist party would presumably be regarded as just another way to split the conservative vote opposing the ANP.

Political legitimacy is, I believe, the carrot that the ANP and its ally in Islamabad, the ruling PPP, is quietly offering militant groups in the Pakistan Taliban constellation, even as it noisily flails the stick of military operations if they insist on cleaving to an exclusively military track.

Hard to believe a Pakistan Taliban party could—or would—contest elections in the NWFP.


Given the debased nature of Pakistan politics, widespread national abhorrence of the Taliban would be no obstacle to the ANP, PPP, or PML-N welcoming a political Taliban into the big tent as a powerful electoral ally. It wouldn’t be the first time ambitious politicians at the center made a deal with the devil in order to grab power in Islamabad.

There are definite fracture points in the Pakistan Taliban, actually a coalition of diverse militant groups brought together under the Taliban aegis by the tactical and strategical advantages of a united front against the central government's attempts to pacify the Pashtun regions.

Nevertheless, it's not easy work for the ANP, dealing from a position of weakness with people and groups it probably detests--and which detest it. More disturbingly, it appears that the deals are designed primarily to bolster the tottering ANP and central government writ in the Pashtun areas--while knowingly freeing up Taliban assets to take the politically-popular fight to the West in Afghanistan.

So the ANP and its supporters domestically and internationally have adopted a rather testy "leave it to us we know best" attitude in response to Western criticism of a rather humiliating and ineffective campaign of appreasement with Islamicist militancy that may well hasten the day of reckoning for the entire U.S./NATO adventure in Afghanistan.

The first big test was the Swat Valley.

The leader of the Swat "Taliban" is actually an ex JI bigwig, Sufi Mohammed.

His organization, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), has relatively remote ties to the Taliban. He apparently does not enjoy the confidence of the real Taliban because he's suspected of being an I.S.I. asset. Mullah Omar declined Sufi Mohammed's services when he rushed to the Afghan border in 2001 to provide hundreds of under-equipped and untrained youngsters as cannon fodder.

Conveniently, Sufi Mohammed was in prison for a few years while his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah ran the operation; this meant that the government had an established channel to TNSM--and the opportunity to make a political concession by releasing Sufi Mohammed to negotiate the Swat sharia/cease-fire deal.

In addition to being a relatively marginal figure inside the Taliban-led movement, Sufi Mohammed is a rather detestable old fossil, as this interview demonstrates convincingly.

Presumably, the ANP would welcome the opportunity to line up against this obscurantist cleric and his bully-boy son-in-law in an electoral fight, instead of trying to outgun them in a counterinsurgency operation.

But I'm not optimistic that bringing pseuodo-Taliban like Sufi Mohammed onto the Pakistani political scene is going to translate into anything except diminishing clout for moderate Islamic parties in general and the ANP in particular. Sufi Mohammed already appalled the ANP by refusing to disarm in the wake of the sharia deal--the one concession that would have been meaningful and useful to the ANP.

Hard-core Taliban are undoubtedly prepared to push into the political tent after Sufi Mohammed at the ANP's expense--and, like Sufi Mohammed, they are unlikely to surrender the weapons that are the real source of their political power.

For truly depressing reading, go to the comments in to read the bullying invective meant to expand the definition of political and moral acceptability to include the Taliban.

Taliban rhetoric, though coarse, repeated ad nauseum, and often EXPRESSED IN FULL CAPS, is effective.

It doesn’t merely play on widespread revulsion over U.S. drone attacks. It also makes use of the widely-reported willingness of the U.S. and NATO to negotiate the admission of the Taliban into the Kabul government. If it’s OK in Kabul, why not in Peshawar or Islamabad?*

Government military operations in west Pakistan are persuasively painted as immoral efforts to assist the United States effort to block the just and glorious reconquista of Afghanistan by the brave Taliban.

As the Taliban knows full well these operations are also the best conventional hope for pushing out the Taliban and allowing moderate government institutions dominated by the ANP to reassert themselves.

It’s easy to see the political problems that the drone attacks and the military operations create for the ANP—and why the ANP is anxious to distance itself from them and assert a more defiant Pashtun and Muslim identity in order to avoid being tainted as an American stooge...…and try to take credit for the Swat NAR deal.

Meanwhile, the ANP will do what it takes—including shifting toward the Taliban end of the spectrum as regards rhetoric, policies, and violence in order to support its claim to speak as the acknowledged and respected voice of Pashtun aspirations.

With the support of the ruling PPP party, the ANP refers to NWFP as "Pakhtunkhwa"--"Land of the Pashtuns"--in its party communications and the ANP now frames its struggle with militants as a battle for the "survival of the Pakhtun nation" in the face of local separatism, a somewhat contradictory stance since the ANP supports the current split of the homeland between two nations and the continued existence of its particular chunk inside the Pakistan federal system.

Standing up for the Pashtuns also means conspicuously standing up for the Pashtuns in Karachi, which has become the primary haven for Pashtun refugees fleeing Afghanistan, and Pashtun IDPs uprooted by the myriad security operations in FATA and NWFP.

One of the interesting and underreported aspects of Pakistan politics is the waves of bloody violence and rioting that periodically sweep Karachi.

One just happened this week. 35 people dead and the entire city paralyzed as emergency vehicles, Army Rangers, and police rushed through the streets trying to deal with shootings, torchings, and window-breaking all over town.

I guess nobody pays attention because it doesn’t fit into the dominant Islamabad vs. Taliban conceptual framing—and because it involves two of the ruling party’s major allies: the MQM and the ANP.

Many of these clashes reflect ethnic divisions between the dominant Urdu-speaking mohajirs and the largely-migrant, mostly-underclass Pashtun minority—a minority of four million in a city of 15 million.

Now these struggles have an unmistakable political component: the MQM champions the mohajirs and the ANP speaks up for the Pashtuns.

It used to be that the MQM was Pakistan’s acknowledged master of thug politics, ready to put well-armed punks on the street to kill and burn the enemies of the MQM and whatever national ally—Musharraf during the previous regime, the PPP today—required their services.

Now it looks like the ANP is trying to match them in Karachi, ratcheting up the rhetoric and calling a general strike on May 12, the second anniversary of a particularly bloody piece of MQM business: the attack, allegedly organized at President Musharraf’s behest, that killed 48 marchers in a peaceful demonstration in Karachi honoring deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudrhy in 2007.

We’ll see if the ANP can stay ahead of the Taliban and co-opt an increasingly militant political and religious trend in Pashtun opinion, and provide a credible alternative to Islamicist radicalism in western Pakistan.

In my opinion, this isn’t going to end well.

The ANP is going to get crushed between the millstones of the MQM—which hates it—and the Taliban—which recognizes it as a politically compromised, militarily weak, and supremely vulnerable rival.

*It’s worth pointing out that the meaningful negotiations are going on with non-Taliban elements of the Afghan insurgency—specifically Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other old-school fighters who predate the Taliban and trace their roots to the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. This is a case in which sloppy international reporting redounds to the benefit of the Taliban, by implying that the West is ready to recognize its legitimacy inside Afghanistan.

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