The U-curve

Sarmachar v Taliban


MALCOLM Gladwell in his latest book David and Goliath writes about the relevance of the inverted U-curve to violence. Using the example of North Ireland and other data from criminologists he argues that, “there comes a point where the best-intentioned application of power and authority begins to backfire”.

In other words the application of force up to a certain point bears positive results after which it plateaus and then comes the downward spiral where use of force actually makes things worse.

The inverted U-curve argument seems logical. In the context of violence and terror, it rests on the concepts of rational actors and deterrence on the one hand and limits of power and state legitimacy on the other. The upward spiral in the inverted ‘U’ is explained by the fact that humans are rational beings and their cost-gain analysis influences their behaviour. Thus if a criminal feels that there is high probability of getting caught and reasonable certainty of punishment, crime would be deterred.

The downward spiral of the inverted U-curve is explained by the inherent limits of what power and authority can accomplish and how their excessive use can undermine the legitimacy of the state. If the state itself is perceived as illegitimate by a sizable part of the populace, use of force by it can become counterproductive and provoke more violence by creating more recruits who see those challenging the state as fighting a just war against an unjust state.

If we analyse our Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conundrum as realists (not as moral pacifists or denialists) and agree that excessive use of force is counterproductive, we need to consider the following: one, when can we deem the use of force to have become excessive; two, what are the demands or grievances of terrorists that inform their concept of state legitimacy; and three, how does adhering to the demands of terrorists affect the rest of the law-abiding citizens of Pakistan.

Consider the examples of East Pakistan or Northern Ireland that Imran Khan uses to support his pro-talks stance (Gladwell also uses Northern Ireland to explain the limits of power). These were movements driven by a sense that the state was unjust in its distribution of rights, resources and power in relation to a community that had a shared identity. Such lack of justice undermined the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the community and excessive use of force by the unjust state entrenched the resentment and provoked more violence and hate.

Notwithstanding horrible acts of terrorism against state officials or innocent citizens, within the realist paradigm the state can talk to an aggrieved community and its terrorists whose demands are rights-based. If a community feels that the state is stealing its rights and resources, there can be a conversation about redistribution. Balochistan falls within this category. And that is where the inverse U-curve is relevant. The aggrieved Baloch are focused on their rights and the resources made available to them by the state.

Their focus on the lives of Pakistanis elsewhere, if at all, is as a comparative reference point. The aggrieved Baloch don’t wish to control the lives of other Pakistanis. They want something for themselves. You can talk to them because there is something you can give them to address their grievance. Conversely, if you use force excessively and indiscriminately, it could convince the non-separatist Baloch that the state is illegitimate and incapable of change, and the separatists are right in using terror as a means to snatch their rights.

The same line of reasoning breaks down when it comes to the TTP. The latter is not saying that if drone attacks are stopped, they will decommission suicide bombers and go back to being patriotic tribesmen. They are not saying that if Pakistan disallowed use of supply routes to the US for purposes of war in Afghanistan they will give up their war against Pakistan. They are not saying that if Fata is mainstreamed and tribesmen are afforded full citizenship rights, they will lay down their arms.

The TTP’s agenda is not rights-based. It is revisionist. It doesn’t want to be like the more empowered bits of Pakistan. It wants all of Pakistan to be like it. When it seeks enforcement of the Sharia, it isn’t talking about tweaking a few constitutional provisions or adding some new ones. What it means is that Pakistanis are sinful Muslims who ought to adopt the TTP’s belief system.

When it justifies attacks on churches, it doesn’t do so to settle scores with the Christian West oppressing Muslims. It favours attacking churches because it doesn’t believe there should be any Christians anywhere who are not subjugated by Muslims.

The TTP is not revisionist in a limited sense, ie fighting to end the hegemony of superpowers in a bid to preserve the sovereignty of Muslim states. It is not angry at the US because it wishes the US to mind its own business, but because it wants to be the US — a Muslim US — that conquers the world and dominates infidels across the globe, starting with Pakistan’s ‘infidel Muslims’.

It is this ambition that creates a unity of purpose with Al-Qaeda. Ideologically, the TTP is the latest successor of the fidayeen — with a violent history almost as old as our religion itself — focused on converting ‘apostate’ Pakistanis into ‘true’ Muslims, as a necessary first step to export their exclusionary ideology and totalitarianism across the world. The logic of the inverse U-curve breaks down in relation to the TTP because it doesn’t want more rights; it wants to appropriate the state.

It is debatable whether Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan understand the logic of the upward spiral of the U-curve wherein use of force is productive. But the TTP seems to understand it well. It has used coercion and terror effectively to generate a conformist consensus within the state and the society wherein submitting to the TTP seems to be the best way to establish peace. Reminds you of the dialogue from Sholay: only one man can save you from Gabbar’s anger, only one man, Gabbar himself.

The writer is a lawyer. Twitter:@babar_sattar


Leave a comment

Filed under Interviews and Articles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s