Friday, April 17, 2009
Taliban Target Pakistan's Landed Elite
While there has been widespread condemnation of the Taliban imposing Shariah Law and justifiable outcry against the flogging of a teenage girl in Swat by the Western and Pakistani media, there's been a very little reported about the Taliban's popular war on the landed elite in Swat. The emerging accounts from Pakistanis who have fled Swat now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power in the former princely state. It also explains why the soldiers and policemen refused to fight on behalf of the landlord politicians against the Taliban who are supported by their oppressed brethren.
“This was a bloody revolution in Swat. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan", the New York Times quoted a Pakistani official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Already, the Taliban's message is finding resonance in feudal Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan.
The insurgents struck at any competing point of power: landlords and elected leaders — who were usually the same people — and an underpaid and unmotivated police force, said Khadim Hussain, a linguistics and communications professor at Bahria University in Islamabad. At the same time, the Taliban exploited the resentments of the landless tenants, particularly the fact that they had many unresolved cases against their bosses in a slow-moving and corrupt justice system, Mr. Hussain and residents who fled the area said. Nizam-e-Adl, their new Sharia-based justice system, became the rallying cry for their revolution in Swat.
The Taliban have broadly asserted control over the entire valley and they are now threatening to take over surrounding districts. The tenants of the fleeing landlords have been rewarded by the Taliban. They were encouraged to cut down the orchard trees and sell the wood for their own profit, the former residents said. Or they were told to pay the rent to the Taliban instead of their now absentee bosses. Two dormant emerald mines have reopened under Taliban control. The Taliban have said that they will receive one-third of the revenues.
When provincial bureaucrats visit Mingora, Swat’s capital, they must now follow the Taliban’s orders and sit on the floor, surrounded by Taliban carrying weapons, according to a senior NWFP official.
While the big landowners have all the power in Pakistan's feudal democracy, they do not even pay any taxes on their income. As part of a plan to increase tax revenue, the IMF has been pressing Pakistan for the introduction of a tax on agricultural income. Pakistan's large landowners have tenaciously resisted such proposals in the past. Should Islamabad ultimately impose a tax on agricultural income, it will only be after a bitter struggle within the Pakistani feudal ruling class over how to design it to be regressive to make small producers bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden.
Given the underlying and growing resentment against the feudal/tribal power of a narrow and corrupt ruling elite in Pakistan, it is almost certain that Swat represents only the beginning of a bloody revolt in the rest of the country.
It is also clear that the new generation of Pakistanis do not want to accept life under a feudal or tribal system that denies them basic human dignity. In the absence of significant economic growth (even the phenomenal 8% growth roughly equals 2.5m jobs), not enough jobs are being created for 3 million young people ready to join the work force each year, resulting in growing availability of recruits for terror outfits who pay them fairly well by local standards. According to Rand corporation estimates, the Taliban pay about $150 a month to each fighter, much higher than the $100 a month paid by the governments in the region. This fact has been amply illustrated by recent growth of the Punjabi Taliban who have been found recruited by terrorist groups for suicide bombings and violence within and outside Pakistan.
Ironically, there are some parallels here between the violent Maoists movement in India and the Taliban militants in Pakistan, in spite of their diametrically opposed ideologies. Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers, as are the Taliban in FATA and NWFP. Both movements have killed dozens of people, including security personnel, in the last few weeks. Both movements control wide swathes of territory in their respective countries.
In addition to the landless farmers, the continuing high rates of farmer suicides are also fueling the Maoists movement in India. More than 1,500 Indian farmers committed suicide after being pushed into debt through crop failures. The reason for the crop failures have been blamed on falling water irrigation levels, climate change and the increasing globalization of water rights. "The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine.
While the efforts to create and fund reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZ) in FATA are desirable and welcome, what is really needed is an international Marshall Plan style effort toward transforming Pakistan from a feudal/tribal to an industrial society. Pakistan's President Zardari has called for such a Marshall Plan for Pakistan. Such an effort will face major hurdles from Zardari's own party and its corrupt feudal leadership. However, if it is successfully implemented to respond to mounting pressure by the Taliban, new opportunities will open up for the nation's young population to offer them better alternatives to joining Jihadi outfits or seeking work in countries like Saudi Arabia where they are further radicalized.
Taliban have latched on to a cause that appeals to the common people in Pakistan's feudal society. They are pursuing it with a revolutionary zeal. Like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Google in Silicon Valley, it seems to me that the Taliban play their own game by their own rules. They are very focused, extremely nimble and highly adaptive, and they know how to raise money, as well as any Silicon Valley startup. They have mastered the art of "disruption" and "change". And they appear to have the upper hand at the moment.
The end of the feudal system will be a welcome change in Pakistan. It will be unfortunate, however, if the repression of the people by the feudal/tribal elite is simply replaced by their religious persecution by the narrow-minded and intolerant Taliban in Pakistan. I just hope it's not too late to change the course of events in Pakistan.
The World According to Google, Hizbullah and Taliban
Feudal Punjab Fertile for Terrorism
Qasab's Journey in Time Magazine
Feudal Shadow in Pakistan Elections
UN Millennium Goals in Pakistani Village
Saudi-ization of Pakistan
Pakistan's FATA Face-off Fears
FATA Reconstruction Opportunity Zones
Pakistan Power Centers: Feudals, Clergy and Military