Frontline Peshawar

Published February 3, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

PESHAWAR bleeds once again. The brutal slaughter of more than 100 innocents by unidentified killers is another galling reminder that very little changes in the land of the pure. The response of Pakistani officialdom was predictable, both government and opposition heaping blame on each other. Many major political figures and state institutions did not even issue statements of condemnation.

It has now been over seven years since the APS attack, an unprecedented tragedy which triggered resounding cries of ‘No more!’. But the people of Peshawar remain on the frontline of a grisly, violent conflict in which even the principal antagonists remain nebulous.

The Americans have come and gone. But the establishment’s desire for strategic depth in Afghanistan and its weaponisation of religion in society and politics appears to be intact. It is systematic and not just about faith as ideology or social and political control. There are economic interests too.

On the one hand is the massive economic clout of foreign patrons of the religious right, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They have pumped money into formal institutions like seminaries and sections of the media propagating a particular religious worldview. It is another matter that big fish like the Saudi crown prince are liberalising at home while apparently continuing to support reactionary forces abroad.

The people have remained expendable pawns.

Not to be left behind, the world’s self-pro­claimed policeman, the US, stands accused of being as willing to wage ‘counter-terrorist’ wars as to patronise Islamist militants. Strategic games generate substantial opp­o­rtunities to make money, private American defence contractors allegedly working in tandem with the Pentagon showing the way to those of their ilk globally.

Peshawar was on the frontline of the US and Saudi-backed ‘jihad’ in the 1980s, and then also on the frontline of the ‘war on terror’ through the first two decades of this century. The Pakistani state (read: establishment) garnered tens of billions in American military aid in both eras. The people of the city have remained expendable pawns as the dollars have not stopped.

Many commentators have argued that the days of easy money are now over, and that Pakistan cannot continue to rely on rentier logics — including war and ‘counterterrorism’ — to sustain a bloated national security apparatus.

But formal aid flows are not the only game in town. Indeed, a major shortcoming of ongoing discussions about Pakistan’s dire finances is an almost exclusive focus on the formal economy. Most economic activities in Pakistan are undocumented which means that formal statistics do not truly capture what is going on. Similarly, official policies tend to willfully neglect the massive profiteering outside formal spheres.

Peshawar as well as other major border points like Chaman are hubs of cross-border trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan in all sorts of goods, including contraband. This trade has a long history, but grew exponentially during the 1980s and has continued to expand ever since. While ordinary working people in the thousands engage in small-scale trade in these border zones on a daily basis, bigger players, allegedly including border officials on both sides, have stakes that are unquantifiable.

The trade between Pakistan and Iran at border crossings like Taftan in Balochistan is also very significant. Anyone who has spent any time in Balochistan knows that Iranian diesel is the primary ware in large parts of the province, as well as adjacent ex-Fata districts. Here too many big economic players in Pakistan, including state functionaries, have been making huge amou­n­­ts of money for decades.

Peshawar is therefore a microcosm of Pakistan on the whole. Heavily securitised, but always vulnerable to the fal­l­­­outs of strategic ga­­mes. An economy that appears to be insolvent, but sustained by a huge undocum­e­nted sector that makes a mockery of formal policy regimes. And this inherently volatile political economy generates windfall gains for the rich and powerful while condemning the mass of working people to violence, economic insecurity and repression.

It was telling that a not insignificant number of rank-and-file police personnel re­­­corded a protest in Peshawar after the blast which killed many of their colleagues. They were ostensibly demanding that they stop being made sacrificial lambs in a cynical game with no apparent end. Like all insiders, they also probably know that mo­­ney motivates much that takes place in brutalised Pakhtun, Baloch and other peripheries.

There is certainly a lot of money going around in Pakistan, and those who benefit most from illicit means are the ones who sell us tales of law and security even as they completely fail to protect the lives of innocents. There will come a day when the people of Peshawar and other long-suffering war zones will hold them to account.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2023

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