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The Rest

May 12, 2009

Taliban’s popularity rises after massacre of the Pashtuns

Thousands of injured and starving Pashtuns fell in droves from the mountains of the Hindu Kush this week. Benjamin Gilmour listens to their stories.

As thousands of injured and starving Pashtuns fall in droves from the mountains of the Hindu Kush this week they bring stories with them of aerial bombing campaigns by the Pakistani Air Force akin to those witnessed against Afghan villages by the Soviets in the 1980s, a massacre of grand proportions to which the world seems oblivious. More than a million have escaped the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s northern areas in the past year, but this week has been hell-on-earth. My friends, family and colleagues of the borderlands have all accommodated desperate families, many who have lost loved-ones, whether walking the street minding their own business of fighting with the resistance to the heavy military presence in Swat.

No longer is the population of this idyllic valley able to tolerate the 30 years of abuse by national police and army men stationed there known to barge into homes, harass women, extract bribes, steal belongings and beat up locals, a reflection they say of the greater Pakistani Government and its treatment of Pashtuns. For as long as they can remember the people of Swat and the entire settled areas of the North West Frontier Province have suffered one racist and corrupt government after the other, a people who collectively decided in April to support local Taliban leader Sufi Mohammad and his proposition for sharia law by which many Muslims live their lives, a set of Islamic laws under which Saudi Arabia — one of America’s greatest allies and trade partners in the middle east — operates without a peep.

The Taliban movement in Swat has been able to win support for sharia among so many young men because the state has failed them, massively and comprehensively. To portray the ferment in Swat as a medieval backlash against modernism is either a blinkered view or a deliberately misleading one. In fact the wellspring of Islamic militancy in Pakistan is to be found in the alienation of the masses by a ruling elite which has used the state to protect and expand its own privileges, pushing the common man into deeper and deeper poverty and hopelessness.

The turmoil is being portrayed by some as a contest between bigotry and tolerance, between extremism and moderation. In truth it is more a movement of the common man against vast disparities in wealth and the failure of the authorities to provide justice, jobs and essential services like education and health for which governments are supposed to exist.

According to Sufi Mohammad, Taliban leader in Swat, an agreement signed with Islamabad to incorporate sharia law into the area was withdrawn rather impolitely last week with the raining down of missiles on remote villages in the valley. Thanks to international condemnation about Islamic laws and ridiculous paranoia that Pakistan’s nukes protected by the world’s seventh-largest army could be overcome by a few thousand Taliban rebels, we have conspired with the Punjabi-heavy Pakistani government to ruthlessly slaughter its Pashtun population.

It is a great disappointment that Barack Obama could ignore one of his closest advisors on the crisis, Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who along with many others aware of the ground realities has repeatedly warned that the threat to Pakistan is not one from the Taliban but from a government who had neglected and abused its population on the frontier, resulting in the present backlash. The rebels who have aligned themselves with the Taliban have done so for no other reason than to rid their towns and villages of interference by Pakistani armed forces. They have become “accidental guerrillas”, as Kilcullen so fittingly describes them. Each side it seems is trying to defeat terrorism, one by occupation, the other by liberation.

Fuelling the anger of the Pashtuns are the ongoing US hellfire missile hits against inconsequential targets such as families taking tea, compounds in which only women and children are present and wedding party ceremonies, attacks that have killed more than 700 civilians in the past three years with only 6% estimated to hit their intended targets. This kind of peace-making has not exactly helped foster trust or hope in foreign powers and especially not in President Asif Zardari who has condoned the hits knowing they are a blatant infringement of his country’s sovereignty.

But Pashtuns across the country have believed for long time they are the sacrificial lambs of the Pakistani Government’s money-making machine — “terrorist kills” for American dollars. According to a Guardian report in February, up to 70% of all military aid since 2002 may have been misappropriated. And there is more to come, if the fight goes on, a further $7.5bn over five years in non-military aid from the Obama administration along with military aid that is expected to be even greater. Pakistan has also received a $7.6b loan from the International Monetary Fund recently, while the World Bank has given another $500m.

Not only are the Pashtuns unlikely to ever see a cent of this cash improve their livelihoods, but a great many of them are dying this minute in order for the country’s elite to continue lining their pockets with foreign aid dollars.

Meanwhile, we swallow the lies about pushing back the Taliban and hear nothing of the innocent dead lying by the roads of Swat. Daily I field messages of distress from volunteers providing food and water to the internally displaced Pashtuns who have quickly filled the crumbling mud-walled refugee camps still warm from the departure of their former Afghan inhabitants recently returned home to a country ironically considered safer now than the tribal belt.

How disappointed those in Islamabad and Washington must be to hear that none of those who they are delivering from the Mullahs and sharia have a solitary compliment for their saviours. Would I see the wisdom of those who reduce my home and my entire town to rubble? Would I see the kindness in merciless blanket-bombing of the valleys my family has inhabited for centuries? Would I understand the greater good for which my children are mown down by helicopter gunship bullets? Up with the Taliban, they say, up with all those who fight for injustice. As the stamp dries on Australia’s own invitation to the Pakistani Army in February to train their commandoes here, such collaboration in the eyes of Pakistan’s 28 million Pashtuns is a deal with the devil. As this demonstrates, popularity is not difficult these days for the Taliban as their moral superiority is affirmed on every front, partly by the likes of us.

Benjamin Gilmour is author of Warrior Poets (Pier 9), director of the film Son of a Lion and is guest at next week’s Sydney Writer’s Festival

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