Taliban's Popularity Linked To Perception It Will Lift Pakistanis From Poverty

by Emi Foulk

The swelling power of the Taliban in Pakistan - or "Talibanistan," as The Nation so pithily put it - has caused much alarm amongst American politicians, journalists, and commentators; and in Pakistan, too, the educated classes condemn the Taliban's repressive and violent policies.

In both countries, so-called champions of democracy are quick to cast blame. The majority cite the efficacy of ruthless intimidation - a sort of gunpoint diplomacy forcing women to stay indoors and DVD stores to shutter - unchecked by Pakistan's weak civilian government. The United States exacerbates the trend, some say, by pushing the Taliban further into Pakistan's heartland with their ill-conceived drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, simultaneously rallying support for those who oppose the "evil Empire."

Others point to the Pakistan military, still seeking to wield the Taliban as an asset against rival India, as progenitor and promoter of the country's militant jihadism. On at least one point, these proponents of Western liberalism agree: As Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation recently wrote on nytimes.com, "Only a democratic Pakistan can reduce the Taliban threat."

Oddly, then, the question of what constitutes democracy in Pakistan has been almost entirely neglected. A New York Times article reporting the ways in which the Taliban "exploit class rifts" came close, but shied away from highlighting what is glaringly obvious to anyone who has spent time in Pakistan: if democracy in Pakistan implies the status quo, the Taliban is here to stay.

Socio-economic disparities run rampant, and corruption, classism and an entrenched feudal system all but ensure that the poor - more than 30 percent of Pakistan's 170 million citizens, according to the World Bank - remain poor and marginalized.

Nine percent of Pakistanis lack access to clean water, according to the UN, and 38 percent of Pakistani children are underweight. Bonded labor continues unhindered in the most densely populated provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

Given the little that Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, have provided by way of land reform, education, health care and equitable justice over the past few decades, it's not entirely surprising that an alternative - any alternative - holds appeal for Pakistan's lower classes and peasantry. The Taliban in Swat have forced wealthy landowners out, and, in an ersatz land reform, passed the abandoned plots to the tenants who manned them.

From popular media coverage, it would seem that Pakistan is caught in a Manichean battle for power between the government and the Taliban. It is this myopic thinking that is at the root of America's problems in Pakistan. If the Taliban is associated with increased socio-economic egalitarianism, however much laced with Islamic fundamentalism, it will continue to be popular amongst poorer Pakistanis.

"It is impotence that the lower classes are fighting, an impotence that they are made to feel when faced with colonial power structures [which continue to be propped up by the Pakistani elite," explains Qalandar Memon, editor of the politics and arts journal Naked Punch Asia and a lecturer in political science at Forman Christian College in Lahore.

"The only people that empower them - in an imaginary way - are the Taliban."

In reality, of course, the situation is far more intricate. "Peasant movements from below are a viable alternative. It is this segment of society that must empower itself, and indeed has begun to do so," says Memon

Peasants' movements unaffiliated with the Taliban are struggling for basic rights, such as a living wage and uncorrupted judicial treatment, which have thus far been denied to them. It is an uphill battle.

In Punjab earlier this month, three farmers were killed and 27 wounded when they resisted illegal confiscation of their land by the military, the Asian Human Rights Commission recently reported.

Last fall, I myself reported on the plight of Sindhi fishermen who had been beaten and jailed after they refused to pay a local landlord the exorbitant share of their catch that he illegally demanded. (Sindh's inland waterways are owned by the state, and fishermen are ostensibly allowed to ply their trade freely.) The fishermen I met were illiterate and had no electricity or clean water, yet with the help of a small, meagerly funded grassroots organization, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, they were able to overcome the numerous hurdles placed by the landlord and his supporters and at last bring him to court. Such abuses of power by wealthy landlords are not rare; sadly, efforts to hold them accountable are.

There seems to be no question that the United States will continue to sink billions of dollars into the region for the sake of "stability" and "democracy." But if the US wants to curb the Taliban's growing influence in Pakistan with long lasting effect, it must shift its attention to basic social reform.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at this during her testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, stating that, "The government of Pakistan ... must begin to deliver government services, otherwise they are going to lose out to those who show up and claim that they can solve people's problems and then they will impose this harsh form of oppression on women and others."

She's right, but this will only be accomplished through extreme pressure on the Pakistani government (including the military) to exact comprehensive reorganization of land ownership and wealth distribution - to reform themselves, their priorities, and the current system, in short.

Asking the elites who run the government to self-destruct is a tall order; but if Pakistan is to escape the stranglehold of the Taliban, it is that or funding grassroots movements who will fight for the same social reforms from the bottom up. American analysts have predicted Pakistan's collapse in as little as six months. Clearly the status quo will not hold.

This is part of HuffPost World's Spotlight On Pakistan. We are looking to build our network of people living in Pakistan who can help us understand what is happening there. These people will send us reports -- either snippets of information or full-length stories -- about how the political crisis affects life in Pakistan. If you are interested, this is an opportunity to have a continued conversation with Americans about what's happening in your country. If you would like to participate, please sign up here.

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