Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Taliban as modernizers

One of the greatest misconceptions of the War formerly known as Global-on-Terror was that theTaliban  in Afghanistan (now also in Pakistan) was somehow a backward and "medieval" anti-modern sect. This misonception was largely driven by a focus on the rhetorical content of their ideology, with its emphasis on Koranic scripture, and their barbaric, profoundly anti-liberal attitude toward women, in particular.

In fact, the Taliban is much better conceived as the most effective and revolutionary modernizing force that this region has ever seen. The central social and economic fact of life in Pakistan is its unreformed, feudal economic system, with a tiny absentee landlord class literally lording it over a vast, impoverished peasantry which often suffers under the yoke of bonded labor. After independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan never engaged in any kind of land reform, and the result is vast social and economic resentments in the countryside -- which the Taliban is now exploiting.

The Taliban's appeal, first in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan, has been to challenge this social system in the countryside. As John Robb puts it, the Taliban's "plausible promise" is to deliver "economic and social justice through land distribution and sharia courts." This doesn't need to be centrally organized in a classic 20th century command-and-control insurgency, because modern technology allows political entrepreneurs throughout the Western subcontinent to tap into local resentments.

But this also suggests why the U.S. faces has few reasonable political options in Pakistan. One faction we could partner with is the Taliban itself, which is what a replay of the allegedly successful strategy in Iraq would entail. This seems implausible, not so much because of the Taliban's barbarism (which we could surely learn to ignore) but more because of their refusal to give up Bin Laden and Zawahiri. It's one thing to propose partnering up with the Saddam-sympathizing Sunni leadership in Western Iraq, once Saddam is deposed and dead. It's another thing to propose partnering with the Osama-sheltering Taliban. 

Another option might be the Pakistani military, which was our main partner for a long time. The Pakistani military has long been considered the most "modern" faction in Pakistani life, and the kind of institution the U.S. could do business with. There are a number of challenges with this option, though. First, and perhaps least important, the Pakistani military is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution -- not just in that it often overthrows elected regimes, but also in its basic orientation toward popular control. Second, the military is increasingly Islamist and anti-American in its sympathies, particularly in the middle ranks, where the legacy of Zia's post-1971 push to Islamicize the Pakistani military. Third, the Pakistani military is clearly playing a double-game with the U.S. It wants to keep getting the multi-billion dollar military aid grants from the U.S., and to do this it needs to keep fighting the Taliban -- but also not to succeed in defeating the Taliban, which would also cause the U.S. money to dry up.

Which brings us to the apparently obvious third option, which is the official U.S. policy, namely to support the legally elected "democratic" government of Pakistan, now led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Ali Zardari. Alas, the problem with these people is that they in fact represent the landlord classes. So-called "democratic" politics in Pakistan is generally a contest between feudal elites from Punjab versus feudal elites from the Sindh (the northern and southern reaches of the Indus valley). Neither group, obviously, has any interest in addressing the fundamental social resentments of the countryside, and the result is that these resentments have continued to fester for several generations. What happens when such social resentments are ignored is that eventually a political entrepreneur arises who can exploit them. And that exploiter is the Taliban. Thinking that a guy like Zardari, once described as the most corrupt man on earth, is going to address this social question is absurd.

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