The Pitfalls of Steamrolling the Muslim World
By Frankie Martin and Hailey Woldt
Deep in the forbidding mountains of Waziristan, the militant leader Baitullah Mashud is taunting the United States and the Pakistani government. Mashud, the accused mastermind of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, has emerged as the head of Tehreek-e-Taliban, the most serious regrouping yet of the Taliban on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border. The new group unites over 40 previously separate entities under one banner, dedicated to bringing down President Pervez Musharraf’s government and lashing out against Western targets.
Militancy in Pakistan has spiraled out of control over the past year, spilling from the tribal areas to urban centers. Suicide bombings have increased exponentially. Washington security “experts” have so far pressured Musharraf to more fully assert his military power in the region, prompting him to send tanks and troops to crush tribesmen housed in caves and huts. No strategy, however, has proved successful in stemming the tide of extremism now threatening to engulf Pakistan and the region. Newly elected Pakistani politicians are urging engagement with the militants, but Washington has not budged from its “Musharraf policy.”
So how should the United States understand the situation in Waziristan? What should US policy be towards the Muslim world?
There are many different theories that attempt to explain the Muslim world’s instability and anger, why they “hate us” in Pakistan and around the world, and the phenomenon of terrorism. There are many in policy circles who are now recognizing the need for a more nuanced understanding of the cultures and tribes within the Muslim world, but we still seem to be stuck in the outmoded and failed “shock and awe” approach of force and cultural or religious reformation. Muslim scholars who attempt to explain alternative approaches are often rejected out of hand for being Muslims themselves and thus not to be trusted. The case of Waziristan and the debate on how to control it reflects the macro debate between the West and the Muslim world, the so-called clash of civilizations, and how to resolve it. Through their failure to understand Islam, whether by inability or lack of desire, US policymakers and think-tankers have created military disasters of epic proportions, plummeted opinions of the United States worldwide, and, perhaps most seriously, jeopardized the ideals on which the United States was founded.
We would like to pick up one particular case study which is of great interest and relevance. Because of its wider implications, the detailed study of the acclaimed works of the Muslim anthropologist Akbar Ahmed by the noted scholar Stanley Kurtz (“Tribes of Terror”, Claremont Review of Books, Volume VII, No. 4, Winter 2007) presents us an opportunity to reexamine some of the most important issues facing the relationship between Islam and the West. Kurtz’s review essay of three books by Akbar Ahmed, Resistance and Control in Pakistan, Islam Under Siege, and Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization does an admirable job of bringing to the fore works of considerable scholarship that have, quite incredibly we believe, been ignored by American policymakers.
On one level, Kurtz’s analysis goes so beyond the accepted discourse on Islam that any number of Washington “experts” would become dizzy reading his penetrating analysis of tribalism in Pakistan. On another level, however, the essay is misleading and dangerous in its discussion of Islam which is surprising given his approach. Although Kurtz recognizes cultural nuances, he unfortunately ends up using his own scholarship to contradict his conclusions, a mistake we attribute to ideology.
At best, Kurtz is missing the core features of the debate; at worst, he is doing so deliberately. Through another deeper look into Ahmed’s work and through experiences in the field, we provide an alternative to this black and white, but mostly black, view of relations with the Muslim world.
The Waziristan Revolt
Kurtz writes his most detailed study of Ahmed’s 1983 book Religion and Politics in Muslim Society, which was reissued in 1991 as Resistance and Control in Pakistan before being revised and released again in 2004. From 1978-1980 Ahmed was the Political Agent in South Waziristan, the lawless border area of Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding. He took over at a time of immense hostility. A charismatic mullah—in a pattern familiar to anyone who’s been watching figures like Maulana Fazullah and Baitullah Mashud in Pakistan today — had emerged to challenge the authority of both tribal chiefs and the central government. The mullah, Noor Muhammad, opened conservative madrassas and assailed the Pakistani government for being “un-Islamic.” He also chastised the Mahsud, the other dominant tribe in South Waziristan, for selling out to modernity and being too close to the Pakistani government. Before Ahmed’s arrival, the Pakistani government had responded to this challenge with overwhelming force, bombing the Wazir’s main market and sending the Wazirs fleeing across the border to their kin in Afghanistan. The government then targeted the homes of the mullah’s supporters for destruction. In a matter of months the mullah had surrendered, but the Wazirs were in a full state of revolt.
It was in this environment that Ahmed, a British-trained anthropologist, took up his post as the government’s man in Waziristan. Ahmed employed an approach in dealing with the tribes of the area that differed markedly from many of his predecessors. Instead of antagonizing the Wazirs as uncivilized rebels who needed to be pacified and dominated, he reached out to them in an effort to calm tensions. Using their own tribal codes of honor and respect as well as their mutual faith in Islam, he risked his life to show that he personally, and by extension the Pakistani government, wanted to understand and work with the Wazirs. He often put himself in a considerable amount of danger in the field accomplishing this task. The Wazirs reciprocated these gestures of respect and Ahmed was able to restore law and order.
Kurtz is sympathetic to the dangers Ahmed faced in Waziristan and commends him for his efforts in reaching out to the tribes. Surprisingly, however, Kurtz concludes that it was ultimately not Ahmed’s inclusive policy toward the tribes that resolved the situation in the tribal areas but Pakistan’s use of overwhelming military force before Ahmed’s tenure began, the only policy in fact that Kurtz believes can work.
Kurtz draws his inspiration from Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India in the early twentieth century, who advocated the idea that “No patchwork scheme — and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork — will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace...” Ahmed, Kurtz believes, merely reaped the benefits of the steamroller which had already done its job. Thus Ahmed was the “good cop” the Wazirs followed because they were terrified by two more frightening “bad cops”: the Pakistani army, which had bombed them and killed their popular mullah, and the Soviet Union and which had launched an invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 1979. But this is misleading.
Most importantly Kurtz’s timeline is wrong, as the Wazirs were responding to Ahmed’s outreach initiatives in 1978 and 1979 well before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979. As for the Pakistanis, saying that the strong-arm tactics of the government led the Wazir to defeat, that they simply rolled over and allowed Ahmed’s “gentle” tactics to work, is absurd. The Wazir were not defeated in 1978 — they were furious. The entire region was in flames. The Wazirs were killing, kidnapping, and blowing up telephone lines in retaliation. Ahmed calmed the situation precisely because he understood how dangerous using the military can be in the tribal areas and sought to bring down high levels of anger rather than escalate them.
This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who, at the urging of the United States, sent around 100,000 troops into Waziristan three times to absolutely zero success. In 2007 the Wazirs actually captured 300 Pakistani soldiers, including officers, who simply “disappeared” from the battlefield. Far from being flattened into submission, the tribes, invoking their codes of revenge and counter revenge, fought back. Musharraf’s “bad cop” strategies have failed miserably. Today consequently, militants have spread out across the country, even to settled areas like Swat and to urban centers like Islamabad, shutting down girls schools and calling for a jihad against the Pakistani government and the West, as a direct result of Musharraf’s policies.
In July of 2007, Musharraf sent troops into Islamabad’s Red Mosque and killed, according to some reports, over 1,000 people, crossing a red line in Pakistani society that unleashed wave after wave of suicide bombings around the nation, actions that increased with Musharraf’s recent declaration of emergency rule. Ahmed’s former position, the political agent, was long ago sidelined by Musharraf along with the rest of the civil service in favor of the military, leaving a political vacuum. The military, having little expertise in tribal matters and often from different ethnicities, have antagonized and enraged the alien tribes.
Today, the government presence in Waziristan is absent, the traditional tribal leadership sidelined, and into the vacuum created charged the Taliban. There has been an explosion of support for Taliban mullahs like Maulana Fazlullah in Swat or Baitullah Mashud himself, who, with their fire and brimstone speeches, arouse the passions of a populous who have lost all faith in the Pakistani government to ever understand their concerns. And because the bombs falling on them come from the United States, they have become fiercely anti-American and more likely to support figures like Osama bin Laden. (To be continued)