This review was first published on Viewpoint Online, here
When I read Taj’s book, ‘Taliban and Anti Taliban’, I thought a more suitable title for the book would have been A People’s History of FATA, as it has much in common with Howard Zinn’s seminal workA People’s History of the United States. Both books narrate the story of a land from the point of view of the conquered, and not the conquerors. Both books seek to challenge the dominant narrative and conventional wisdom. The only difference is that Zinn’s Native Americans had been vanquished and exterminated about four centuries ago while Taj’s tribesmen are being systematically oppressed and exterminated as we speak.
And this is where the significance of the book lies. It presents the story of a people who have been often been regarded as savages and brutes from their eyes and not the eyes of those who wish to conquer them. FATA has often been termed as Pakistan’s dirty backyard. The state claims that the region is not under its control, and hence justifies oppression against the natives under the garb of the draconian FCR laws. The Americans say that the region is a haven for terrorists. However, no mainstream observer has bothered to tell the story of the people and the way they have been squeezed between the state and the Taliban.
The book starts with the chapter ‘Deconstructing Some Myths About FATA’. In this chapter, Taj questions two fundamental notions that outsiders have about the region and its people. Her first argument is that contrary to popular opinion, the people of FATA are not Taliban sympathizers. She argues that the widespread militant activities in the region have more to do with the state’s policy of treating the Taliban and their ilk as strategic assets. Thus, according to her, the Taliban and other jihadi groups have been imposed top-down and enjoy no popular support. On the contrary, she argues that it is the indigenous people of the region who have tried to resist them, and it is the state’s collusion with the militants that has changed the power structures in the region and destroyed tribal institutions like jirga and Pakhtunwali.
Her second argument is that the state’s attempt to portray the tribal areas as unruly and beyond its control is nothing but insidious propaganda. In fact, it is the state, and especially Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI that has repressed people through legal and extra-legal means. Moreover, she adds that the influx of militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan wouldn’t have been possible without the state’s collusion. This, she claims flies in the face of the state’s claim that some soldiers may have sympathised with the Taliban due to ethnic affiliation or other such factors.
However, I must add that although I agree with the substance of Taj’s arguments, I find her writing style a bit overzealous. For e.g. on page 16 of the book, while countering the arguments proposed by another author, she writes that “The authors’ opinion is rooted in their poor knowledge of the whole crisis in the tribal area”. While her observation about the particular author might have been correct, one just wishes that she could have articulated her views in a more subtle manner.
Further ahead in the book, Taj talks about the controversial issue of drone strikes in FATA. Once again, her research is extensive and she tries to portray the issue sans any ideological bias or political agenda. This is a refreshing contrast to the ongoing discourse in Pakistan, where arguments are a result of a person’s ideological/political motivations rather than the other way around. Taj argues that contrary to the common perception, drone strikes are actually popular with the inhabitants of FATA. However, being an outsider who has never been to Pakistan or FATA, I am in no position to discuss the merits or demerits of her argument.
Besides dissecting the murky politics of the region, Taj also devotes a considerable part of her work to describe the individual personalities that have shaped this conflict. This adds a layer of detail to her work that is otherwise missing in books belonging to this genre. In fact, I would argue that Taj’s entire work is an exercise in micro-analysis rather than macro level geo political approach that most authors have adopted to study this region and its politics. However, I do feel that the book misses one very crucial component which would have made this wealth of information digestible to FATA-laymen like me: a map. This was the one of the few gaping holes that I noticed in Taj’s work.
Towards the end, Taj devotes an entire chapter to Islamic organizations in Norway and their possible connections with jihadi movements in the subcontinent. Although it is commendable that she has made efforts to enlighten the readers about this little known phenomenon, it was a bit out of place with the theme of the previous chapters. In fact, I would argue that this topic deserves another book of its own.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be received in establishment circles in Pakistan. As I write this review, Pakistan and US are engaged in a bit of a tussle over ISI’s alleged links with the Haqqani network. I wonder what would happen if the revelations made in this book reaches the public sphere. It could indeed prove to be a source of embarrassment for those in the khaki uniforms. It also remains to be seen how Taj’s arguments are received by the intelligentsia. However, I am sure that whether they like it or dislike it, the book is bound to start an interesting debate.
All in all, I would say that although the book is a little rough at the edges, it does succeed in its primary aim: lending a voice to the voiceless people of FATA.