Vice Magazine has produced their second video about Peshawar, Pakistan. And it’s not bad:
If I had any complaint about it, aside from it feeling kind of like a music video (their other Pakistan report, this one from the arms market in Darra Adam Khel, had the same feel), it is thinking, “yes, and?” Not that what Suroosh Alvi reported is necessarily wrong, but rather that it’s incomplete.
I’m glad they focused that the Pakistani Taliban is responding to genuine grievances against the government, and that the government can’t fully respond. But that also misses the many other things the Taliban does—they are not just crusaders for Islam or the downtrodden, they are also thugs and (by and large) sadists who take delirious joy in violently dominating people. I’m not sure they qualify as “principled,” the way his description seems to imply. Asking people still devastated by the floods and angry at the government what they think about the Taliban is not exactly a reliable gauge of how popular the Taliban actually is, for example.
The bit on drones is problematic, too. Research into their effects is not as universal as Alvi suggests. Several surveys of the area have indicated at least the Pashtuns in the FATA support the drones because they kill mostly Taliban (it is people elsewhere, mostly in the Punjab and Sindh, who seem to oppose the strikes so bitterly). There is also a small, but growing body of research that suggests the drone strikes are effective at killing militants, as well as disrupting al Qaeda’s ability to organize and launch attacks. None of that means the drones are an unalloyed good (and on balance, I suspect they do more harm than good, though I can’t prove that), but Alvi really does not do the topic justice.
This is still good to have out there, though. Given the scant attention Pakistan itself is given—it’s rare that the subject gets a few seconds on TV, much less the eighteen minutes Vice devoted—this is definitely better than nothing. Incomplete is not wrong, and it’s important to focus on the U.S. government’s curious insistence on gaining short term victories regardless of long term costs.
But blaming the west for al Qaeda and the Taliban, as Jamaat-e-Islami regional honcho Shabir Ahmed Khan does without challenge, is neither accurate nor revelatory. Of course it’s not the bad men’s fault, it’s those meddling white people doing it. It’s a way to sidestep the horrible lack of imagination of U.S. policy in Pakistan, which is purely reactive and seems to lag months or even years behind what is really happening there. Describing the Taliban as having abandoned its quest to impose strict Islamic law, as Alvi does, is beyond my ability to comprehend, considering how they treated Swat during their brief takeover of the district two years ago. Yes, the Taliban are young, and pissed off, and might even want revenge—but, to echo my earlier complaint, they are more than that.
The complexity of the challenges that Pakistan faces deserves a serious treatment, and this VBS report dances around treating them seriously. It just doesn’t quite get there. It is still, however, worth watching. What do you think?