The War on Terror and the Terror of War

A new phase of the War on Terror is set to begin in Afghanistan. Even before America’s official deadline for withdrawal of troops ends on August 31, the Taliban have reportedly begun their violent insurgency and set off a potential civil war. As an increasing number of towns and corridors on the Afghan side of the Durand Line fall to the Taliban rule, in Pakistan, the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have begun holding rallies and announcing support for a Taliban-led Afghan Emirate. According to several news reports, the TTP have started vying for political control in former tribal areas and increased attacks in Pashtun towns and villages[1].

Whether or not we see the US-led War on Terror as an utter failure, the breadth of its implications onto disparate communities and across incontiguous geographical spaces reveal the human cost of warfare. It further illuminates the spatial distribution of violence and the ways in which the Pakistani state sustains regimes of repression. Geographer Derek Gregory (2011), on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, explained the spatial implications of the US-led war as one which had militarized the globe through “everywhere war”[2]. The claim recognized that warfare was no longer confined to a battle between two standing military forces or a specific territory such as the borderlands where wars were traditionally carried out. Instead, he termed war as emergent, something that could erupt anywhere, including in urban centers, or even in hybrid digital spaces, and include a variety of actors. The other implication was the way in which authoritarian regimes across the globe developed novel ways to crack down on dissent and civilian populations that were perceived as threats to the state. My research looks at the ways in which these implications shape the everyday lives of Pashtun workers living in cities which they had to flee to because of war in their hometowns, as well as workers who travel to these cities either seasonally or for regular work.

As a geography student, I study the lives of Pashtun migrant workers in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous province. In 2008, the TTP and other Islamic militant groups expanded the terrain of warfare outside of the tribal areas to major cities and places of strategic importance conducting suicide bomb attacks, rocket attacks, remote-control bombings, improvised explosive devices (IED) attacks, and target killings. It was in this atmosphere that Lahore’s contemporary security and surveillance infrastructure began to take shape. The city authorities issued guidelines to public institutions to increase the height of their walls, and houses, minority places of worship and most buildings in the city soon followed suit [3]. These measures sought to partition the city into safe spaces and no-go areas, residential enclaves and zones of violence, etc. The new securitized urban layout was complemented by check posts, roadblocks, and identification checkpoints which differentiated who was a threat or anti-state.

Within this context, Pashtun migrant workers in Lahore were openly and routinely profiled as terrorists and faced a dense array of related issues while living in Lahore. This included dealing with day-to-day surveillance, documentation requirements, restrictions on mobility, and hostile encounters with the police and authorities. Openly perceived as ‘terrorists’ in national and global discourse, Pashtuns fleeing drone attacks and surveillance in the former-Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) came to find themselves subjects of the ever-watchful surveillance state apparatus of Punjab. Political scientist Sanaa Alimia (2018) argues that a key element of the War on Terror has been that borders are no longer located territorially but are a process performed through these checkpoints. Their purpose is to control the movement of ‘suspect’ populations and identify persons who do not belong to the official polity[4]. My research argues that while securitization processes of ‘bordering’ the city attempt to enforce the binary between citizens and terrorists, this discourse conceals the in-between spaces which migrant workers and marginalized groups establish in order to survive and endure. Pashtuns in Lahore have a paradoxical relationship with the city. On the one hand, the state itself racially profiles them such that Punjabis get tacit support for their racial discrimination and hostility toward Pashtuns. And on the other hand, Pashtuns are an important component of the city’s informal labor and commodity supply-chain. Pashtun migrants work as small shopkeepers, own large businesses, and work in restaurants, transport, construction, etc.

Over the past summer, I have been in touch with Pashtun workers and activists in Lahore who have been thinking about what implications the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would have for them. These are concerns about the ways in which new geopolitical formations spill into the everyday lives of migrant workers. Elizabeth Povinelli says that power is practiced through the ‘ordinary, chronic and cruddy’ ways that are embodied and may not necessarily be spectacular[5]. I argue that geographers studying geopolitics, the role of the state, and spatial distributions of violence need to attend to the everyday ordinary lives of those directly impacted in the form of displacement and daily harassment at the hands of state institutions and variety of other actors within society. The focus on everyday lives reveals diverse minoritarian social projects and worlds. It illuminates the ways in which those marginalized, inhabit or flee spaces of conflict, navigate the urban landscape, and deal with challenges of underrepresentation in power centers. I propose paying attention to practices of self-organization, cross-class alliances, and an everyday politics of building solidarities, which allow bodies marked for violence to endure.

Sher Ali Khan

PhD Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University


[2] Gregory, D. (2011). “The everywhere war.” The Geographical Journal 177(3): 238-250.

[3] Shirazi, S. (September 2015). ‘Lahore: Architecture of In/Security’,.The Funambulist Pamphlet 01: 14-19.

[4] Alimia, S. (2019). “Performing the Afghanistan–Pakistan Border Through Refugee ID Cards.” Geopolitics 24(2): 391-425.

[5] Povinelli, E. A. (2011). Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham N.C., Duke University Press.


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