The Long, Dark Night of Pakistan

Written on the eve of Women’s History Month.

“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid of going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.

Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased because of Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.

On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

These are the words expressing the thoughts going through the mind of a 7th grade schoolgirl in Swat, as reported by the BBC online news on January 3rd, 2009.

Bill Roggio, reporting in The Long War Journal on February 18, 2009, tell us that since winning the election last spring, the Zardari-Gilani government has entered a series of peace agreements with the Taliban throughout the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province, which includes Swat. “Between March and July of 2008, the government negotiated seven agreements with the Taliban in North Waziristan, Swat, Dir, Bajaur, Malakand, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, and Hangu. Negotiations were also underway in South Waziristan, Kohat, and Mardan before fighting in Swat and Bajaur broke out, effectively ending the talks.” Thus, this latest round, which cedes control of Swat, a part of Pakistan proper (NOT the remoter badlands of the Tribal Frontier) is not without precedent. Except, that it bodes far worse than previous “agreements”—because Swat was never a tribal hinterland, it was quite well-developed, a tourist haven, with schools for girls and over 3,500 women teachers employed to teach them—all now without jobs, as the girls are without schools—a projected 110,000 girls will in the coming years be deprived of a basic education. Indeed, as Roggio goes on to describe:

The current Malakand Accord has granted the Taliban control over a region that encompasses more than 1/3 of the Northwest Front Province, effectively cementing the Taliban’s control over most of the province and the tribal areas.

This means that

The Taliban’s recruiting base has almost doubled, as has its taxation base. The Malakand Division, which is made up of the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, and Chitral, has a population of more that 4.3 million, according to the 1998 census. The Taliban effectively control the tribal areas (population estimated at 6.5 million in 1998) and many of the bordering districts with millions more. The Taliban also have a strong presence or influence in nearly all of the other districts in the province.

The day I saw the NYT front page picture of the Malakand Accord being agreed to I cried. Senior cabinet members of the Pakistan government—all men—were seated side by side with bearded mullahs wearing the ubiquitous turbans-signifiers of extremists who burn girls schools, behead their opponents, and leave mutilated bodies of women they consider “un-Islamic” lying in town squares—like that of Shabana, a traditional dancing girl,  reported killed on 12th January 2009, after defying the Taliban’s ban on dancing. Shabana’s bullet-ridden body was found slumped on the ground in the centre of Mingora’s Green Square, strewn with money, CD recordings of her performances and photographs from her albums, and local Taliban claimed responsibility stating over their illegal radio station (which broadcasts Maulana Fazlullah’s, the ruling cleric’s edicts regularly) that the same or worse fate would befall any other such woman daring to perform “un-Islamic” activities.

How, I asked myself, could the government of Pakistan, cede control of Pakistan’s “Switzerland”—that peaceful valley of fruit orchards and beautiful streams and lakes surrounded by majestic mountains, a favorite spot for local and western tourists alike—to men bent on turning heaven on earth into living hell? If these Pakistani Taliban—here led by the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad, responsible for proudly leading hundreds of young men to their deaths in adjoining Afghanistan on jehadi missions–could claim a swath of territory as large as Delaware and as near to Islamabad as a mere 100 miles—what did that mean for the rest of Pakistan’s future? What especially would it mean for Pakistani women—most of whom—like women anywhere else in the world– like to dance, sing, talk, work in offices, in the fields, wear colorful clothes, smile, laugh, show off dozens of colorful glass bangles on their slender arms, nose-rings on their wheat-complexioned faces, sometimes hide behind the burqa, at others flaunt their beauty in public places or private, study, go to school, to college if they are lucky, have dreams of becoming somebody the world can respect, help deliver babies, tend to the sick and dying, fly in the sky, no shame for the sun…..become lovers, wives, mothers, teachers, artists, doctors, lawyers, activists, performers, politicians…the list goes on. What will become of them if….I shudder. The thought is too terrible to name.

But my reaction is perhaps precisely the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand mentality that has gotten Pakistan and Pakistanis into the ditch they’re in now, without much hope of being able to clamber out of it…indeed, if Swat is any indication, the ditch is about to get bigger. Instead of facing the Taliban threat head-on, acknowledging it for what it is, too many of my Pakistani brethren, of the secular, progressive, liberal middle-class intelligentsia kind—have ducked the Talibanization of Pakistan question for decades. Theirs—and especially the even more-westernized upper classes’ response—has been that of the proverbial blind man: see no evil. “Pakistan is a moderate country, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are foreign imports—they command no base of real support amongst our sensible citizens. You, dear Fawzia, are a victim of American propaganda—what is this Taliban-are-coming-scare you keep ranting about?” Then, changing tracks, the same group of self-appointed intellectuals would proclaim: “If there is any problem here, its because of the d-d Americans—their drone bombs and their continuous interference in the affairs of our country is what has led to this situation…people are angry at them, that is why they—some of them—are turning to the Taliban. If the Americans would stop escalating their war in neighboring Afghanistan and dropping bombs on our people in the Northern areas—well, this craziness would stop.”

My friends on the left here in the US paradoxically enough, spout the same rhetoric as these bourgeois Black-label drinking liberals of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Everything is America’s fault. I myself seem to shuttle between views…at times extraordinarily angry at US interference and its continuing Imperialist Great Game for oil, gas and access to the Arabian Sea in that region, and at others, enraged and horrified and immensely sad all at once at the blindness, the folly, the refusal to think straight and clear and take responsibility for one’s own shortcomings and growing intolerance coupled with complete bankruptcy of any morals or principles worth fighting for within the Pakistani polity. What to do? Keep raising my voice with other peace activists here to Stop All Wars, Stop Troop Escalations, Stop Drone Bombings—or urge for more weapons to be provided to Pakistani troops and to Pakistani citizens to fight against what is inevitably coming if the Pakistani government keeps capitulating—a confrontation with the local Taliban? Does anyone seriously think dialogue and reconciliation talks with these diehard fundos is going to help restore peace and equilibrium to such a severely damaged, unequal society as Pakistan’s?

Shuja Nawaz , in a report written for the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC) in  January 2009, stipulates
Although the major responsibility for action rests with Pakistan, it is imperative that the new US administration understands the gravity of the situation and the importance of helping Pakistan and Afghanistan to win back and empower the people of FATA and the bordering Afghan provinces. This can be possible only with a concerted and concentrated effort to improve their lives and help them resist successfully the inroads of militancy, religious extremism and global terrorism that have made a home in that area and are spreading into the settled areas of the NorthWest Frontier Provinces.

How does one set about “improve[ing] the lives” of these people so they don’t fall into Taliban hands? While Shuja Nawaz definitely claims the importance of a political solution—one rooted in creating a better educational infrastructure, a better and more responsive judicial system, and above all, employment opportunities for disenfranchised youth both within FATA and in NWFP and adjoining areas—he does not rule out the need for continuing military action against the extremists.

This is where the rub is—for me, as well as many like me who do not see military solutions as solutions at all. And yet—if secular-minded people do not fight against those who have arms and show no compunction in using them to challenge the writ of the law and state, and to enforce Shariah law over all of Pakistan—and beyond—as Sufi Mohammad, the Swati leader of the Tehrik-i-Nafiz-i-Shariateh-Mohammedi (TNSM) has stated in countless interviews—then what other short-term alternative is there to the Taliban challenge? How else, except through an armed counter-counter-insurgency can one support the majority of the citizens of NWFP who voted overwhelmingly in the 2008 elections for the secular ANP and PPP parties against the Islamist MMA? In other words—if the insurgents are the Taliban and al Qaeda in these northern regions of Pakistan, and the counter-insurgents are the inept Pakistani army troops (helped along by US commandos and drone strikes)—then the counter-counter-insurgents are the real people, the local residents of these areas, the majority of whom want what we all want—a life of peace and a modicum of prosperity for themselves and their progeny.

It is to these poor people that our help and our solutions should be directed, to help us win a battle of minds, not mines. Many of them, disheartened by the lawlessness and poverty of their daily lives, are turning in desperation and often in fear to the Taliban militia who both threaten them and also provide them with food and social services and some form of rough and ready justice. It seems more and more impossible to envision getting to a place of peace and justice for all, without a fight to the bitter end. I can see the heads rolling in my nightmares, in the beloved country of my youth, so far away….and yet, so near.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She can be reached at:

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at: