The New York Times published a very important article that explained how the Taliban used class divides to take control of the Swat Valley. The lion’s share of the coverage of Pakistan seems to focus on the increasing sway of the Taliban and their ilk. All of this is unfortunately true, but Pakistan is riven with complex internal divisions that make it vulnerable to extremists. These divisions need to be properly understood if there is any hope to arresting the country’s steady slide into chaos.
According to the article, about four dozen landlords dominated Swat Valley. The Taliban organized peasant militias who then began pressuring the landlords. When the landlords fled, the peasants were rewarded with access to resources controlled by the absentee landholders.
This social divide is not unique to the Swat Valley. It prevails throughout rural Pakistan. Landlord may be a misnomer. They are more akin to feudal lords (within Pakistan they are referred to as the “feudals.”) They often control local politics, access to key resources, and even have private armies and prisons. Recent generations have acquired Western educations and can often articulate Western values and address Western concerns when speaking to that audience. Some of them may be committed to modernizing Pakistan. But the most landholders are focused on maintaining their positions and status. The Bhutto clan, which controls Pakistan’s leading political party the PPP is also one of most powerful landholding families in the country.
Nearly every study of Pakistan’s society and economy has noted the detrimental effect that the feudals have had on Pakistan’s development. Although there have been numerous attempts at land reform, the feudals have remained in power.
In 2002 Asian Development Bank’s Poverty in Pakistan: Issues, Causes and Institutional Responses stated:
Pervasive inequality in land ownership intensifies the degree of vulnerability of the poorest sections of rural society, because the effects of an unequal land distribution are not limited to control over assets. The structure of rural society, in areas where land ownership is highly unequal, tends to be strongly hierarchical, with large landowners or tribal chiefs exercising considerable control over the decisions, personal and otherwise, of people living in their area, as well as over their access to social infrastructure facilities….
The structure of society in Pakistan thus contributes significantly to perpetuating poverty in rural areas, through a combination of social, political and economic factors.
In short, Pakistan’s feudal system contributes to keeping the Pakistani people in poverty, not only through economic means but also by stymieing efforts to improve education and health. Poor water and land management has also contributed to environmental degradation, which has hurt agricultural productivity and exacerbated rural poverty. While economics is not the key generator of insurgencies and terrorism, it is hard to see how massive poverty helps. One important consequence of poverty in rural Pakistan is massive underemployment – which creates armies of potential recruits to Islamist organizations.
The Taliban are not alone in exploiting anger against the feudals. In a recent article in the Pakistani daily The News former emir of Jamat-e-Islami (roughly Pakistan’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood) wrote:
The ensuing tug-of-war between the small minority of feudal [lords] and capitalists led by the colonial bureaucracy trying to replace colonists, and the vast majority of people yearning to materialize the dream of Pakistan into reality, led the country toward the state of affairs it is presently beset with.
After Bhutto was assassinated, when journalists asked then President Musharraf if he was complicit in her death, he answered, “I am not a feudal, I am not a tribal.”
The immediate focus must be on stabilizing Pakistan. But long-term if Pakistan is to cease lurching from crisis to crisis, the fundamental structural problem of disproportionate feudal influence on Pakistani politics and society must be addressed.