Shadow lands: Pakistan - a nation under attack


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Shadow lands: Pakistan - a nation under attack

American drones overhead, Taliban troops on the offensive, and the horrifying rise of child kidnapping – Pakistan is in pieces, writes Robert Fisk, in a devastating portrait of a country thwarted by violence and corruption

Pakistan ambushes you. The midday heat is also beginning to ambush all who live in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. Canyons of fumes grey out the vast ramparts of the Bala Hisar fort. "Headquarters Frontier Force" is written on the ancient gateway. I notice the old British cannon on the heights – and the spanking new anti-aircraft gun beside it, barrels deflected to point at us, at all who enter this vast metropolis of pain. There are troops at every intersection, bullets draped in belts over their shoulders, machine guns on tripods erected behind piles of sandbags, the sights of AK-47s brushing impersonally across rickshaws, and rubbish trucks and buses with men clinging to the sides. There are beards that reach to the waist. The soldiers have beards, too, sometimes just as long.

I am sitting in a modest downstairs apartment in the old British cantonment. A young Peshawar journalist sits beside me, talking in a subdued but angry way, as if someone is listening to us, about the pilotless American aircraft which now slaughter by the score – or the four score – along the Afghanistan border. "I was in Damadola when the drones came. They killed more than 80 teenagers – all students – and, yes they were learning the Koran, and the madrasah, the Islamic school, was run by a Taliban commander. But 80! Many of them came from Bajaur, which would be attacked later. Their parents came afterwards, all their mothers were there, but the bodies were in pieces. There were so many children, some as young as 12. We didn't know how to fit them together."

The reporter – no name, of course, because he still has to work in Peshawar – was in part of the Bajaur tribal area, to cover negotiations between the government and the Taliban. "The drones stayed around for about half an hour, watching," he says. "Then two Pakistani helicopter gunships came over. Later, the government said the helicopters did the attack. But it was the drones." An Islamabad garden now, light with bright oak trees and big birds that bark at us from the branches, beneath which sit two humanitarian workers, both Europeans who have spent weeks in the Swat valley during and after the Pakistani army's offensive against the Taliban. "There were dozens – perhaps hundreds – executed by the army. They were revenge killings by the soldiers, no doubt about it. A number of people we had reported to us as arrested – they were later found dead. What does that mean? The Americans and the Brits were aware of this, of course they were, and they intervened with the government. But what does this say about the army? In one village, two bodies lay in the street for two days – it was a way of showing the local people what would happen to them if they supported the Taliban. What does this say about the army? Can they control Pakistan like this?"

Some 70 per cent of the Pakistani army come from Punjab, and 80 per cent of retired army officers come from Punjab. In a few days, Punjab will pay for this.

But lest the Taliban appear in freedom-fighter mode, here is a different account of the Swat valley by one of Pakistan's most eloquent journalists, Owais Tohid, reporting from the city of Mingora. Read, as they say, and inwardly digest. "Splotches of red blood still stain Ziarat Gul's memory: his sister was gunned down by the Taliban and her body placed at the chowk [square] where I stand... A year ago, Gul's sister, Shabana, was shot three times by the bearded and turbaned men." Shabana was a singing and dancing girl, of whom there are many in the tribal areas; they perform at weddings, while the men play harmoniums and the stringed rabab.

Back to Owais Tohid. "Her body was then strewn with currency notes, CDs of her performances, and her photographs. Pooled in blood, nobody was allowed to her body until the next day. Gul, his father and two cousins were the only ones to offer funeral prayers and bury her the next morning..." Shabana's friend Shehnaz, a famous dancing girl, was a witness to the murder: "I switched off the light and peeped through a hole; I could see the door was broken. Shabana sat on the floor and Taliban carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers stood around her. Some carried swords. I heard Shabana beg them to spare her life. She was pleading, 'Don't kill me, don't kill me.' But then one of the Taliban said, 'We warned you ... we even offered you our mujahid to marry, but you continued to dance...' Shabana continued pleading..." Shehnaz heard the gunshots.

I wonder if all these tales are true. Alas, they are. Not far from Peshawar last month, a dancing troupe was returning from a party in Hindko Damaan, when armed men surrounded their vehicle at 3am. Afsana, one of the girls, had her two sisters, Salma and Sana, alongside her in the car, and her stepfather, Azizur Rahman. Her brother, in a following car, argued with the gunmen, who were demanding money. So they shot Afsana dead. She had just divorced, and danced to earn money for her family. Three other girls have been murdered outside Peshawar in the past fortnight.

But the drones dominate the tribal lands. They killed 14 men in just one night last month, at Datta Khel in north Waziristan. The drones come in flocks, and five of them settled over the village, firing a missile each at a pick-up truck, splitting it in two and dismembering six men aboard. When local residents as well as Taliban arrived to help the wounded, the drones attacked again, killing all eight of them. The drones usually return to shoot at the rescuers. It's a policy started by the Israeli air force over Beirut during the 1982 siege: bomb now, come back 12 minutes later for a second shot. Now Waziristan villagers wait up to half an hour – listening to the shrieks and howls of the dying – before they try to help the wounded.

The drones – Predators and Reapers, or "Shadows", as the Americans call them when they follow US troops into battle – have acquired mythical proportions in the minds of Pakistanis, a form of spaceship colonialism, imperialism from the sky, caught with literary brilliance by A H Khayal in the daily newspaper The Nation, when he asked where the drones come from: "The masses are piteously ignorant. They just don't know that the drones are not material creatures. Actually, they are spiritual beings. They don't need earthly runways for taking off... They live in outer space, beyond the international boundaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"When they feel hungry, they swoop down and kill innocent Afghani women and children. They eat the corpses and fly back to their spacial residences for a siesta. When they again feel hungry, they again swoop down and kill another lot of innocent women and children. Having devoured the dead bodies, they fly back to their bedrooms in space. It has been going on and on like this for years."

Indeed it has. But where do the drones come from? When President Hamid Karzai flew into Islamabad last month, the entire Pakistani cabinet turned up to welcome this fraudulently elected satrap of the United States. Many are the Pakistanis who found this a natural circumstance. Was not their own President, Asif Ali Zardari, another of Washington's corrupt satraps, his minions heading to Washington only two weeks later to plead for a vast increase in the $7.8bn (£5.1bn) of aid which Congress voted Pakistan last year? "There was a time when America did not trust you," Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yousuf Gilani, lectured the upper house of his federal parliament. "You were their ally, but they did not trust you. Now they are trusting you and holding a strategic dialogue."

It was enough to make the average Pakistani squirm. After Hillary Clinton arrived last November to berate the students of Pakistan on their anti-Americanism – and to hint that their government must surely know the location of al-Qa'ida's top men in the tribal lands – the Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, set off to Washington last week with his chain-smoking army commander, General Ashfaq Kayani, with the biggest begging bowl in Pakistani history. President Barack Obama wants an exit strategy in Afghanistan and realises – at last – that only Pakistan can provide this. But he also wants to support India as a bulwark against China, and the Pakistanis know that Delhi's agents are trying to control Afghanistan.

But what struck Pakistanis about Karzai's visit was not his cloying remarks about the fraternal love of the Afghan and Pakistani people – "India is our close friend but Pakistan is like a twin brother," he piously observed – but his astonishing statement that the devastating missile attacks against Pakistan by pilotless US drone aircraft were not being launched from inside Afghanistan.

"We are not responsible for these attacks," he said. "They are being carried out by a powerful sovereign country, namely the United States, which is also a close ally of Pakistan. They [the drones] don't fly from our territory but in our airspace, and it is beyond our capacity to stop them." Karzai looked subdued, apologetic, meekly sympathising with Gilani over the growing number of civilian casualties.

Karzai was (for once) telling the truth. The drones launched from the Kandahar airbase are attacking the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban inside the international frontier. The drones attacking Pakistan come from – Pakistan.

In fact, the Americans launch them from a Pakistan Air Force base at Terbile, 50 miles west of Islamabad. US officers were also interested in using the Peshawar airfield – the same runways employed by the old U-2 spy planes, from which Gary Powers took off over the Soviet Union during the Cold War – and the Taliban spent weeks trying to discover the headquarters from which the Americans were directing the drones. They eventually decided that the US drone control centre was on the highest floor of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

They were wrong. US officers did stay at the Marriott, but they were not air force personnel. This, however, was the reason the Marriott was attacked by a suicide bomber in 2007, and then again with a truckload of explosives on 20 September 2008 – not because President Zardari had just given his first speech to parliament a few hundred metres away, but because the Taliban were trying to destroy the "brain" behind the drones. At least 54 civilians were killed – most of them Pakistanis – and 266 wounded. The drone attacks continued, more than ever after Barack Obama became US President.

The war, however, is now directed at the Pakistani army – although the authorities try to portray the Taliban's targets as purely civilian. The assault on the police torture centre in Lahore on 8 March was merely a warning. Nine policemen were among the 18 dead at a building known for its night-time torture sessions – local inhabitants had complained many times about screams from the basement, not because of the abuse taking place there but because it made their homes a target for bombers. They were right. The worst suicide bombing of the year had already occurred at a volleyball field in Lakki Marwat, when the killer murdered 105 people – many of them policemen and Frontier Corps personnel. On 4 February, another suicide bomber – after a long surveillance operation by the Pakistani Taliban – struck a military convoy in the Koto area of the Lower Dir district. He killed three schoolgirls, a Frontier Corps policeman – and three US soldiers. Since 11 September 2001, more than 5,700 men and women have been killed in insurgent attacks in Pakistan. This is revenge for the army's offensives in Swat and Waziristan.

The double suicide attack on two army vehicles in Lahore, the Punjabi capital, on 12 March was thus merely the most brazen assault on the Pakistani military. Both killers destroyed themselves next to two army trucks – killing 14 soldiers – in the garrison city, shaming the security authorities and provoking the local chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, to plead shamefully with the Taliban to spare his capital in future. Attack another city, was the implication. Sixty-one men and women were killed – most of them, of course, civilians – and hundreds wounded. Within 24 hours, another suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint in the North West Frontier Province at Saidu Sharif, killing 14 people, most of them soldiers and policemen.

Even the military were surprised by the determination of the Pakistani Taliban to assault them. Four days after the attack in Lahore, the police found 1,500 kilos of explosives and two suicide vests in Iqbal Town in the Punjabi capital, along with Russian-made hand grenades and rifle ammunition. The next day, they discovered another 3,000 kilos of explosives in the same area. Amir Mir, the most accurate of Pakistani journalists amid the chaos of what is in fact a war, has calculated that 321 Pakistanis have been killed and more than 500 wounded in 15 suicide bombings across Pakistan in the first 70 days of 2010. This is up from 'only' 11 suicide bombings in the same period last year.

The Institute for Peace Studies in Pakistan has been recording every act of violence in the country since the 2001 attack on America, and concludes that just in 2009 12,632 men and women – civilians, soldiers, Taliban militants, even victims of inter- tribal battles – were killed. Of the dead, 3,021 were killed by insurgents, 6,329 in Pakistan army operations, 1,163 in army-Taliban battles, 700 in border violence, and 1,419 in other violence, including drone missiles.

The scorecard for death over the past four years – I'm afraid that death in Pakistan is today much like a tally – is truly awful. In 2005, a mere 216 Pakistanis were reported killed. In 2006, 907 Pakistanis died; in 2007, 3,448; in 2008, 7,997. By 2009, the total number of victims in just five years came to more than 25,000. When I twice visited Lahore, it felt like a city under martial law, thronged with troops and checkpoints, its bridges and ancient British ministries and schools laced with soldiers in steel helmets.

In just two weeks in March – far from Lahore – lawlessness reached epic proportions. On 14 March, four men were killed in the Khyber tribal area. In Quetta on 17 March, a retired policeman, a member of a "sectarian organisation", and two construction workers were shot dead or blown up. A day later, 10 men of the Mehsud tribe – quite possibly militants – were killed in a five-missile US drone attack. In a suburb of Peshawar on the same day, three Frontier Force soldiers and two policemen were shot dead. In Karachi that day, two political leaders, their lawyer and a taxi driver were shot. Within 24 hours, a prominent Quetta lawyer was kidnapped. By the end of the same week, the Pakistani Taliban publicly announced that it intended to murder the Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik. And there would be more attacks across the country, the Taliban said, in revenge for the American drone attacks. "Just wait for our reaction," the Taliban's spokesman, Azam Tariq, said.

The Pakistani military responded in the time-honoured way. The Taliban's attacks were "a clear sign of frustration and desperation" on the part of the militants. The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, declared from the safety of Washington that the drone assaults – and other attacks, unspecified – were "the most aggressive operation that the CIA has been involved in in our history. The CIA's offensive in the Pakistan tribal region had driven Osama bin Laden and his colleagues into hiding – where they have presumably been since 2001 – leaving al-Qa'ida "rudderless and incapable of planning sophisticated operations".

Pakistan surely deserves better than this nonsense. Embedded with the Pakistani military, writers such as Michael O'Hanlon in The New York Times remind their readers that America's $17bn in aid since 2001 comes to only half Pakistan's costs in the "war on terror", a battle to which the Pakistani army is now fully committed (or so he believes). This, however, does not explain the scores of soldiers who have surrendered to the insurgents over the past 12 months, nor the weird double-game being played by the Pakistani security services, who captured senior members of the Afghan Taliban only to find themselves condemned by Hamid Karzai's corrupt government for breaking up the secret communications between the Afghan government and its enemies. The US was "extremely gratified" by Pakistan's arrests, President Obama's envoy, Richard Holbrooke, says. In other words, the Americans would control contacts with the Afghan Taliban – not their local ruler, Hamid Karzai.

And all the while, the 'security' experts who dominate the American press have been sowing their suspicions through the dumbed-down intelligence world of the West. For while we bomb the tribal regions with our drones, we are told to fear the imminent theft of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Terrorists, we are told in a West Point journal, may take the country's atomic arms for use against us – note how this threat never seems to apply to our trusted ally, India – and mythical accounts are told of three separate attacks by "terrorists" (unnamed, of course) on Pakistan's nuclear facilities in the last three years. In the past we were told that Muslim "nationalists" might hijack Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Now the danger is supposed to come from "Islamists". In fact, the real danger is much closer to home.

Seventy per cent of NATO's ammunition, vehicles and food in Afghanistan still transits through Pakistan, along with 40 per cent of its fuel. The Taliban's attacks on these convoys – both the Pakistani and Afghan versions of the movement (for they are not the same) – have over the past two years netted some incredible dividends, which NATO has not seen fit to disclose. Gunmen have managed to steal three separate – disassembled but complete – military helicopters and a clutch of American Humvee armoured vehicles, one of which was used by the Pakistani Taliban's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. At least 62 Humvees were burned out in just one raid near Peshawar in 2008.

And all this, you have to remember, takes place against the profound corruption of Pakistani society, from the shoe-shine boy to the president, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, whose own venality is so legendary that only rarely does it cause discussion. Only once in the last month has it been mentioned – when Zardari, addressing a conference on Sufism and peace, announced that he was not afraid of death, that he represented "nothing more than a speck in the universe" and would donate his body organs on his death. Within hours, five people – including my taxi driver, a hotel waiter, the owner of an Islamabad bookshop, a Pakistani humanitarian worker and a lawyer – made precisely the same comment to me: "Zardari will donate his body organs to the people – but not his dollars!"

Thank God, I suppose, for the Pakistani press, as brave, as disillusioned and as tough as any media folk in the West. The 'oil mafia' which siphoned off billions of rupees during Musharraf's rule, the four cabinet ministers living in government houses but claiming rent (shades of Westminster's very own), the massive financial irregularities in the Punjab education department, all have been exposed in Pakistan's newspapers. "The government," reported The News International on 11 March, "has removed yet another officer of impeccable integrity, the chief Commissioner, Islamabad, Shahid Mehmood, within 90 days of his posting, after he allegedly refused to accommodate the 'wishes' of certain political masters." Now that's what I call reporting. The luckless Mehmood, it turned out, had rashly frozen a land deal which involved a certain Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan.

Pakistanis – in other words, most of the 150 million men and women who live in penury in this nuclear state – simply no longer believe in the authorities who claim to govern them. When an increase in bus fares brought hundreds – and then thousands – of young people onto the streets of Islamabad's suburbs last month, the police opened live fire on the demonstrators. Western embassy personnel were confined to their bunkers – US diplomats are not even allowed to go grocery shopping at the best of times – and Zardari's government then announced that the protesters had been "imported", brought into the capital from "surrounding areas".

Where does a foreigner – a real one, like me – go to understand this beautiful, ferociously angry, ripped-up, intelligent, hopelessly overcrowded, war-smitten country?

Raza Kazim admits only to being in his eighties, but he has a perfunctory, almost irritatingly child-like way of twining his thin fingers together while trying to define his love of country, his belief in the worth of Pakistan. His is speaking over the throb of the air-conditioners, as an unprecedented spring heat warms up the Lahore trees outside his home. He brings in two frozen cans of Murree beer and is vexed that I won't join him. I can see why he led the first strike in his Indian school's history.

"I benefited vastly from the Raj," he says. "It wasn't a love-hate relationship – it was a love-adversarial relationship. My heart went out to the 'Quit India' movement, and I was coming from the peasantry. It was a time when peasants could be flogged for two rupees. I had a belief in freedom and in 1946, I took a leap of faith and feeling."

Some faith. Some feeling. Kazim is a kind of 'guru' – in the original meaning of the word, an elderly advisor/oracle for generations of Pakistani politicians – and his involvement in the Indian National Congress of British India, then in the Muslim League and later in the Pakistan People's Party, have turned him into the Malcolm Muggeridge – or perhaps Tony Benn – of Pakistan. A lawyer and ex-Communist whose philanthropy has produced the Sanjan Nagar School Institute of Philosophy and Arts, and the inventor of a stringed musical instrument intended to preserve South Asian classical music as a modern art form, he has two qualifications for Pakistani sainthood: he was kidnapped by military intelligence in 1984, and has been jailed five times between 1950 and 1985. His other quality is historical; he still thinks the date is 1947 and he smiles when he realises that I agree with him.

"August 1947 was a kind of competition between Hindus and Muslims," he recalls, the fingers beginning to twist around each other, the lamp-light reflecting his baldness as dusk brings out the big birds in the garden. "Who would give a better account of freedom? I never had a sense of India being divided. It was like the people were split into two teams. Who would score more runs off freedom?"

Freedom at midnight, I murmured. At what cost? "Yes, there was bloodshed in Bihar. There was bloodshed in Delhi, a lot of bloodshed in the Punjab – but that was action and reaction. Then it spread into the Deccan area. They (the new Indian state) took soldiers from the Punjab whose children had been murdered here and whose women had been abducted here, and sent them to the Deccan area where they bashed the heads of [Muslim] children against pillars. Yes, I know what happened in those trains.

"The political capital made out of these killings is another story – a bad story, but a different story. The events were capitalised. But bloodshed didn't begin with Pakistan. The first genocide of Indian history took place in the Punjab in 3,000 BC – it was a conflict between feudal and pastoral

Kazim had it easy. "On 13 September, 1947, I came on a plane to Pakistan as guest of the Indian communications minister. I came with my gramophone records, books and poetry, and two sets of clothes." It is a very post-colonial story. While the masses tore each other to pieces below, Kazim's plane soared above the bloodbath to drop him as a witness to the mass looting of the new Pakistan's most beautiful city, Lahore.

"People think of the properties taken from the Hindus and Sikhs, but the most important things were the jobs, the business, the vacancies, and grabbing those properties. The educated people looted and took things away in trucks – these were the people who were going to run the country. It became a sign of patriotism that you forged property papers to homes in India that you never had – this was thought to be a patriotic duty because the Indians had three times as many claims against us. The bureaucracy had been civil servants under the British system – they were middle-level bureaucrats in India, who had suddenly become senior bureaucrats in Pakistan." Mohammad Jinnah, the founder of the state, who died in 1948 – Kazim went to his funeral – "had a weakness for flattery. He didn't keep good company."

I've heard this story before, albeit less eloquently told. Pakistan existed, but there was no sign of a developing society or the creation of a nation. "We have still not made a society," Kazim says. "People have to take something out of their personal lives and invest it in our society." There is a pause here, then Kazim's voice rises. "WE ARE STILL IN 1947!" Pakistan obtained its freedom under the Indian Independence Act – but there is nothing called the Pakistan Independence Act."

Another room now, in what Pakistani reporters still call a "posh" area of Islamabad. (When they bring themselves into their own stories, by the way, Pakistani journalists call themselves "scribes", rather than our self-denigrating "hacks"). But the air conditioner is just as noisy. Now it is another lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, hero of the 'Long March' of spring 2009 which eventually secured the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry as Chief Justice after the abdication of America's favourite dictator, the president-general Pervez Musharraf. Ahsan's new book, The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan suggests that there were two culturally different regions of the land which the British called India, that there was a continuous social and political order in the Indus region – the bit that became Pakistan – that was quite different from that of the rest of India.

On Pakistani independence, the structure of state-Raj versus the citizen-native did not change. As Ahsan puts it bleakly, "the military officers who on 14 August, 1947, saluted the raising of the green standard with crescent and star had on the 13 August been saluting the Union Jack. They couldn't change in a day. Somebody else had fought for independence. The 'natives' remained and continued to be denied democratic rights until 1970."

Thus – and Kazim would not agree with this – Pakistanis loved their judges rather than their soldiers, and admired them with a fair degree of cynicism. Rightly so. In 1954, the Governor General dissolved parliament – an act unsustainable in law – but the judges upheld the dissolution. In 1958, the military commander dissolved the assembly, abrogating the constitution. And the country's Supreme Court endorsed the imposition of martial law on the grounds that "a successful coup d'état is an internationally-recognised, legal method of changing a government." Judges reversed this opinion in 1972, ruling that there was no place for a military regime in Pakistan – but it did so only after the military regime had fallen.

Now the army – guardian of the nation of Pakistan, and America's second-best friend in the region (after the Indian army) – is under constant military attack, while obligingly allowing the totally corrupted (and corrupting) politicians to run the vehicle of state under the banner of 'democracy'. Everyone knows that the Inter- Services Intelligence – their leaders appear to be interchangeable with the regular army – continue to succour and guard and lead the Afghan Taliban. They will do so as long as America ignores Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir. American soldiers die because of Muslim anger at Washington's support for Israel, as US Commander General David Petraeus suggested last month. But American soldiers also die because of Kashmir. Pakistanis – and here is something which truly unites all of them – believe that America supports India, and that Kashmir is thus ultimately lost to them. So why should they allow America – and Indian money and political influence – to control Afghanistan?

It's sometimes difficult to find the line between aggression and fear in Pakistan. We in the West fear its nuclear weapons without even looking at a map of the country about which we obsess with such devotion.

Every major city – Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta – is close to the borders of India or Afghanistan. It is a both sump of poverty and a nuclear power, an intelligent nation – its people desire education with the same craving as the Palestinians – with a history that began and ended at the moment of partition, its datelines framed by military coups and imperial hand-outs and, now, by drone attacks and suicide bombers. The latter arrived with a peculiar shock in Pakistan. They started in Lebanon, moved to 'Palestine', then to Iraq and then to Afghanistan – and then to Pakistan. From the Mediterranean to the old Raj, this black-magic rite travelled with incredible speed. And now it has merged with the dirt and corruption and nuclear power of Pakistan.

I tried, in Pakistan, to define the sorrow which so constantly afflicts this country. The massive loss of life, the poverty, the corruption, the internal and external threats to its survival, the existentialism of Islam and the power of the army; perhaps Pakistan's story can only be told in a novel. It requires, I suspect, a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky.

But perhaps it is Pakistan's ability to do harm to itself that most struck me – symbolised, I fear, by the latest and most terrible affliction to strike it: child-kidnapping. Steal a little boy or a little girl, ask the parents for money, and kill the infant if they don't pay. When Sahil Saeed, the British-Pakistani boy, was taken, the police and the British embassy helped to bring him home. But journalists covering the story found that the family home was sometimes overwhelmed with other parents, like those of six-year-old Mahnoor Fatima, who was stolen from his family in October of last year and never seen again. "This shows the difference between rich and poor," Mahnoor's mother said. "No one even came to my house to console me... Everything is done here for the rich and the British, but nothing for Pakistanis and the poor."

Near Peshawar, a three-year old girl called Fariha was taken from a wedding party last month, her kidnappers demanding Sterling pounds 8,000 for her life. The parents couldn't pay. So Fariha was killed and thrown into a canal. Her father, a worker at a brick-kiln, later came to the Peshawar Press Club with the body of his daughter to demand punishment for her killers. In Faisalabad two days later, another kidnapped child, seven-year-old Samina Ali, was found dead in a drain after her parents failed to pay a ransom for her. They complained that the police later demanded £120 for handing over her body. A kidnapped boy, a six-year-old identified only as Sharjeel, was also found dead in a drain a few hours earlier.

In the first two months of this year, 240 people – almost all of them children – have been kidnapped in Pakistan. Only 74 have been recovered alive. There – not in the suicide attacks and the venality of politicians– lies the worst statistic in Pakistan.


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Pakistan’s existential threat

WHEN searching for the ‘elusive truth’, it is useful to not rely solely on the so-called experts but also seek out the poets and novelists. A brilliant new novel, The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam, a British author of Pakistani origin, more than the myriad expert accounts may help us better understand the conflict raging in our region.

The book, set in Afghanistan, has one of the main characters, a man named Marcus, talking about the country. He says, ‘The entire world it seemed had fought in this country, had made mistakes in this country, but mistakes have consequences and we don’t know whom to blame for those consequences. Afghanistan itself? Russia? The United States? Britain? Arabia? Pakistan?’ Another telling line from the book is: ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’ In the wake of the horrific Taliban killings of innocent civilians and attacks even on mosques, that quote brilliantly captures the mess that we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. Until the two countries themselves decide to sort out their affairs, no amount of external assistance will help do the job.

In Pakistan, it would be a disservice to look at this current conflict solely as an Afghanistan issue because Pakistan too faces the same wars within. There is a continuous battle between what the government of Pakistan wants, irrespective of its complexion, and what the people of Pakistan want. Our history clearly indicates that whenever we have experienced long periods of autocratic rule, particularly military rule, the result is a stunting of all democratic systems and institutions of civil society.

It is equally critical that we factor in the economic crisis affecting Pakistan today. In a highly urbanized society where the poorest strata spend up to two-thirds of their income on food, an inflation rate in the double digits constitutes a near insurmountable challenge for the government. In addition, the country is facing power, water, and even sugar shortages, as oligopolist cartels ensconced in government and in parliament maintain their hold on scarce resources at the expense of the common person.

Autocracy stunts democracy in Pakistan: unfortunately, any civilian government that inherits power from an autocratic regime in Pakistan too ends up acquiring all the trappings of autocracy that preceded it and is loath to part with them. That is exactly the situation in Pakistan today. General Pervez Musharraf had hijacked a parliamentary system and made it into a presidential system. The current regime essentially continued that system and only now is slowly being forced to shed those powers. But until that autocratic system is fully reversed, normal political development in Pakistan will remain a dream.

I am reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism that when you get to a fork in the road, take it! That is the Pakistani situation. We are forever at that fork and we are forever taking it, not knowing where we might end up. It is ironic that it was the Pakistan Army that helped stage a free and relatively fair election in 2008 and has now been elevated to the rank of most respected national institution in a poll done by the International Republican Institute. As the most organized and disciplined agency in the land, the army exerts enormous power in all spheres, especially on the Afghan war, the fight against internal militancy, Kashmir, and nuclear issues. That army is now under direct attack by the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban and its partners.

As for Afghanistan, it is now quite clear that the United States went in without a comprehensive plan for winning the war beyond the military ouster of the Taliban. This was evident in its shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, a completely unnecessary war. There was no concerted effort at ensuring the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the country after decades of war, or even on forming a coalition with all the countries in the region, including India, China and Iran to help stabilize the situation.

Further, the US failed to pro-actively help Pakistan transform its own army and Frontier Corps into a counterinsurgency force by equipping and training it for that purpose. Having been in a kind of reactive mode since 2001, it is only recently that it realized that it did not even know what was happening to all the money it had given to Pakistan.

Another point worth remembering is that the insurgency inside Afghanistan, or the civil war as some call it, is in part fuelled by some internal issues. For instance, Afghanistan has so far not shown any willingness to address the grievances of the Pakhtoons against the excesses of the Northern Alliance in the wake of the US invasion. That is a deep hurt which apparently still affects thinking in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan, enhancing support for the Taliban on both sides of the Durand Line.

It should by now be evident to all that the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan without the full and willing participation and support of Pakistan, its army, and its general population, especially with the new civilian administration in place inside Pakistan. But equally, the US must remember that it cannot win by aligning itself to any single party or any single individual, as was evident in the misplaced reliance on General Musharraf after 2001. Simultaneously, we must keep in mind that neither capitulation to nor confrontation with US interests in Afghanistan, and especially in FATA, is the right approach. Rather, engagement and a joint effort to eliminate the causes of militancy inside both Afghanistan and Pakistan are far more likely to work.

Another point – and this comes from my own visit to FATA and NWFP – is that the Pakistan Army is seen as an alien force inside FATA. With the Frontier Corps having lost its efficacy over the years, both the army and the Frontier Corps appear ill-equipped and ill-trained for counterinsurgency warfare. What compounds their difficulty is that they are now operating against their own people.

We also need to admit that the traditional system of governance inside FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Area that abuts Afghanistan, which involves the government’s political administrators and the largely compliant tribal mullahs, has failed. It has been displaced and supplanted by a different system under which new renegade leaders and religious leaders have assumed greater importance. We must recognize that the old system cannot be restored in its entirety, and if it is at all to be used, can only be as a finite and transitional mechanism.

Finally, no plan for FATA will work unless it involves the local people and they are given a responsible role in the implementation of the plan. Simultaneously, we have to ensure that all efforts are made to stem the leakage of funds or resources by the privileged few, and that there is equitable sharing of opportunities and finances. On my visit to North Waziristan I had the opportunity to speak with 23 tribal maliks in North Waziristan and it was amazing how clear-headed they were on their needs. Their needs are very basic and no different than the needs of people living in the United States or China or India or Pakistan: water, education, and primary health care. All they want is an equal opportunity to be able to order their lives.

On the military side, let me begin by quoting General David Petraeus, a key person engaged in evolving a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that might allow the United States to exit the area with honour. ‘You cannot shoot your way out of an insurgency. You have to recognize that the military-civil equation is 20 per cent military and 80 per cent civil and political.’ So whatever the focus of the US relationship with Pakistan, it must not allow the military-to-military relationship to overshadow the relationship with the civilian government on the one hand and with the people of Pakistan on the other. If it only concentrates on the government and loses the support of the general population of Pakistan, as it has over the last few years, then whatever the approach taken, it is doomed to failure.

In the absence of a national consensus on what Pakistan wants and what kind of society the people of Pakistan want to have, the only option before the government – once the Tehreek-e-Taliban (the homegrown version of the Taliban in Pakistan) came into being and started attacking the military and civilian administration in FATA as well as in the settled area of Swat, Dir and Chitral – was to send in the army. The policy continued even after the new government took over, even though the military had briefed the civilian government on what had happened in the past and asked them for direction about the future.

But in the absence of an overall civilian direction, the army was sent in almost as a default option, moving in the equivalent of six infantry divisions into FATA and Swat. But the Pakistan Army is a conventional force, whose posture has always been to be prepared for an eventual war with India, in case India – choosing its new strategy of ‘cold start’ – decides to shoot first and ask questions later. In having to move six infantry divisions from the strike force that faces India, the Pakistan Army suddenly felt vulnerable, a fact that must be recognized.

Further, the army did not have all the necessary tools for its operations. The Frontier Corps had over time deteriorated, no longer attracting the best officers from the Pakistan Army. And of course, all the soldiers are locally recruited. Thus, while they may be suitable for minor policing, when used in a war-like situation to fight people from their own tribal system and their own tribes, the result is ambivalence. Although efforts have been made to improve the Frontier Corps, poor training and morale affects performance. And in the face of a well-paid cadre of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), possibly their emoluments too need to be enhanced.

Also, the locals impressed on the Frontier Corp soldiers that they were fighting on behalf of the infidels. Many of the officers in the army that I spoke to saw themselves as an alien force, not surprising given the demographics of the army. Though Pakistan has an army that represents all the provinces, but since the Punjab has the largest population, 60 per cent of the military force in Pakistan is Punjabi. In my travels in North Waziristan, for instance, it struck me that even army officers posted there for over two years still did not speak any Pashto. There was a clear disconnect. Nevertheless, despite these handicaps, the Pakistan Army has rapidly adapted to the emerging situation and learnt on the move.

In the Swat district, which is part of the settled area of Pakistan, the army has been learning by doing. Yet, it is very difficult for a military institution to change. Even the United States Army has taken a long time since the invasion of Iraq to learn many of the lessons of counterinsurgency. One such lesson is to engage insurgents and militants on all fronts, without ceding any intellectual or physical space. A military operation launched in Swat was called Mountain Viper. The name might as well have come out of the Pentagon; it meant nothing to the local population, nor the soldiers. It essentially ceded religious ground to the militants who claim to speak for Islam, wanting to bring shari’a (the Islamic code of ethics and law) into this area. However, nobody countered them by stating that this was not shari’a; that the militants were introducing a convoluted version of Islam; that they were mixing local custom and calling it shari’a. Shari’a is what we know to be Islam and what the majority of Pakistanis want it to be!

Subsequently, the commander of the first division sent into Swat launched a new operation. He used a Farsi and Urdu term, Rah-e-Haq, for that operation, which meant that it was part of the true faith or the truth. He publicized it in order to tell people that the army was acting on behalf of a government that believed in Islam and the true faith and that the insurgents were miscreants who were following a heretical path. The operation was far more successful. The lesson is clear: we have to fight using both brains and guns.

The other interesting development is that local people have now understood that the militancy and the presence of Al Qaeda, foreign fighters, as well as Afghan and local Taliban, is creating economic costs, besides causing death and destruction of their property. This has led to a spontaneous upsurge against the militants, in part primed by money from the government, and the setting up of ‘lashkars’ of local tribes. Historically, such lashkars have been drawn upon by the administration either at times of civil unrest or to quell criminal activity, because traditionally it has been the responsibility of the tribes to resolve such issues. So the political agent would approach the tribal mullahs who would then form a group to resolve the problem.

In Bajaur, we saw an instance of such spontaneous formation, particularly among the major Salarzai tribe. Mullah Zaib Salarzai, the leader of the tribe said, ‘The Taliban fighters and commanders are of humble background and thus not in a position to challenge the lashkar. They will be eliminated in a few days.’ He promised the army that if these people (the Taliban) did not leave their area, they would be killed and their property destroyed. To me this appears a good way to approach the problem – encourage the local population to take care of it.

The Pakistan Army was initially slow and took time to acquire the necessary knowledge about counterinsurgency. A favoured strategy was to isolate the militants and the insurgents from the rest of society. Normally this would involve placing the military with the population and providing security from within, not remaining in fortresses and camps outside. Instead, the army in Bajaur asked the people not involved with militancy to evacuate. Thus anybody who chose to stay behind was by default seen as a militant. The trouble with such an approach, however, was that it created unhappiness among the displaced people, more so since not enough planning had been done by the civilian agencies to accommodate them in the middle of winter, to provide them with shelter, food and clothing or to rehabilitate them when they eventually return to their homes. This is now a key element, a kind of doctrinal shift within the Pakistan Army, from a tactical use of counterinsurgency measures to forging a combined strategy with the civilians.

Earlier this year, when the Taliban’s atrocities in Swat provoked a major military operation, the army was prepared: it coordinated its efforts with the air force, identifying and pounding targets before the land forces moved in. Meanwhile the local population was evacuated. However, here too, a lack of planning was evident and only some 200-300,000 of the two million internally displaced persons were accommodated in official camps. The population at large housed the rest privately. Though a testimony to the strength of civil society, it exposed the weakness of civil administration.

A similar approach was followed later in the year in South Waziristan, the headquarters of the TTP. For one week the Pakistan Air Force attacked some 140 plus identified targets. Then the army moved in and ousted the TTP. It has since followed up with attacks in Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber, reducing the ability of the Tehreek to regroup in other parts of the border region. The TTP in turn has taken suicide attacks to the heart of the country and directly to army headquarters, even attacking mosques where militarymen and their children pray.

We also need to recognize the abiding fear inside Pakistan, as well as in its army, of a powerful India to the East and particularly its potential of becoming a regional hegemon. Until that issue is resolved, there will always be ambivalence about fighting the war within: should we retain our conventional force or should we be concentrating on unconventional approaches and weapons?

The army also strongly feels that the United States has been niggardly in its support, denying them the equipment they require. The night-vision goggles originally provided by the US were of mid-20th century vintage. They only operated ten nights of the month, failing to work in bright moonlight. This has now been rectified. The helicopters needed to move troops rapidly over this vast area, an arc that goes from South Waziristan all the way up to Dir and Chitral, were not forthcoming. Only one squadron was initially equipped by the US for that purpose. Though 27 Cobra helicopters were promised, not all were delivered with alacrity. Another squadron was recently produced for the Waziristan operation but some are already out of service due to lack of spares. Meanwhile, when additional US forces were recently deployed in Afghanistan, hundreds of helicopters suddenly became available and were seen as critical to overcome the problem of rough terrain and mobile warfare. None of this went unnoticed by the Pakistani Army, adding to the distrust between allies.

Over time, there is a need to move away from a purely military solution and strengthening the military alone. There is a need to adopt an approach that will engage the United States with the civilian population of Pakistan and, through them, with the government of Pakistan. This alone will allow economic development in Pakistan to be kick-started. In this regard, President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy of December offers some hope. As its operational details become clear and if they address Pakistan’s concerns that the US will not simply be pushing the Taliban into Pakistan and then attacking them with increased drone attacks, we may see progress.

The Pakistan Army is already overstretched fighting the domestic Taliban. It cannot open up a new front against the Afghans who flit between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border region. Pakistan is especially concerned about the drone attacks moving to Balochistan, an action that may inflame public opinion and put the country on another collision course with its American friends as the US demands that Pakistan do more and Pakistanis react that the US wants them to ‘do all’.

Centcom Commander General David Petraeus, in an interview with National Public Radio on 4 December, provided a clear understanding of the situation: ‘There are limits to how fast we can expect or perhaps demand that Pakistan can take certain actions. The fact is that they have shifted a substantial amount of their military capability, for example the Indian border, from other locations, to deal with this extremist threat. And I think you cannot underestimate how important the steps they have taken in the last nine or 10 months are. They have also taken very significant casualties in these fights with the extremists. And their civilians have suffered severe losses as well, as these extremists have fought back.’

Such an understanding may yet help restore balance to the US-Pakistan relationship. Equally important is the need for India to show, in the words of Canadian scholar Peter Jones, ‘strategic altruism’ towards Pakistan. Pakistani fears and concerns about Indian involvement in Afghanistan and even Indian support of some disruptive activity in Balochistan need to be addressed by India directly. The terrorist attack on Mumbai on 26 November 2008 was successful in derailing the Indo-Pakistan attempt to collaborate against terrorism. A year later, seven persons have finally been brought to trial in Pakistan for involvement with the attack. Hopefully, a greater openness between the intelligence agencies of both countries will allow them to remove each other’s paranoia. US scholar Christine Fair’s comments about Indian intelligence activities on the western frontier of Pakistan have added to the paranoia inside Pakistan about its neighbour to the East.

The external and internal situation in Pakistan is interconnected. It is important for Pakistan to address its domestic economic and political situation rapidly so that the civilian system remains robust and transparent and can be rid of corruption. Externally, a normalization of relations with India will allow it to concentrate on the war within. An equal responsibility for this rests on India and the international community. The US and the NATO coalition will need to ensure that it does not abandon Afghanistan in a precipitate manner, as some of the initial reports about the Obama strategy appear to indicate. The entire region is deeply intertwined economically and politically. The solutions will not be simple or short-term, but a start needs to be made by all countries involved.

President Obama in his West Point speech of 1 December 2009 observed:

‘In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who’ve argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better-off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

‘In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.’

But American support alone will not solve Pakistan’s problems. Only Pakistan holds the key. 2009 was a ‘year of decision’ inside Pakistan, as the people and the army took the battle to the insurgents. 2010 will show how far a cohesive national effort can be formulated to win this war in order to secure Pakistan’s very existence.

* Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, Oxford University Press, 2008.

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