The attack on Malala and the forensics of negotiation

Negotiations are flawed since we can’t give Taliban what they want & they don’t want anything less than everything.


Sami Shah October 09, 2012

The attempted murder of a young girl in Swat is not such a simple thing. It goes beyond the base forensics of the event. We are, after all, more than meat and ballistics. We must take into account the thoughts and feelings of the victim. Of the murderer. Of those who witnessed the crime or were connected to it. It is only then that we can hope to construct a thorough examination of the reality of the event, even if it is built on largely subjective foundations.

The facts are these, as of this writing: Malala Yousufzai, a young girl who bravely chronicled her struggles to get the education that is her basic human right -  during the height of the Taliban’s occupation of Swat – was shot at by Taliban gunmen. The Taliban have accepted responsibility for this attack, even giving a laundry list of justifications for targeting a child. While I write this, she is still in the hospital and I don’t know if she will live.

Now let’s consider the perceptions around what has happened, because a great deal of what the reality of this crime will become is dependent on that. If that sentence is too heady for you, I apologise. Here’s an example of what it means: Salman Taseer was killed by Mumtaz Qadri. One man killed another. According to the raw forensics, a crime occurred. However, because of the perceptions around what happened, the victim was labeled a criminal and the murderer a hero. If you fit the profile of the average reader of my columns, you most likely disagree with this description. But reality is dictated by consensus. And consensus is informed by the majority. And the majority declared Qadri the hero. So that is how he will be seen in Pakistan for most people and how our history books will remember him.

To analyse the consensus reality around what happened to Malala, let’s first study the motivations of the attackers. No guesswork is needed here, since they so helpfully detailed them for us. Their spokesman said, “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol…She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun area.”

So no surprises there. But it is important to consider, especially based on what we will do next. Because next we are going to analyse the reactions of those surrounding the event. Majority of people, I think it is safe to make that guesstimate, were horrified by the attack. The flood of prayers and support for Malala is evidence of that. But after the first moments of shock and sadness, anger set in. And anger always needs a direction. So we get angry at the Taliban. They committed the crime after all. But that is not a satisfying enough vent, as you can’t exactly tell them how you feel. Anger when rendered impotent, does not fizzle out but simply redirects. And that is where the fragmentation began. All of a sudden, a unified mass that hated the Taliban dissolved into smaller clusters, each screaming at a different target. America is to blame for the drone attacks that angered the Taliban in the first place. The army is to blame for creating the Taliban. Afghanistan is to blame for creating the Taliban and then not containing them. The BBC is to blame for broadcasting Malala’s views and thus making her a target. Imran Khan is to blame for believing in negotiations. And so on. Etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum, as they say.

I have yet to see anyone blame Malala herself, but I don’t doubt that it will come soon, if it hasn’t already begun behind closed doors. Pakistan has, after all, never been kind to the victim.

All of this blaming is an interesting result, especially given that the culprits were ready to accept the blame right from the start. But like I said, that is not good enough for us. They may have made it easy for us to hate them, but there is just too much hatred to go around right now for it to be focused on a single target.

So far, I’ve tried to keep my own opinions out of this analysis, but here’s where I will stick my impressively proportioned nose in. From here on out, it’s all my opinion. My analysis of the circumstances that led to a bullet entering a girl’s body and my analysis of what should be done after. My hope is that it is a convincing enough argument that it influences consensus and becomes reality. But then don’t we all hope for that?

I’ll start by playing the blame game as well. I blame the Taliban, first and foremost. They are happy to take my anger and hatred so I give it to them freely. But since my anger overflows this meager cup, it must splash on others too. I blame the government. All of it. Which means the lion’s share of the excess blame falls on the PPP. There can be a million excuses why the Taliban can still operate with impunity in Pakistan, a lot of them legitimate. But if you are the ruling party, then you must accept responsibility for your failures. And the PPP has resoundingly failed. It is a mark of how little faith we have in them that most people don’t even take the time out to blame them. It would, we reason, be like blaming a cobra for biting you. Or more specifically, a lame dog for limping. The PPP alone does not form a government, however. The PML’s in all their various, useless incarnations can be thrown in the ditch as well. While you are at it, toss in the JI, the ANP, the MQM and anyone else who is left. They have all variously supported, suckled, sheltered and encouraged the Taliban. Some through inaction, others through active patronage and the rest through not standing for anything other than their own greed and perpetuation. So damn them all too.

There is one group I left out of this list and that is on purpose. See, the PPP, PML’s, ANP, JI and MQM all pretend as though there is no problem with the Taliban. It is how they choose to survive until the next election, which is as far as they are capable of seeing with their limited vision. Imran Khan’s party, however, has made the challenge of tackling the Taliban a large part of its overall agenda. It is also the only party that hasn’t held any power at all so far.  Perhaps, when it finally does gain some measure of political influence, it will address the issue. Which is why I want to talk about how wrong they have it. On their current path, once they gain more political influence, they could cause genuine damage.

This isn’t, I hope, just another attack on the PTI. I think the easy access to members of the organisation and their proximity to editorial columnists has resulted in them being made a target for lazy criticism. They invite some of it themselves with their attention-grabbing tactics, but that might just be me blaming the victim.

I’m going to start by setting up a bit of a straw man and I apologise for that. It won’t be to make an easy target that I can knock down and feel good about myself, as I hope to fill this straw man with all the arguments and claims that I have heard from PTI members since the attack on Malala. Until I get the opportunity to debate one of them in person without losing my temper, this format will have to do.

The most common thing I hear from the PTI is that this attack and all others like it are a result of the ongoing drone attacks. That the Taliban are behaving this way in retaliation for America’s usage of those robotic drones. And that the only way to end all of this is to enter into negotiation with the Taliban, since all else has failed. By “all else” it apparently means “war and bombings.”

Now allow me a rebuttal. The Taliban don’t claim that Malala was involved in drone usage. They targeted her because she believed in her right to education and vocalised that belief. They said so themselves. To ascribe ulterior motives here is disingenuous. They attacked Malala because the Taliban believe that women are chattel, with no rights to access the tools for self-development. This isn’t a theory. This is based on the rules they imposed on Swat when they occupied it, Afghanistan when they ruled it and every statement they make justifying the bombs thrown at schools. Linking it to drone attacks makes no sense here. The drone attacks may also be something they dislike. It’s quite likely, given that the drones are supposed to be targeting them (even if they somehow manage to kill more families of innocent people than actual members of the Taliban). But this attack was a separate issue entirely. It was born of their fanatical subscription to a religious system of belief that they think informs their actions. In other words, they think this is what their religion tells them to do (please note that I was very careful in my word usage here and am in no way saying the religion actually says that, just that they think it does). And this is important because it lies at the heart of the negotiation challenge that the PTI seems so keen to take up. Their terrorism is not caused by the drone attacks alone. It may be one reason, but not the only. The other reasons have been clearly stated by them repeatedly. They want women to be deprived of education, they want their personal, brutal interpretation of Shariah law to be implemented across Pakistan and they want all of it or they won’t stop until they get it. There were no drones over Swat when they had control of it and they still turned that city into a charnel house.

There are some rules to a negotiation. It relies on rational players on both sides. For it to be fair, the players should be on equal standing. None of this is currently in evidence. If tomorrow, somehow, the PTI get their wish and we enter into negotiations with the Taliban, what exactly are we to ask for? “Don’t bomb us, don’t impose your version of justice on us, leave the women alone. In return, we will discontinue the drone attacks?” There has been no evidence that this single bargaining chip will satisfy their massive appetites. In fact, any reasonably intelligent person can look at their history and read their manifestoes and conclude that it will mean nothing to them. To appease them we will have to give up those things that no democratic society should ever have to. This, by the way, doesn’t even take into account the fact that we will be negotiating from a weaker position. You see, we are scared of them and rightfully so. They have no such fear of us. So when we sit at the negotiating table, we sit with no bargaining chips of worth and on a chair several inches lower than theirs. Also, their reactions defy conventional understanding of rational behavior. It’s a no-win proposition.

Is the alternative then, a reasonable PTI member might say, to continue the drones and the state of war that has proven ineffectual for 5 years? Probably not. The drones have done far more damage than good, that much is clear. For every member of the Taliban they have killed, they have radicalised many, many more. Americans don’t understand that their assassinations aren’t just meat and ballistics. One dead Taliban isn’t equal to one dead Taliban. There are perceptions that are created and consensus realities that are formed around that killing which seem to be exacerbating the problem.

So now what? Well, there are no easy answers. The Taliban seem as though they are here to stay for the long term. Even if the army were to go in and exterminate every single one, they are a force born of ideology. More will take their place. Similarly, the tactic of negotiating for peace is also a flawed one since we can’t give them what they want and they don’t want anything less than everything. To get at the answer we might need to spend a great deal more time considering unconventional approaches. We will need impressive brains with access to impressive resources to work on this. Unfortunately, we have put none of this in place. Instead, we have a government that is only concerned with it’s own survival, an army that seems unable to decide between fostering the Taliban and fighting it and a populace that is too tired, too hungry and too damn worn down to give any more of itself. All of which creates a consensus reality of defeat. This is a cop-out on my part, I know. If I had a solution, I would have readily provided it. Instead, all I can see are the deep and obvious flaws in what is currently on offer.

None of which is of any use to a small girl who hopes for a better future, in which her perceptions aren’t cut short by the hard edged reality of a bullet.

Ejaz Haider's column will appear on Thursday

Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2012.

COMMENTS (90)

Sapphire | 8 years ago | Reply

These barbarians the Taliban most certainly do not represent Islam. If anything they have only served to ridicule it and project it in an extremely distorted light and I'm glad the writer of this article highlighted their version of Islam making it distinct from what Islam actually teaches.

Where are the scholars and religious leaders of Islam with their study of the islamic sciences to combat their twisted and misrepresented version of the faith? The Prophet of Islam most certainly did not behave in this reprehensible manner and our scholars need to be more vocal in condemning their brutal actions.

Targetting the weak and vulnerable members of society such as women and children based on rehashing Islam is not an act of faith resulting in pleasing God; if anything it manifests cowardice and ignorance which actually leads to the many sins they commit especially against women.

Drone attacks are not an excuse for the Taliban consistently victimising women. Many people around the world including the West are against the use of drones. This dangerous element needs to be eradicated for the good of the world as well as for Islam.

Bisharat Baloch | 8 years ago | Reply @Yasir Ahmed: You don't make any sense. You said that this whole Malala episode is PPP trying to frame the TTP so that Imran Khan can feel ashamed and the girl survived because it was "scripted" and the government wanted her to survive so that she could later praise the PPP. I think your logic is flawed. First, TTP claimed responsibility themselves in a detailed letter that they sent out to the press. Please Google it because ET here is not approving my comments if I insert a link myself. Second, no one can "script" shooting a girl POINT BLANK in the head so that it is certain that she survives. You might have much experience in being shot but what you are saying here shows your own biases, incoherence, and ignorance.
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