Sunday, November 16, 2008

warlordism in pakistan

The situation in Pakistan's tribal areas has become quite confusing for most observers. As fighting, abductions and US air strikes are intensifying, it is becoming more and more difficult for independent journalists to visit the areas. How many militant groups are operating there? Which of them belong to the Taliban? How many foreign militants are active in the region? Is the Pakistani army making any headway with its operations? Outsiders won't be able to find reliable answers. 
But it seems clear the Pakistani tribal areas have been following a trend well known from Afghanistan: The traditional tribal structures have been weakened substantially, and as the state has failed to establish its control, the tribal areas are practically run by different warlords and their militias. An interesting example is that of Mangal Bagh in the Khyber Agency near Peshawar. Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi from the University of Central Lancashire, UK, has just published "A Profile of Mangal Bagh" which makes interesting reading: From a humble social origin (he worked as a truck cleaner) he has risen to become the de facto ruler of the Khyber Agency. His militia "Lashkar-e-Islam" is popular for maintaining "law and order", i.e. his version of sharia. He follows a sectarian Islamist ideology although he had been an active member of the secular ANP in the past. And, perhaps most interesting, he has not joined the Taliban, but maintains a good relationship with the Pakistani authorities. As Zaidi puts it,
There is strong suspicion that Bagh is fighting a proxy battle for Pakistani intelligence.
This summer, the army was alarmed by violent incidents in Peshawar and launched an "operation" in the Khyber agency against Mangal Bagh. But, as Zaidi writes:
During the operation, security forces were actively engaged in blowing up bases vacated by Lashkar-e-Islam. This was more of eyewash than anything else, since brick structures can be rebuilt easily by such affluent groups. ... Militant movement was seen in the area, even as security forces stepped up their operations, giving rise to the surmise that the operation had been premeditated between the forces and Lashkar-e-Islam to save face for the establishment. ... The operation culminated in 13 days, with an agreement reached between Bagh and the government. The government, of course, declared the operation to be an unmitigated success.
Apparently, the Pakistani army and its intelligence agencies are using warlords such as Mangal Bagh, but at the same time, they have to show them (and the public) their limits when things get "out of hand". This (not very new) "strategy" raises a couple of questions: Will support for extremist militants not further de-legitimize state authority? Is it not bound to strengthen Taliban-type ideology, and eventually turn against the army itself? Why is there no attempt to fill the power vacuum otherwise? 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

help obama!

A very interesting debate is going on all over the world about what Barack Obama's election victory means: "Can we really believe in change?", everyone seems to be wondering, in private conversations - and of course in the media, too. To mention just one example: A very illuminating programme on "Democracy Now" this week about the chances for changes in US foreign policy.
On the one hand, there are the Obama fans who point out that he won the election on the promise of change, and will have to deliver; that it is a historic change in itself that a coloured man will be US president; that there are some very concrete policy fields where he plans to be different (climate change, to mention one which is not exactly marginal); and that he basically is a decent, charming and intelligent guy who will not let us down. 
On the other hand, there are the skeptics. They argue that his foreign policy positions were not too different from McCain or even Bush in the campaign. In some fields, such as Jerusalem or Pakistan, he seemed more rightist than McCain at times. They also point to his first appointment: Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the new Chief of Staff at the White House, who is an ardent supporter of Israel. 
What makes the debate so interesting is that both sides are right! There is an opportunity for change, and there is the danger that everything will just remain the way it is. One person does not make history. He is tied to structures and will be influenced from different quarters.
The unusually high turnout in the US and the global enthusiasm demonstrate that people around the world desperately want change. But there are also many well-organized pressure groups and there is a well-established policy discourse in the US - which, for example, regards it as given that the United States (and not the United Nations, for example) have the responsibility to solve every major problem in the world. 
So it's not enough to become an Obama groupie, nor to watch things from a distance. People's pressure will have to continue from outside, and citizens will have to monitor if change is happening. But how? The Obama campaign itself had a strong grassroots element, a lot of mobilization happened via the net. It would seem to make sense to continue using such instruments - like the "A Million Messages to Obama" campaign. The conventional media will certainly have to play a role. What else?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

the changing world of the indian village

Some impressions from my recent "exposure" stay in an Indian village -- in Nasik district, Maharashtra: Having lived in Indian villages before, I was really surprised to see how much the Indian countryside is changing these days.

growing capsicum in the greenhouse

First of all how much the production is targeted to far-away markets, how much the village is part of the global economy. Many farmers in Maharashtra produce grapes for export these days, wine is being made for customers abroad, and genetically modified "BT cotton" is grown. These farmers are very active, constantly on the look for new technologies and markets. They use a lot of "modern" technology such as fertilizers, machines, pesticides, sophisticated irrigation and GM plants. They take huge loans to invest in their crops, and many earn "lakhs" of Rupees (thousands of Euros) after paying back their loans with the harvest. At the same time, the landless labourers (in this village 70 per cent of the population) still have to live on 40 Rs. (women) or 55-60 Rs. (men) of daily earnings - less than one Euro a day... 

environmental concerns

But innovation is also going in other directions: There is a growing number of organic farmers in Maharashtra who stop using pesticides and chemical fertilizer. This 73-year-old farmer has developed his own theory of "natural farming": He doesn't even buy organic fertilizer, and claims he is still making money. As an additional activity, he has planted hundreds of thousands of trees and is distributing the saplings free of cost to anyone who wants them. 

a model village

Most interesting about the particular village I lived in was to see how much the villagers had done for development over the last few years: They had managed to convince everyone there to build a toilet in their house, and to use it, too... They had established small savings and loans groups for women. As a reward, they got water connections for every house from the state government (which has given up the top-down approach to development and requests the citizens to share responsibilities). They were proud that they didn't have elections for the village council (which led to infighting in neighbouring villages), but nominated only as many candidates as there were posts on the basis of consensus...

harmony, not rivalry

The villagers tried to sort out conflicts themselves through a special committee, and had managed to keep the police out of the village in this way. They stressed that political parties and caste rivalries don't matter. Of course, there have always been symbols of harmony in the Indian countryside, and I found a nice one there, too: In this village without any Muslim inhabitant, the Hindu villagers maintained, decorated and worshipped the tomb of a Muslim saint.