Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
One option is to start by expressing outrage over drones, regardless of what your piece is about. You can strengthen your case by wrapping drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) into a coherent narrative of U.S. militarism, seen at its worst in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, because as we know, it is impossible to have opposed the Iraq war and support drones – U.S. President Barack Obama being the most notable among the inconvenient exceptions.
Perhaps better to avoid such sweeping assertions,in case inconvenient details get in the way,and simply allude to hot button issues. Describing someone as western-influenced is guaranteed to get your audience’s collective heads nodding. But don’t confuse them too much by using words like “westoxification”(the result of imbibing too much western influence) – it is far more effective to make a disapproving reference to drinking alcohol.
Then of course there are the traditional staples – words like “feudal”, “elite” and “liberal”. Try to avoid the terms “fake liberal” or “liberal fascist” because nobody knows what they mean and when you do use them, it gives away your agenda at the start. Better to stick with simple words – although if you can get drones and corruption into your opening paragraph you are onto a winner.
It took author Gretchen Peters two years working with a team of researchers to compile a detailed report on the Haqqani network. Published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, it is a comprehensive study of the Haqqani’s business interests in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf, defining them as much as a criminal mafia as an Afghan militant group. It took me an hour to read it through. Yet when I tweeted a link to the report with the suggestion those with strong views on drones should read it – the Haqqanis’ base in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been the primary target of U.S. drone strikes – the answers came within minutes. “I assume u probably never met a minor or a woman who lost the head of the family in drone attack as ‘colateral dmg,” said the first response.
It is symptomatic of the debate on drones that it is so often reduced to this; the civilian casualty becomes a cipher for opposition to U.S. drone strikes, discussed in isolation from the men the missiles were intended to hit. In Pakistan, outrage is selective; someone killed by a U.S. drone strike is ascribed more value than someone killed by militants or by the Pakistan army, as though human life can be valued not according to the identity of the person who died, but by who pulled the trigger. The debate in the west is not much better; much of it is about what the ethics of drone strikes mean for the United States with little reference to people on the ground; the greatest anxiety is reserved for the use of drones against U.S. citizens abroad.
In between stories of torture and the Taliban, the young man sitting opposite me had covered how to stage a dirty protest, Spanish chat-up lines, and how toothpaste can help you escape from prison.
Pakistani Jan Sher Khan was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he was 16 years old and accused of being a suicide bomber. He said he was innocent, a runaway from home seeking work after his strict father beat him for having friends who drank and smoked. Either way, he was held for six years in Bagram, a top-security U.S. prison in Afghanistan. And he had plenty to say about it.
As the silver waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley, Indian labourers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the river just before it flows across one of the world’s most militarised borders into Pakistan.
The loud hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing masses of soil and boulders.
So many deaths in Pakistan; so many to outrage or upset us. How do we choose whose death to notice? The civilian killed by a drone strike? The Shia Hazara gunned down in Balochistan? The Ahmadi father knifed to death in his home? The beheaded Pakistani soldier? The mother who died in a suicide bombing? The murdered journalist? The child swept away by floods? The acid attack victim?
And let’s be clear – we do choose. The domestic and international media decide whose deaths to highlight. We put their stories out on Twitter. Politicians speak about their case. Since there are too many deaths for us to condemn them all, we notice only some. I have been thinking about this, the politicisation of death, after two stories appeared in the last few days about two very different people killed in Pakistan.
If you go to the run-down Desh bazaar in central Kabul – which sells everything from widescreen Samsung televisions to used shoes - it doesn’t matter what currency you use to pay for your shopping. They will accept the afghani, the US dollar or the Pakistani rupee.
But if you were to go further east to Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan, you will probably end up paying for everything in the Pakistani currency, or kaldhar, as it is known in Afghanistan from the Taliban period. In fact, the shopkeeper – who buys all his goods from Pakistan – might even insist you pay in rupees rather than afghanis. An Afghan colleague who was coming through Jalalabad on his way back from Pakistan said the restaurant where his family stopped for lunch refused the afghani. And just as a large swathe of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan uses the rupee, in the west the Iranian rial competes with the afghani.
In a carefully worded statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorry for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike on the Afghan border last November. She slipped in an apology too on Pakistan’s behalf saying that, “We are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists.” And she announced that NATO supply routes, closed since last November, would be reopened.
One of the risks of the deteriorating situation inside Pakistan and its worsening relations with the outside world is the temptation to box it into a manageable category to make it less bewildering. Thus this week, the disqualification of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court was widely described as a “judicial coup” - an evocation of the many military interventions in Pakistan since its creation in 1947 – and from there it became easy to compare it to the reassertion of military power in Egypt . By then we were but a hop, skip and a jump away from Pakistan’s definition as a failed state.
But Pakistan is not a failed state. It is perhaps better described, as columnist Doctor Mohammad Taqi said on Twitter, by what in medicine would be considered ”a long term acute patient…like a successful failed state”. The disqualification of the prime minister will not lead to the collapse of the democratic system in Pakistan – rather the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will choose a new prime minister and limp on to elections due by early next year.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is using increasingly forthright terms to describe the spillover of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in its campaign of drone strikes. “We are fighting a war in the FATA, we are fighting a war against terrorism,” he said during a visit to India. The idea that the United States is at war inside Pakistan, albeit in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, is not new. But the use of language is significant, requiring as Spencer Ackerman noted at Danger Room, “a war-weary (US) public to get used to fighting what’s effectively a third war in a decade, even if this one relies far more on remote controlled robots than ground troops”.
Panetta’s choice of words (and venue for delivering them) may not go down too well with Pakistani authorities in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. It is not particularly promising for the people of FATA either, who find themselves caught in the middle of a shadow war between the United States and Pakistan. But in one respect, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Rarely has the United States fought a war in a place about which it knows so little. If Panetta’s comments force people to learn about FATA, it might even lift us out of what until now has been a polemical debate between supporters and opponents of drone strikes, with little attention paid to the voices of people who actually live there.
According to the Pakistani media, Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden, has been jailed not for his role in trying to find the al Qaeda leader, but for colluding with the Lashkar-e-Islam militant group and its chief, Mangal Bagh, based in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Dawn newspaper cited court documents showing that the tribal court which sentenced him to 33 years in jail ”did not entertain evidence relating to Dr Shakil Afridi’s involvement with the CIA, citing lack of jurisdiction as the main reason….” (Afridi was sentenced under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a British colonial-era law used to deal with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)). Instead, Afridi – arrested on May 23, 2011 shortly after the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who found and killed bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad – was convicted on the basis of “his love for Mangal Bagh”. “The court held that the LI (Lashkar-e-Islam) had sought the support of foreign intelligence agencies across the border in Afghanistan to wage war against the state of Pakistan and that Mr Afridi’s association with the militant outfit proved his involvement in activities inimical to the state of Pakistan.”
For the purposes of argument let’s take this account at face value - and at this point nothing about the Afridi case should be considered “true” in any meaningful sense. (Under the FCR he has had no opportunity to speak in public and give his side of the story and if he were under trial in a fair court of law, he would have to be assumed innocent until proven guilty.) If he was sentenced for links to Mangal Bagh, the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor in working with the CIA is irrelevant. So too are the ethics of running a fake vaccination scheme to try to find bin Laden – for which Afridi stands accused not as a traitor but a bad doctor.