Sunday :: Apr 19, 2009

Taliban Exploiting Pakistan's Rural Poverty

by eriposte

About two months ago, I wrote at UN Dispatch about "How Rural Poverty Fuels Instability in Pakistan" (cross-posted here). I pointed out that (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

Discussions on the precarious situation in Pakistan today tend to be focused mostly on the threat from fundamentalist or "jihadi" militants. The focus on that threat is absolutely critical, however, there are underlying structural factors that also play a key role in Pakistan's instability. Rural poverty is a major factor. Approximately two-thirds [1] of Pakistani people live in rural areas. Studies by leading Pakistani economists [2] have established that higher rural poverty in Pakistan is positively correlated with higher landlessness - a long-standing problem due to minimal land reform in post-independence Pakistan. Approximately 67% of Pakistani households don't own any land [2]. However, landlessness is not the only major determinant of poverty in Pakistan's rural areas [2-4]. Unlike India's declining rural poverty in the 1987-2000 time period [5], rural poverty in Pakistan increased dramatically since the late 1980s [2, 4] in part due to misguided economic/monetary policy, some of which was driven by the IMF/World Bank. The increase in rural poverty was also accompanied by a further skewing of Pakistan's income distribution in favor of the wealthy [6] - in contrast increased income inequality in India was largely an urban phenomenon in the comparable time period, with rural income inequality either declining or stagnant [5]. Owing to a confluence of such conditions, Pakistan was not able to adequately protect the real income of its rural citizens during a period of modest GDP growth. Pakistan has also faced balance of payments challenges and given its largely self-inflicted, unstable, and risky profile, has not had the luxury of being able to run large fiscal deficits during times of economic distress - as a result, countercyclical policy actions compounded already flawed policy, thereby worsening the rural poverty situation.

As it turns out, I was pleased to see that on April 16, the New York Times published a piece by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah titled "Taliban Exploit Class Rifts in Pakistan". Here are some of the key points in this piece (emphasis mine):

The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants, according to government officials and analysts here.


In Swat, accounts from those who have fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power.

To do so, the militants organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops, the residents, government officials and analysts said.

The approach allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through terror and intimidation.


Unlike India after independence in 1947, Pakistan maintained a narrow landed upper class that kept its vast holdings while its workers remained subservient, the officials and analysts said. Successive Pakistani governments have since failed to provide land reform and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist.

The entire NYT piece is worth reading to understand the strategy that the Taliban used. Sad to say, it was completely unsurprising and fairly predictable that any group seeking to take control of Pakistan would do so by exploiting the misery of the rural poor. Another aspect that I wrote about back in February was this:

Any solutions aimed at stabilizing Pakistan should focus not just on the internal security threat from "jihadi" or fundamentalist militants, but address long-standing socio-economic issues (especially the factors leading to high rural poverty) and governance issues (these are not really discussed much in this post but pertain mostly to demands of better and more autonomous local/provincial governance that have been a major reason for internal ethnic conflicts in Pakistan, as well as in other South Asian countries like India [7] and Sri Lanka [8]). It is highly unlikely that focusing on any of these facets in isolation would substantially address Pakistan's deep-seated problems. It is hard to overstate this fact because much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment discourse around Pakistan tends to revolve around security issues and terrorism. For example, the recent writings and interviews of Bruce Riedel [9], who has been tapped by the Obama administration to lead an interagency review of U.S. policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, reveal content that is heavy on security issues and very light or negligible on socio-economic and governance issues that often create fertile conditions for the proliferation of militancy or terrorism. It is also instructive that even U.S. establishment foreign policy think-tank coverage of Pakistan [10] often tends to be heavy on military/security issues and very light on socio-economic and governance issues, despite the fact that militants and terrorists often thrive by exploiting the vacuum created by poverty and poor governance.

So, I had chided the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and other think tanks - and for that matter some of the U.S. foreign affairs establishment - for focusing on terrorism in Pakistan without paying adequate attention to two of the major structural issues that are key facilitators of Pakistan's security problems - namely, suppression of minority ethnic groups and poor policies that led to high rural poverty. In mid-March, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published a new "backgrounder" on Pakistan titled "Pakistan's Fragile Foundations". This backgrounder, interestingly, did highlight the issue of rural poverty (including a link to one of the studies cited in my post) and also briefly addressed the issue of ethnic conflicts (although in a muddled and confused manner - I will return to that point in a future post). That is a good first step and I hope other think tanks and the foreign policy establishment follow suit.

P.S. In my UN Dispatch piece I said:

…Since the 1950s, Balochistan has seen multiple, usually ethnically-driven, insurgency movements [12, 13] against successive Pakistani governments, and generally these were strongly put down by the latter…”

Here's the CFR backgrounder:

Balochistan has seen multiple, usually ethnically driven, insurgency movements since 1948, and the Pakistani state has often used brutal military force to suppress them.

I am sure that's just a coincidence. :-)

eriposte :: 9:07 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!