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War for peace: Global order and war in Pakistan

The war in Afghanistan has become the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes termed the Afpak war by the US administration. This expansion into Pakistan reveals much about the nature of the war in the region, is a response to the origin story of the Taliban, and reflects the practice of the rights of the dominant international subjects to intervene throughout the world in the name of global order.

The current US administration, under president Barack Obama, has refocused its attention on Central and South Asia after its predecessor had shifted the greater part of its international policy resources to the war in Iraq. President Obama has increasingly articulated a US and NATO policy that has been a growing reality since the tail end of the US presidential election campaign: de-emphasis on Iraq and emphasis and resurgence of international political-military activity in and around Afghanistan.

In this regard, the US will in the short term be sending some 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and it will be sending a great number more civilian experts to train and handle Afghan bureaucrats and politicians.

Taliban Sans Frontiere

The Taliban’s presence is today strongest in southern Afghanistan and north western Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (read my article on the Taliban presence in FATA for more information). These areas constitute the majority of the Pashtun people’s territories. The Taliban has its roots in Pashtun culture. Almost all Taliban leaders are of Pashtun origin, and they are currently the primary power bloc within these highly tribal influenced people. In fact the Taliban’s rules and codes, as they enforce them in territories they effectively govern, are a synthesis of a particular Sunni school of religious conduct (originally from India’s Deobandi school) and the Pashtun tribal rules known as Pashtunwali.

Observing state boundaries for international affairs and administrative purposes does serve a purpose but we must be careful not to confuse formal state boundaries with informal yet actual national or cultural boundaries. The Pashtun culture is the effective national identity from which the Taliban originate, and over whom they articulate their political and military command. The Pashtun predate the establishment of Afghanistan and Pakistan as states and their ‘homeland’ straddles both states. Boundary disputes between the two states are a continuous source of tension. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, running along the FATA’s western edge, was drawn by Britain’s Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893. The Durand line divided Pashtun tribes, explaining the large numbers living on both sides.

Afghanistan before the drawing of the 1893 Durand Line

Afghanistan before the drawing of the 1893 Durand Line

The Taliban leadership has not fled from Afghanistan to only newly establish itself in Pakistan, it has always maintained essential presence within north western Pakistan. Its activities within Pakistan have been increasingly emphasized and intensified as their leadership directs its activities and militants from Pakistan’s north west. This region has, from the beginning, been only marginally under Pakistani central government control (1).

Pakistan, Birthplace of the Taliban

The Taliban were the dominant group in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s to 2001, following the withdrawal of occupying Soviet troops from 1979 to 1989. Eventually, they grew powerful enough to bring most of the country under their control, though they failed to entirely defeat all armed opposition, the remainder of which were non-Pashtun and based in the extreme north of the country. This armed opposition constituted the often loosely affiliated body that eventually became known as the Northern Alliance. By 1996, the Taliban controlled some 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Prior to the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban governed most of Afghanistan, however their original leadership and many of their fighters came from Pakistan. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan resulted in a bloody insurgency from which millions of Afghans fled. Many of the non-Pashtun Afghans fled to Iran while the Pashtun Afghan refugees sought shelter with their kin and fellow tribal folk in Pakistan. It was some of these refugees in Pakistan that later developed into the Taliban.

Many of the refugees in Pakistan lived in very squalid conditions in long-term yet temporary camps. Social services were next to non-existent to them, unemployment was the norm, and education unavailable save perhaps from religious leaders. An entire generation was born into and raised under these conditions. Currently, there are still around 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

A scarcity of options, isolation from traditional social systems, and the introduction of a particular brand of religious education within these refugee camps established new norms of thought and behaviour within many of those that later became the Taliban. Talib, in fact means religious student, and Taliban is simply the plural form of the word.

The Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, originating from a town of the same name in northern India, has grown most rapidly in Pakistan, where its seminaries influenced many religious militants, including the Taliban, in their fights against the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These seminaries and militants were heavily supported by elements within the Pakistani state. The civilian government of Benazir Bhutto established strong ties with these militants and religious students. The military and intelligence agencies (Inter-Services Intelligence / ISI) of Pakistan provided funds, training, and logistical support to these groups during the 1980s and 1990s in order that they might fight the Soviets, and then later to act as quasi-proxies within Afghanistan in opposition to Indian and Iranian influence.

In the 1980s, the USA outsourced a significant portion of its Afghan policy to the Pakistani military and ISI. Pakistan then distributed funds and weapons to those religious militants — in broad terms recognized as the mujahideen — that they believed would best serve their national interests and help extend their influence within Afghanistan. The Taliban was one of several groups within the mujahideen, later rising to dominate over the others.

Following the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, the growing alliance between al-Qaeda and the Taliban prompted a change in US policy. With the defeat of the Soviets and the collapse of the Communist state, al-Qaeda changed focus. In the 1990s, they saw their primary enemy as the US and conducted several attacks against them. This resulted in somewhat of a break between American and Pakistani Afghan policy consensus. The Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda within Afghanistan, Pakistan continued to provide a series of supportive measures to the Taliban, and the US then began slowly to act against al-Qaeda’s growing influence. (2)

Following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the defeated Taliban simply regrouped and reestablished themselves within existing bases of operation in regions of origin within Pakistan. However, it should be noted that the current insurgency against international, NATO and US intervention is somewhat complex, and is more accurately described as a Pashtun resistance. Some of these insurgents identify themselves as Taliban, others are allied to them, and yet others are led by tribal, militant, or religious leaders including some elements from the old mujahideen.

This should explain the current Taliban presence in Pakistan and why the US is looking into Pakistan as an important element in its fights against the Taliban and in an attempt to reformulate the Afghan state.

War as Police Action for Global Peace and Order

American military action within Pakistan, in the form of aerial bombardments, have been ongoing since the tail end of previous US president George W. Bush’s term in office. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are remotely piloted through Pakistani air space during bombing strikes on suspected militant targets. These strikes have killed innocent civilians, Pakistani soldiers, as well as insurgents. There is increasing hostility from the local population to these attacks since they tend to cost them dearly due to poor US intelligence and general fallout from bombs dropped on inhabited communities. Tensions have only increased between the Pakistani government and the US, as well as between locals and a Pakistani government incapable or unwilling to protect them, as the use of drones continues, and suggestions have been made in the US to widen their scope of attacks.

The target of bombings by drones is informed by US intelligence. One of the methods used to gather intelligence is from local peoples who receive cash rewards for information on the position of militants. This has had a direct impact on how the Taliban operates within some areas of Pakistan: always on the move, dependent on safehouses, and keeping some distance from local people who they sometimes fear could turn them in in return for pay.

This pay for spying has put some locals at risk. The Taliban has kidnapped, tortured, and murdered some they accuse of spying for the US. It’s unclear if individual cases are actually spies or this is an excuse used to eliminate individuals the Taliban would prefer dead.

The US does sometimes receive intelligence from the Pakistani intelligence, military, or government. Pakistan delivers such information according to its own national interest which includes assets within the Taliban, commonly at odds with American interest. Pakistan is more willing to provide information on al-Qaeda, perhaps because these foreign fighters are seen as more of a direct threat and in direct competition for influence over militants. Pakistani intelligence is often timed in order to put on a good show, synchronized with high level state visits or financial aid from the US. This may explain the emerging details of president Obama’s support for fresh financial aid to Pakistan tied to their performance against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

What is most significant in the expanding intervention into Pakistan is that the US sees itself as having the unquestionable right to bomb within a sovereign state without the request or approval of that country’s civilian government. Certainly, the US is not at war with Pakistan itself, but rather with a Pashtun insurgency. This intervention is a clear violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, a fact that has been little to no hindrance to direct US military intervention. Perhaps one of the the most important things to learn from observing this lethal conflict is that it is not strictly presented as a traditional war; it has strong elements of a police action carried out by the US in the name of global peace and order.

According to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, the leaders of the dominant global order tend “directly or indirectly to penetrate and reconfigure the domestic law of the nation-states, and thus supranational law powerfully overdetermines domestic law.”

“Perhaps the most significant symptom of this transformation is the development of the so-called rights of intervention. This is commonly conceived as the right or duty of the dominant subjects of the world order to intervene in the territories of other subjects in the interest of preventing or resolving humanitarian problems, guaranteeing accords, and imposing peace… Now supranational subjects that are legitimated not by right but by consensus intervene in the name of any type of emergency and superior ethical principles. What stands behind this intervention is not just a permanent state of emergency and exception, but a permanent state of emergency and exception justified by the appeal to essential values of justice.” (3)

In other words, the intervention is not understood or presented as a typical war, but instead as police action in the interest of international security and human rights. It is not simply an imposition of a world order but also an affirmation of the dominant concept of a maturing global system of codes of conduct that has increasingly taken centre stage in international affairs following the post Cold War era. Intervention into the sovereign boundaries of a state perceived as subject to this global order is not a unique aberation, it is part of a pattern of such actions (NATO bombings in former Yugoslavia, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, Ethiopian and US attacks into Somalia, etc.). These sustain and articulate the order, maintained by a perpetual state of exception and permanent crisis. This gives the dominant agents, in this and many cases the US, the right to intervene on behalf of a vaguely articulated global order. The ‘international community’ is charged with scolding or punishing ‘rogue’ states and elements in the name of peace and security.

(First published at Rabble.ca)

Relevant Videos:

US president Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy

Part 1

Part 2

Inside Story hosts a discussion following the US Afghanistan and Pakistan Policy

Part 1

Part 2


The majority of sources can be found within the body of the article, by following the hyperlinks dotting the content above.

(1) Ahmed Rashid, “Descent into Chaos,” Viking press, 2008, chapter 13, “Al Qaeda’s Bolt-Hole.”
(2) Ahmed Rashid, “Taliban,” Yale University Press, 2001.
(3) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. “Empire,” Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 18-19.

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