Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The People of Waziristan

Who are the people of Waziristan? I've been reading news reports in foreign and Pakistani papers and my sense is that nobody is sure who the average resident of Waziristan is; what his or her beliefs, opinions and aspirations are. But four molds have emerged in which they are most likely to be cast:

1. Ferocious tribesman: When invoking this image, the independent spirit and rugged fierceness of the people are invariably expounded. British colonial experience is often cited too. At best, it is used to predict the outcome of the current war as if Waziristan has remained completely unchanged for the interim half century. At worst, analysts and journalists quote Orientalist balderdash that often talks about the people of Waziristan as animals. Prime examples of the former are Roedad Khan and Shafqat Mehmood's opinion pieces in The News and Nicholas Schmidle's reference to Lord Curzon in Dawn. The most flagrant offender in the latter category has been the New York Times. Jane Perlez's story from a few days back quoted Sir Olaf Caroe comparing Mehsuds to a pack of wolves and Wazirs to lonely panthers. There's also Salman Masood talking about "taming the tribes" in The National.

2. Diehard terrorist: This model holds that all the residents of Waziristan are Taliban or Taliban sympathizers at the very least. This doesn't come up in news reports as much as it does in conversation with journalists. More often than not, journalists reporting from Waziristan will tell you that there is little to no difference between tribesmen and the Taliban. This view is linked to the ferocious tribesman mold in describing the brutality of the people of Waziristan. But in explaining their motives it uses Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to thirst for independence.

3. Helpless refugee: This view has become more prominent since Rah-e-Nijat started. It presents Waziristanis as victims of war, disillusioned with the Taliban and the army, just waiting to return to the lives they were uprooted from. Articles that talk in this vein paint people from Waziristan as extremely backward, barely on the fringes of civilization. Dawn published one such article a few days ago but the best example of this has to be yesterday's editorial in The News. The editorial talks at great length about the immense hardship IDPs from Waziristan are facing and the deplorable conditions of life in Waziristan. It is quite transparent in its attempt to stir liberal guilt and is more than a little condescending towards people from Waziristan. At one point the editorial mentions that the refugees are tremendously grateful for the blankets, food and medicine they have received.

4. Pakistanis like us: This mold is invoked only when condemning drone attacks. When a drone kills 20 or so people in FATA, the people stop existing as ferocious tribesmen or crazed terrorists or deprived underdogs and take on the role of green and white Pakistanis, whose death you and I, all of Pakistan, must mourn as its own.

None of these descriptions are convincing, especially since the motives behind the molds are so transparent. The first two are used to form an opinion for or against Rah-e-Nijat. The third to blame militancy on underdevelopment and the fourth to stoke anti-American ire. All fail to give any real insight into the people of Waziristan. More damagingly, they tend towards dehumanizing them.

I don't know who the real Waziristani is. I'm pretty certain that he or she is not entirely explained by the above four models. I'm also sure that it is very crucial for the rest of Pakistan to understand Waziristanis, the people who have lived with, and perhaps even supported, the Taliban for so long. That we have failed to do so is a grave failing on the part of our media and ourselves.


Rabia said...

this is such a great post. It's so interesting how people project different "on the ground" sentiment depending on what political viewpoint they endorse. Since partition Pakistanis have projected so many stereotypes on the people of FATA that now when we are trying to genuinely understand them it's almost impossible.

Like you, I find the comparisons to the present situation and the resistance to the British occupation of Waziristan to be suspiciously overly simplistic. There was an article in Dawn about a Waziristan musician and his description of how hte taliban broke his rubab was really sad.

Rabia said...

whoops, the end of my comment was lost on the internets:

...non-political, human interest stories like that are perhaps our best bet in understanding what's going on.