Mariam Abou Zahab, from the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, spoke about the social and political dynamics in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) that led to the defeat of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious parties, in February’s elections.

Zahab said that though the individual parties within the MMA received a large number of votes, the MMA has more or less broken up. In addition the secular parties benefited from a low turnout. Although government sources reported that 27% of eligible voters made it to the polls in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs), the real numbers are closer to 10-15%, Zahab said.

The real loser in the elections was the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI), but Zahab noted that the group is resilient. “You shouldn’t count them out,” she said.

There are several reasons why voters in the NWFP elected the Awami National Party (ANP), a more secular left-leaning party. First, she said, the vote should be seen as a referendum against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, rather than necessarily a sign of support for the ANP. But voters also gave their support to the party that they believed would be the staunchest defender of Pashtun rights and who could obtain greater provincial autonomy.

Furthermore, voters had “Mullah fatigue,” said Zahab. The Mullahs, the leaders of the MMA, failed to provide basic services—gas and electricity were unavailable in many parts of the NWFP over the winter. Some urban middle class people objected the banning of music and theater that occurred under the MMA. Many voters said they were disenchanted with the MMA because it had failed to bring Sharia to the NWFP. But many of the people Zahab spoke with defined Sharia as social justice.

Zahab said that the ANP victory, while certainly a sign that the Pashtuns in the NWFP are not radicalizing, but added that the victory is more problematic than many people presume. First, although ANP and its partner in governance, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), agree on an agenda of socialism, women’s rights, and economic development, the PPP opposes Pashtun autonomy, which they see as separatism, while the ANP supports it. In addition, negotiating the politics of the new ANP-PPP coalition has become increasingly complicated. Already, in gestures of nepotism, 26 ministers have been appointed to the cabinet, the largest in the NWFP’s history.

Zahab contested the notion that the victory for the ANP necessarily means a victory for secularism. While the ANP is a nationalist party, national and religious identities in the NWFP are not exclusive, and religious sentiment is still very strong.

In addition, Zahab said anti-U.S. sentiment is as high or higher than it was in 2002, and there is great suspicion of U.S. intentions in the region. Many people worry that the U.S. does not want peace, is responsible for many of the attacks attributed to Beitullah Mehsud, and is in fact preparing to invade Pakistan. The ANP is opposed to allowing U.S. forces on Pakistani soil, either to bomb suspected terrorists or to train Pakistani forces. U.S. operations can only further alienate and radicalize the population, Zahab said.

“One thing is certain: the ANP can succeed only if the Army wants it to succeed, “said Zahab. The military seems to be cooperating with the ANP for now, but she worried that the army would become impatient and expect change faster than it can be obtained. And the army has consistently opposed calls for provincial autonomy. Zahab said that if the ANP manages to secure greater provincial autonomy, despite military opposition, she was hopeful that the government might be able to win the people back from the Taliban.

This led Zahab into a discussion of the interests of the people in the NWFP. She said that while the people of the NWFP cherish both their Pakistani and Pashtun identity, they want official recognition of their Pashtun identity. Their desire for greater provincial autonomy is not a call for separatism, as both the PPP and the military have charged. As evidence, Zahab noted that while many Pashtuns believe that the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, is illegitimate, they nonetheless say they oppose the creation of a separate Pashtun state.

Zahab concluded her talk by advising the United States to allow Pashtuns the space to find a way forward. Pashtuns think on a much longer time frame than Americans, she warned, and it’s tempting to intervene when political progress is slow. But given the large skepticism about U.S. intentions, the best the United States can do is step back.

In the question and answer session, Polly Nayak noted that anti-American sentiment is a powerful unifying force in the NWFP, and asked what would happen if the United States were to step down from its active role in the region.

Zahab agreed with Newberg’s premise, and said that the main motivating factor for young men who join the Taliban is social legitimacy, a stable income, and a home. The Taliban provides all three. What’s needed to break down the appeal of the Taliban is both to remove the ideological justification and to promote economic development.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi noted that during her presentation, Zahab said the foreigners were being used by tribes in the NWFP to pursue local objectives, and wondered whether foreigners were also using locals to pursue broader goals. Zahab said that both were occurring.

Paula Newberg articulated a tension in Zahab’s presentation. On the one hand, Zahab was arguing for better-informed state building on both sides of the border, state building that takes into consideration the realities of Pashtun identity, anti-American sentiment, and religious ideology. On the other hand, Zahab also argued that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan ought to be porous to allow Pashtuns from both sides to remain in contact with one another. And one result of the porous border, she noted, was that a tremendous amount of money has flowed into the area undetected. The tension between the need for stronger state building and a porous border is a central paradox of the NWFP, Zahab agreed.

A full transcript of the event is available in the right sidebar.