Umair J at Registan has pointed out an interesting article by Graeme Smith at the Globe and Mail on perceptions of Kashmiris of foreigners more than 5 years after their area was overtly exposed to international NGO staff. Both, Umair’s post (including Petulant Skeptic’s well formulated remarks in the comments, some of my writing will only be what he already said, differently put, with experience from Kashmir) and Smith’s article and slideshows are worthwhile reading, watching and listening. While this area of the AfPak theatre may be less exciting ground to cover than Korengal or South Waziristan, it gives you a better chance to evaluate how hearts and minds really work when it comes to direct foreign involvement. Apart from being interesting for the Aid/Development Sector (which I will refer to further down, since that’s where my experience lies – I have lived in Kashmir for several months in 2006 and 2007 and visited briefly again in 2008, 2009 and 2010) it has of course a major impact in the military scenario.
Today Peter Bergen and friends discussed drones at NewAmerica. One important point raised is that the response to drones we have, mainly stems from people who are not directly exposed to their effects (that is Isloo’s/Lahore’s/Pesh’s population). The argument goes, that people from the Tribal Areas, exposed to the drones are more in favor of them than, say, the Punjabi population who knows nothing about their direct impact (Being highly skeptical of means where we have very little clue about their success, even its short range implications, relying on hear-say from some people who know the Tribals from friends in Peshawar, apart from the sovereignty infringement caused that is a damage caused even to people who are not killed as a consequence, leaves me a stout opposer of drones. But yes, that’s a different story for another time …). A similar finding was made by Jishnu Das and Tahir Andrabi on perceptions of foreigners in earthquake affected areas, a study Graeme Smith builds his story on and which I have pointed out earlier here. While for the drones, we are having discussions about impacts on people who are seldom (if ever) asked themselves, hence we are basically just guessing around without any real clue, Kashmir is a great chance to have people to ask and evaluate their beliefs. While it’s unfortunate that the we are doing guess work in the hearts and mind debate in terms of actual war (not “just” the cultural one) where we would have the opportunity to learn, it’s even more unfortunate that the Aid sector has given such important findings as Das/Andrabi’s little awareness, and is just starting the whole experience anew after the floods. I find the problem to be basic but simple.
While for one, mobile phones and earthquake proof houses are not a consequence of foreign involvement in Kashmir (SCOM was forced to open the market after the earthquake to other Pakistani providers, the housing standards are from ERRA) and people in the area are well aware of that, they are hardly opposed to values as democracy or human rights nor do they understand them to be something Western or foreign. They understand and fight for such rights, they have done so before the earthquake and are doing so still. The biggest masses of people in one place in Kashmir I have experienced where never demonstrations against women issues in NGOs, but political events that concerned upcoming elections (see pictures below from the elections in June 2006). The discussions about all aspects, from the crazy mullah trying to influence voters, to involvement of the Pakistani government in election rigging went on every night. If there was criticism of foreign involvement in those matters, than that it was none of our business, they know themselves what they want and they hold their political leaders accountable. NGO workers trying to sell values are hardly taken serious. Women issues are of course more sensitive. The victims of the local’s anger were seldom foreigners though. The NGO workers from other areas of Pakistan (many national NGOs) were seen as the bringers of vice. The problem with the answers Smith gets lies, I suspect, in his questions. He does not let the people speak what’s on their mind, but specifically addresses the issue of foreigners. And for a villager from a remote village in Kaghan, a foreigner, just like everything else coming from outside his perimeter of a couple of villages in whistle-blowing distance, is an example for the other that destroys his good old times. He (the foreigner) is not the seen as the bringer of that destruction, that potential already is inside the country, inside the younger people even without foreigners around but simply with increased electricity and media coverage. While talking, it may seem (especially if we want him to say it) that Saber conflates foreigners and foreign aid with his fading culture, but he very well understands that it is not just that simple. I find that Kashmiris in general (apart from populistic Mullahs and politicians trying to gain attention with short sighted stories) very well understand that that is not the only direct link. That is why such Mullah’s and politicians have very little respect among the population.
Cheering changes in suppressing traditions especially for women after disasters and understanding it as a cultural byproduct of their work as Smith puts it rightly is problematic in two ways. For every success story seemingly a result from aid for e.g. women empowerment, I can find you a fail. Women suffered extremely after the earthquake from increased workloads because men refused to move a finger on account of their psychological distress. They and their daughters had to leave their villages after their only male family members died because they were completely exposed to the will of male family members of other households. The Earthquake undoubtedly opened opportunities, but it still has to be up to the population to take these. We have shown that they are willing to do this, and if you let them decide themselves, support them in their work were you are able and willing to, they create changes themselves, some of which we think are part of “our values” (see our study on a Women Training Centre in Kashmir). Kashmiris find it laughable when all we accept as success are increased rights for women – is that all your western society is based upon?
More often we should just be prepared to listen to people and try to understand their hearts and minds from what they have to say, and not discuss it among ourselves in countless seminars with people who have little insight themselves (and, yes, blogs as well) to shape our perception, craft it into stone and only then approach the subjects we talk about. I do wish that people in FATA do get a voice soon, and those in Kashmir manage to get something coherent like PamirTimes up at some point. But I also hope that we are prepared to listen to those views, and do not only acknowledge them once the NYT picks them up. I will try again to move friends in Kashmir to write their views in near future, starting with this issue (if they feel that’s what they want to talk about).