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Category: Feminism, Politics, International

Turning the Tide against the Taliban: What Works

| February 3, 2009

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The Obama Administration must empower the Pakistani people, who have already shown that they’re ready and able to stand up against the forces oppressing women and girls in the valley of Swat and elsewhere. Here, the secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action, tells us how.

On January 20th, Americans gathered on the National Mall and around their TV screens to celebrate a triumphal moment in our political process. On the same day, an equally important victory for democracy was taking place a world away in the priority battle zone against extremism.

The National Assembly of Pakistan voted unanimously to adopt a resolution condemning the assault on female education by the Taliban in the valley of Swat. Pushed by an extraordinary coalition of politicians, press and activists, the government is following through on its bold words: Pakistan's new man in uniform, General Kayani, visited Swat a week later to confirm the army's "resolve to reestablish the writ of the state."

Two years ago, Swat was an idyllic haven of ski and summer tourism in northwestern Pakistan, dotted with Buddhisthistorical sites. Sporadic news reports would reach Islamabad and beyond describing the build-up of Taliban militias, homegrown radicals affiliated with, but not beholden to, the Afghan theocrats of the same name. In recent months, those reports have grown ever more frequent and more ominous, as Taliban militants have clashed with U.S. and Pakistani forces in the “war on terror.” Swat itself came under the control of armed militants who began a targeted assassination campaign.

In the February 2008 elections that followed General Musharraf’s fall from power last winter, the people of Swat elected a socialist provincial government that immediately sought a peace deal with the militants. Instead, the insurgency has strengthened; many provincial legislators find themselves on a Taliban hit list, announced on nightly radio, a latter-day Mille Collines (of mid-nineties Rwanda). By New Year's day, the nightmare of Kandahar had come to the Swat valley as Taliban radio broadcast an ultimatum: all girls' education would end on January 15, 2009, and the militants promptly started blowing up girls' schools.

On New Year's morning, I sipped my extra-hot latte with increasing dread, thinking of the three independent women—my elderly mother and two daughters—who make up my family. How stark the contrast between the progressive Pakistan my mother and I had grown up in, our lives now, and the horror now facing the girls of Swat. Just then I received a call from New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney: she was organizing a press conference the following day with feminist Gloria Steinem. Representative Maloney and I had worked on women’s issues before: she joined the nonprofit I manage, Parliamentarians for Global Action, during the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference.

Thus began two weeks of intensive efforts by legislators in Pakistan and in the U.S. Congress and activist lawyers in Lahore, Peshawar and New York, sped up by then Vice-President-elect Biden's surprise visit to the region. Legislators wrote urgently to Senators Biden and Kerry about the plight of girls in Swat, the day they left for Pakistan.  By now the Taliban were issuing hit lists as the pile-up of bodies continued and daily edicts—for men to wear beards, to shut down the bazaars to female shoppers, to blow up boy's schools—clearly a full war on Pakistan's civil society and her elected federal and provincial governments.

U.S. Congressional colleagues prepared a resolution, and women’s activists began an email petition campaign, but before these efforts had their full impact, cracks in the Taliban position began to appear. News reports confirmed negotiations between the Taliban and elected religious parties; the Swat private school association was given an approval by the Taliban for girls' primary schools.  It was Pakistan’s civil leaders—especially the national women’s caucus—who had engineered those changes, it was the Pakistani opposition who opened the debate in parliament on January 15th, and on January 20th  it was Pakistan’s federal minister for privatization who asked for the floor to finally draw the line in the sand.

On the ground progress is slow: bodies still pile up, Taliban radio is still giving nightly broadcasts.  In despair those who can get out are leaving, as described by a seventh-grade schoolgirl in her heart-rending on-line diary on the BBC website. Even more troubling, local people without access to a functioning judicial system are beginning to use Taliban shari’a courts for their disputes. Will schools in Swat reopen on March 1st, 2009 as committed by the government and students be escorted with full security every day, not just on that one photo-op day when the press corps is following?  Will the Pakistan army deploy enough jammers and other tools to overcome not only the violence of the Taliban but their psychological war?

As the Obama Administration turns its eyes towards the region Ambassador Richard Holbrooke calls "AfPak," they must resist the urge to hastily brandish American power. Military efforts remain key to addressing short-term security threats, but in the long term, to bring Swat back from the abyss, the Pakistani government must replace military operations with effective criminal justice, law enforcement and economic development, town by town. That process begins when locals stand up to say, "No more".

The people of Pakistan, who must be our real allies, have stood up several times to vote under severe security threats for progressive governments, to march for the restoration of the judiciary and the Constitution.  Securing their aspirations and our goals in the region is possible through the same strategy. These last few weeks show what will work—a reinvigorated elected legislature adhering to its constitutional commitments; the security apparatus of the country reporting to that elected structure; and foreign assistance that will strengthen democracy, development and the rule of law.

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