Saadia Toor is an assistant professor at Staten Island College, author of a forthcoming book on Pakistan from Pluto Press, and part of the group Action for a Progressive Pakistan.
The Pakistani Army has launched a major offensive against Taliban forces in the province of Waziristan. What is behind this assault, and what impact will it have on the people there?
The Army had been warning ever since it attacked in Swat earlier this year that its next move would be in South Waziristan. This area is incredibly undeveloped and has become a stronghold of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (or TTP), which had been led by Baitullah Mehsud until he was killed in drone attack conducted by the U.S. earlier this year
In the run-up to this assault, there was a series of attacks and suicide attacks on state facilities across Pakistan as a warning to the Army to back off from the incursion. The TTP took responsibility for most of these.
However, under a lot of pressure from the U.S., and with full U.S. military support, the Pakistani Army has unleashed its terror in South Waziristan.
Just as we witnessed in Swat, the Army is causing another humanitarian catastrophe. It has already driven 150,000 people from the area, and experts estimate that at least 250,000 people — over half the population — will be forced to flee from the fighting. The government has stated that it is not going to make any arrangements to accommodate the refugees, because they supposedly all have families they can stay with!
In addition, the Army is going after the entire Mehsud tribe, the principal tribe in South Waziristan, in a reprise of the horrible tradition established by the British of treating tribes as monolithic entities. Although the prime minister recently made a statement saying that they are not targeting the entire tribe, I have heard that the military had been rounding up Mehsuds all over the country in a lead-up to this operation.
What happened after the Army’s incursion into Swat?
The Pakistani government and media presented a fanciful picture. They made a grand announcement that Swatis could now return to their valley, newly “cleansed” of the Taliban. We did see some Swatis returning, but by no means all of them. The numbers are hard to determine. Those who have returned have done so to a devastated area, and the state has made no mention of compensation for homes or crops destroyed during the operation.
The bigger story is that the Taliban are not, in fact, gone from Swat, so even the stated goal of the mission has actually not been accomplished. The Pakistani Army’s new counter-insurgency strategy is to arm local militias to fight the Taliban, which means that the Army is circulating even more weaponry in the area, leading to its further destabilization.
Also, there is a reign of terror being unleashed in these “war zones,” and its author is the Pakistani military, rather than the Taliban. Dead bodies have been dumped in the middle of towns, and experts agree that the marks on these bodies are consistent with the Pakistani military’s torture techniques. Cell-phone videos circulating on the Web show military personnel breaking into homes, and dragging away and torturing people.
It seems like the Pakistani state, under pressure from the U.S., is willing to cause tremendous suffering while it attacks the Taliban. But it doesn’t seem to be serious about really uprooting the Taliban. What’s the actual relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban?
It’s a pragmatic one — it has always been a pragmatic one.
The Pakistani Intelligence, with the full knowledge of the U.S., helped create and sustain the Taliban for years. Only after al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11 did the U.S. begin to oppose the Taliban, and once it did, this upset the longstanding relationship between the Pakistani state and the Taliban.
On the one hand, as a client state, Pakistan is beholden to its American masters, but on the other hand, the Pakistani military and intelligence services have their own agenda. They have always cultivated the Taliban as part of their framework of “strategic depth” against India, which backed the Afghan warlords in the Northern Alliance, so they see no reason to stop now, especially since India is making its presence felt in Afghanistan.
Torn between these conflicting interests, the Pakistani military has been reluctant to go after either the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban in any meaningful way.
This relationship has also changed as a result of the American occupation of Afghanistan. Under attack from the U.S., the Taliban retreated across the Durand line into Pakistani territory. The Pakistani military started to see some groups of Taliban as a liability because they opposed the Pakistani state for collaborating with the U.S.
And so you saw the emergence of the “good Taliban-bad Taliban” binary — which is the lens through with the Pakistani military sees these various militant factions in the border areas. It has nothing to do with ideology or interests; it’s a very pragmatic distinction. The “bad Taliban” are the ones that attack the Pakistani state, while the “good Taliban” are the ones that don’t.
In practice, this binary is unstable and the boundary between these factions is porous — the good Taliban may switch over to the bad and the bad Taliban can be won over by concessions and negotiations to the “good” side.
The only faction of the Taliban that the Pakistani military has been unable to win over in any way is that represented by the TTP in South Waziristan, and that’s why we are seeing this military offensive against South Waziristan.
One thing is absolutely clear. Pakistan’s military is reluctant to go after the Taliban until it absolutely has to. In Swat, it essentially gave us an air-and-light show to demonstrate its commitment to eradicating the Taliban. But as Swati refugees have attested, the Army did very little to root out the Taliban in Swat. What it did do was kill civilians — men, women and children — and destroy homes and fields and livelihoods.
What has been the public reaction in Pakistan to the Army’s assaults in Swat and now South Waziristan? Just a few months ago, President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani Army were in great disrepute. Have they been able to use the attacks to win back support?
On a mass level, Zardari has been unable to galvanize support for his government. His excesses and corruption are too well known. However, the liberal and left intelligentsia has rallied around Zardari.
On the other hand, the Army has definitely galvanized public opinion behind it with its invasion of Swat. Of course, there are voices of dissent and reason, but by and large, nobody is questioning the Army any more.
There is less of an outrage about the U.S. drone attacks, which violate Pakistani sovereignty, than there had been before. Pakistani liberals supported the CIA drone attack on the Baitullah Mehsud. These drone attacks are no way to solve the problem of the Taliban. More often than not, the attacks merely kill civilians.
Why have Pakistani liberals tolerated the continuation of drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Waziristan?
For the Pakistani liberal elite, based in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, these areas have always been “the Frontier,” both geographically and within the imagination — somehow not really a part of Pakistan. There has always been ethnocentric (bordering on racist) attitude towards the Pushtuns and Baluchis, and this prejudice is more apparent than ever in the discourse of liberal Pakistanis.
Liberal intellectuals such as Pervez Hoodbhoy — who, by the way, have become the voice of the Pakistani liberal-left for the U.S., thanks to the privileged access they have been given by alternative media channels such as ZNet — regularly talk about Pushtuns as backward, “tribal” and thereby uniquely misogynist.
We also regularly hear the claim now that the Taliban are Pushtun nationalists, as if there was somehow some essential connection between Pushtun culture and fundamentalist Islam. Of course, making this claim requires erasing the long history of left politics in the Frontier. In fact, if anything, the Taliban are an anomaly as far Pushtun political history is concerned — Pushtun nationalism in Pakistan, at least, was always intensely secular.
However, facts like these cause the liberals in the U.S. and Pakistan too much cognitive dissonance, because squaring the rise of the Taliban and increasing militancy in this region with its past history of secularism requires understanding the fallout of the U.S. government’s Cold War machinations in Afghanistan — in particular, the proxy war with the Soviet Union, which the Pakistani army engineered for its masters.
From the very beginning, the Pakistani state, which was increasingly under the control of the military from the 1950s onwards, treated minority nationalities with contempt and even brutality. We saw this in the way in which the ruling West Pakistani elite treated East Pakistan for 25 years, and which culminated in the horrifying army action against Bengalis in 1971, in which they raped and killed their own citizens indiscriminately.
It is the same kind of prejudice and discrimination that has defined the state’s attitude towards Baluchistan, in particular, but also FATA. These longstanding prejudices are now on full display, and being used to justify state violence in the Pushtun areas, and in Baluchistan today.
It is important to note, though, that even though the prejudice and discrimination against Baluchis and Pushtuns has always been there, there has been a tremendous change in the level and intensity since the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began, and Pakistan was pulled into the “war on terror.”
What we are seeing now is not simply an extension of an already fraught relationship between minority nationalities and the state — since 2001, the terror that the Pakistani military has unleashed in Baluchistan, in particular, has been unprecedented. The Pakistani military occupies Baluchistan at the moment — Baluchis are essentially living under siege, in constant fear for their lives. And to top it all off, there have been horrifying accounts of the rapes of local women by members of the Pakistani armed forces in Baluchistan.
It is this army that Pakistani liberals are cheering on, because they want to see it as a force that is protecting them from crazy militant fundamentalist tribals, who would otherwise somehow take over and destroy “their way of life.” If you notice, the discourse is very similar to liberal discourse around “radical Islam” in the U.S. For both sets of liberals, the use of military might in Afghanistan, FATA, Baluchistan, etcetera, is justified in the name of protecting “their way of life,” and for both sets of liberals, those who die are not human beings (or, in the case of Pakistan, even fellow citizens), but rather militants and fundamentalists (real or potential).
It’s important to note, though, that Pakistanis in general do not support military action against militants unreservedly, even if they support the army. Poll after poll shows that the majority still thinks that dialogue is the best way.
The liberal (and to some extent left) intelligentsia, however, have projected their opposition to the rising conservatism in Pakistani society — which itself needs to be understood historically — onto the Taliban. Add a healthy dose of racism, and you have a very heady brew.
You talked about Baluchistan, which is a province in southwestern Pakistan, and more generally, the home to a people whose population runs across the border into southern Afghanistan and southern Iran. What’s at stake here?
Pakistan, India, the U.S., China, Russia, and Iran are all jockeying for control of the region’s natural gas reserves, pipeline routes for those reserves, and the port in the city of Gwadur. In the process, Pakistan and the CIA are engaged in brutal repression of the Baluchis.
Throughout its history, Pakistan has maintained colonial dominance over Baluchistan. In the 1970s, the Pakistani state went in and crushed a national liberation struggle and has continued its repression ever since.
The Pakistani elite looks upon this as a sparsely populated frontier with strategic energy reserves and a port that it wants to control. So the Pakistani state has literally plundered the province. Until recently, Baluchistan did not even have access to its own natural gas. That’s the reason why the guerilla movements have risen up against the Pakistani state. In response, the Army has imposed a stranglehold on Baluchistan and have regularly killed anyone who exerts any form of resistance.
In response to this oppression, Baluchis have a long history of resistance to the Pakistani state, just as all the country’s minority nationalities have since East Pakistan fought for independence to become Bangladesh. It is clear that there is a new nationalist movement developing in Baluchistan today.
The biggest issue in Baluchistan has been the port, which the state has been developing in conjunction with the Chinese as means to export natural gas. The resistance has attacked the Chinese engineers, who they see rightly as part of the long-term plan to divest them of even more resources. It was very clear when the port was set up that the Pakistani state didn’t envision that Baluchistan would benefit in any way. It was set up as a national port and a national port city. They even brought in workers for construction and labor.
The CIA and the Pakistani state are training their own counter-insurgency forces to repress the Baluchi resistance. They are trying to blur the Baluchi resistance with the Taliban and make it seem as if it’s all part of the “war on terror” against Islamic fundamentalism.
The U.S. has multiple interests in Baluchistan. First, it wants to ensure its role in the pipelines that will transmit natural gas to the port. Second, the U.S. is using Baluchistan as a base to train Baluchi operatives that are engaged in a struggle against Iran. One such outfit, the Jundallah, just staged a series of attacks in Iran against the Revolutionary Guard.
So the Pakistani Army and the CIA are both repressing some Baluchis and training others to destabilize Iran. For all these reasons, Baluchi anger against the Pakistani state is at an all-time high. In response, the Pakistani Army is using its usual tactics of repression, disappearances, and now drone attacks. From Swat to South Waziristan and Baluchistan, the U.S. and the Pakistani state are causing nothing but chaos and destruction.
The Obama administration is clearly facing a major policy crisis in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Could you talk about this?
It’s clear that the U.S. is scrambling to figure out how to justify staying in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a deeply unpopular war, both in the U.S. and in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the region, the drone attacks, widespread civilian deaths, and the occupation itself have undermined popular support for the U.S.
The U.S. has also lost domestic support for the war. And so they have to re-legitimize their efforts under new circumstances. From the very first, they collapsed the distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they seem to be returning to that discourse. We now hear that the reason the U.S. is in Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan is to battle “radical Islam” — and in the process, all militant groups in the region become “radical Islamists.”
Obama has said that the U.S. is going to stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan until there are no longer any people who want to attack America. That is a recipe for endless war and occupation, since the longer the U.S. stays, the more it produces legitimate anger and resentment.
What do you make of the new debate in the Obama administration between the so-called counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan and the prospects of a shift to what the military calls a counter-insurgency strategy?
Clearly, they had to switch tactics and rhetoric since the counter-terrorism strategy wasn’t working. Even a section of establishment in the U.S. turned against it. They were killing more civilians than militants, and this fact alone turned popular opinion against the U.S.
That’s why we’re seeing a shift to a counter-insurgency strategy that would deploy tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan to supposedly protect the population, in addition to black operations to kill the leading Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. McChrystal oversaw just this kind of operation in Iraq. In contrast to the puff pieces about him in the media, he represents the truly dark side of American imperialism.
It’s all well and good to say that what’s needed is a surge, like in Iraq. But it became clear that a surge is not going to work in Afghanistan. Even from a military strategy point of view, Afghanistan and Iraq are two completely different countries. Afghanistan is becoming a black hole in which you can keep pushing more and more troops, and you’re not going to get any kind of results that you got with the surge in Iraq. And let me say that it’s not as if things are great in Iraq now.
It’s clear that the U.S. is training people to engage in black ops — the recent exposé of the involvement of DynCorp in a training center run by an ex-Pakistani military guy in Islamabad tells us a lot. This is really scary in a place like Pakistan, because the military has virtual control over everything in the country, and they can do such things with impunity.
The U.S. and the Pakistani Army also have the advantage on this front because journalists have almost no access to the territories where they will be conducting these operations. There’s almost a complete blackout of information. So even topflight journalists often have no idea what is really going in the battleground areas like South Waziristan, Peshawar, Swat or Baluchistan, or if they do, they cannot report it.
At the same time as the Obama administration is debating its strategy, Congress just approved the Kerry-Lugar bill, a new civilian aid package for Pakistan. What’s your analysis of this aid?
This is the standard liberal part of the imperialist enterprise. The U.S. wants to appear to be caring for the Pakistani people instead of just pumping money into the military. They hope to lure people away from radical Islam in this region by providing jobs, education, and health facilities. On the surface, it sounds great. God knows that our country needs social and economic development.
The truth is it won’t work to throw money at the Pakistani state. The aid will never get to the people. We’ve had some 40 years of the development project in Pakistan, and at least 20 years of these huge international development agencies pumping money into Pakistan through nongovernmental organizations or through the government. But the country is still mired in unbelievable poverty.
It’s important to note that much of the aid promised to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar bill is unlikely to even make it to Pakistan. This is how aid works — there’s many a slip between cup and lip. What does make it will largely end up back in the U.S., via U.S. contractors, advisers, etc. This is another well-known aspect of international aid.
Secondly, corruption is rife within both the civilian and military wings of the Pakistani state. Much of the aid will be skimmed off by the state — especially now, with Zardari, Mr. Ten Percent himself, in charge — as well as the military which controls much of Pakistan’s economy.
Moreover, it’s not likely that the U.S. government is going to stop military aid. It needs the Pakistani military to do its dirty work. And so it will be willing to look the other way while the military skims off whatever it wants. For example, the U.S. gave close to $6 billion in cash to the Pakistani military over the last eight years that has simply disappeared. It was never been accounted for. In fact, recently, the military itself complained that it never saw the money it was promised!
The U.S. has attempted to address the corruption question in the new aid package. It stipulated that the U.S. retains all sorts of supervisory control over distribution of funds. The Pakistani establishment is up in arms about this supervision and is cynically complaining about U.S. violations of national sovereignty. They’re trying to whip anger against Americans so that they can pocket the cash.
The truth is also that aid has been one of the people’s biggest enemies — not just in Pakistan, but certainly there as well. As a result of IMF loans for development, Pakistan’s external debt is over $50 billion at the moment, up from $38 billion under Pervez Musharraf. Although this might not be true of the money released under Kerry-Lugar, most of the aid that developing countries like Pakistan get goes towards debt servicing. In Pakistan, the IMF and its aid racket has caused severe deprivation through years of structural adjustment, privatization, and selling off of national assets.
So if you add IMF conditions to an unresponsive and unaccountable state apparatus, the Pakistani people are truly and completely screwed. And so throwing more money at that state is simply not going to work. If one is really serious about addressing the needs of the Pakistani people, the debt needs to be forgiven. Instead, the Obama administration’s liberal aid package puts a friendly face on its imperialist ambitions in the region.
The Obama administration has significantly confused the antiwar movement by emphasizing — as Bush did — the threat of radical Islam and its oppression of women. This has led some organizations like Code Pink to retreat from a demand for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. What do you make of this new development?
I find it shocking because Code Pink has been one of our strongest allies. Medea Benjamin actually went to Pakistan during the emergency. It was shocking enough when the Feminist Majority reiterated is support for American troops in Afghanistan recently. But this was even worse.
Like Bush before, Obama has used the reality of fundamentalist attacks on women to justify continuing the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a huge problem for those of us who are trying to take principled antiwar, pro-Pakistani people position. We are up against pro-war forces in the U.S. and Pakistan that trot out this “feminist” justification of the war. They see the main threat not in the military, which has misruled Pakistan for decades, but this monstrous misogynist figure of the Pushtun Taliban. This argument has a lot of credence in Pakistan, just as it does here.
The characterization of Pushtuns is completely false. Many of the militant groups in Pakistan, like Lashkar-e-Taiba are Punjabi, not Pushtun. By conflating Pushtuns with militancy, and all militancy with “Islamism,” they ignore Lashkar’s reactionary violence within Pakistan, especially against Christians.
In the run-up to the invasion of Swat, a video was released — we don’t know by whom — of the flogging of a woman by the Taliban. I’m not arguing that it was released by the military, but its end result was to mobilize liberal support in Pakistan for the military.
This was huge, because over the past few years, Pakistani liberal support for the military seemed to be waning — thanks in large part to the movement against Musharraf. However, by mobilizing fear and anger against the Taliban, the video and other media stories about the horrors of the Taliban resulted in the Pakistani liberals by and large doing an about-turn on the question of the military.
This is not to say that the Taliban are not a reactionary and extremely scary bunch of lunatics. They are. But the issue in Pakistan is not their imminent takeover of the country. The problems are much more complex.
If people are really concerned about the status of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then they must demand that the U.S. end its war in these countries.
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. presented a fanciful scene of women magically shedding their burkas, putting on lipstick, and attending beauty schools. Even if one accepts this vision of liberation, it clearly isn’t happening anymore.
Instead, violence against women has increased exponentially. It has increased as a direct result of the U.S. occupation. This isn’t unique to Afghanistan or Pakistan. It’s a fact that women in war zones, regardless of the country’s religion, are always among the most vulnerable groups.
I don’t mean to downplay the horrific features of the Taliban or other fundamentalist forces. I have been part of the women’s movement in Pakistan, and I would never condone or provide justifications for such forces.
But the most important thing is to focus on the root causes of this oppression. Poverty creates and exacerbates all kinds of violence against women. War and occupation only makes this situation worse.
In most societies — not just Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Pushtun — women are considered the repositories of their community’s honor. So in military occupations, combatants on all sides use rape as a means of humiliating and dishonoring their enemy. Whenever you conduct a war, the people who will suffer the most are going to be women.
We know the U.S. presence has exacerbated precisely those conditions that enable violence against women. We saw this happen in Iraq, and Iraq didn’t have long history Islamic fundamentalism or fundamentalist violence against women. That actually started after the war and occupation of Iraq. The starting point of the liberation of women in Afghanistan is an end to the occupation.
That’s why it’s so important for people to go and hear the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and former Afghan member of parliament Malalai Joya, who is currently on tour in the U.S. These are Afghan women, and they are adamantly opposed to the occupation.
They can help puncture this imperialist mythology of saving and liberating women, and reaffirm what should be obvious — the U.S. war and occupation has made the position of women far worse. We need to get the U.S. out of the region.
This interview first appeared in SocialistWorker.org (27 October 2009); it is republished here with the interviewer’s permission.