Behind the nightmare in Swat

May 22, 2009

More than 1 million people have fled the Swat region of Pakistan in one of the worst humanitarian crises since the slaughter in Rwanda during the mid-1990s.

The refugees from Swat--in the north of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border--are victims of a Pakistani Army offensive, backed by the U.S., against forces of the Taliban, which operate in both countries. Under pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani military broke a ceasefire arrangement with the Taliban and is carrying out a scorched-earth assault--with the excuse that this is the only way to flush out Taliban fighters. But the civilian population is paying a terrible price.

The nightmarish scene in Swat and other areas in the north marks the latest stage of Pakistan's crisis, brought to a boil by the U.S. escalation of its war in Afghanistan, which is spilling across the border. But it also a sign of the deepening contradictions of Pakistani politics following the downfall of the U.S.-backed strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, last year amid growing unrest.

Musharraf was replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party. But Zardari, who has a long record of corruption, has quickly lost credibility. He only reinstated Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry--whose ouster by Musharraf spurred a mass movement spearheaded by lawyers--after huge protests in March forced his hand. Now, with the attacks in Swat, the Pakistani military is regaining the initiative.

Saadia Toor, an assistant professor of Anthropology and Social Work at Staten Island College and part of the group Action for a Progressive Pakistan, talked to Ashley Smith about the situation in Pakistan today.

FOR THE last few weeks, the media have been filled with reports of the "imminent threat of the Taliban," and then coverage of Pakistani military assault on the Taliban in Swat. Why has the Pakistani military abandoned the former peace and launched this attack?

FINALLY, WE'RE beginning to see a lot of good analysis coming out of the left media. Earlier, the U.S. government's rhetoric was being picked up uncritically. We've seen scaremongering in the media over the imminent takeover of Pakistani nukes by the Taliban.

The U.S. has created this bizarre new moniker "Af/Pak" as a way to cover over their expansion of the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Building consent for this expansion has been what all the State Department, Pentagon and media propaganda has been about in the last few weeks.

To address your question about why the Pakistani Army abandoned the peace, we have to step back and understand the relationship between the Army and the Taliban. The Pakistani military has not been interested in dealing with the Taliban because the Taliban don't appear as a threat to them. The military's primary and existential obsession is with India, and that's where the majority of the Pakistani Army is deployed. The Pakistani Army knows that the Taliban is, in part, its own creation, and it can deal with them.

Flieeing the Swat Valley during the Pakistani military's offensive
Flieeing the Swat Valley during the Pakistani military's offensive (Aamir Qureshi | AFP)

Moreover, the military knows very well that the Taliban are not in any sense an existential or military threat to the country. The army therefore allowed the Taliban to enter Swat. They accepted that Swat and some of the other border provinces are incompletely integrated into the country, and allowed the Taliban to exert its control.

The army has been under massive pressure from the U.S. to deal with the "Taliban problem," and the fact that the Taliban broke the peace deal allowed the army to prove to its American masters that it's a reliable ally. So now the military has driven back the Taliban quite easily from Buner and pummeled them in Swat.

The Pakistani Army isn't concerned about what their attack on the Taliban would do to the civilian population in Swat, so what we have now is a humanitarian nightmare, with over a million internally displaced civilians.

WHY DID the Obama administration push Pakistan to abandon the peace deal?

THE U.S. doesn't respect any Pakistani rules or laws. It has its own imperial ambitions and priorities in the region. So it pressured Pakistan to essentially rip up the peace deal, and go on this brutal offensive.

The peace deal with the Taliban that was struck by the ruling party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) was pragmatic. The Taliban had been upping its threat in NWFP. It had killed ruling politicians and threatened their families. The civilian ANP government in the province also got no support from the army, and so was backed into a corner and had to accept the peace deal.

But the U.S. told the Pakistani government to ignore that deal after the Taliban attack on Buner.

Still, that's only the superficial cause for the U.S. to back the assault on the Taliban. Tom Hayden has a fabulous piece in The Nation entitled "Understanding the long war" that goes a long way to explaining what U.S. ambitions are.

To understand those, you have to step back and examine the whole "war on terror." It's in reality a renewal of the "Great Game" of rivalries in the region over who's going to control the oil and natural gas resources. Beyond that geopolitical battle, the military industrial complex has a material interest in perpetual warfare.

The U.S. wants to wind down its occupation in Iraq, which it sees as a distraction, and push ahead with a much larger scenario--what the U.S. State Department calls the arc of instability, from North Africa to the Middle East to South and Central Asia. The U.S. is gearing up for, in the shocking words of one official, 50 years of warfare in this area.

The question of resources is central. This is the new Great Game--between the U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran, to name a few--that we have been observing since the beginning of the war in 2001. The U.S. had planned a pipeline to go from Central Asia through the Pakistani province of Balochistan. It saw Afghanistan as strategically important in these designs.

Balochistan, in particular, is under the radar right now, but it's going to be a key region in the imperial competition. The Chinese have already been active in Balochistan; they helped build one of the ports. To counter this Chinese presence, the CIA has overrun Balochistan. With the help of the Pakistani military, it's also also been training forces for black ops in Iran.

YOU SAID that the Pakistani Army is primarily focused not on the Taliban, but India. How has the recent tilt by the U.S. toward India affected this?

THE U.S. has cultivated India, which has been happy with this new relationship, and shifted toward a much greater alignment with the U.S. India has made a huge break with its traditional non-alignment posture of the past.

We saw that come together dramatically right after 9/11, when India, the U.S. and Israel formed a block of so-called democracies against terror. We saw the reactivation of this alignment after the terror attacks in Mumbai. Sadly and tragically, the attack in Mumbai gave India the boost it needed to convince the U.S. to pay attention to India's strategic needs in relationship to Pakistan.

So in the State Department's Af/Pak policy document, you see that India isn't considered one of the regional players that needs to sit together and be told what to do. India has bought itself out of this trap. It's not going to be asked to do anything.

For example, the U.S. isn't going to pressure India to do anything about Kashmir. Because extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, as well as the Pakistani military, are so Kashmiri-focused, the logical thing would be to force India and Pakistan to sit down with the Kashmiris to work out a solution that respects the Kashmiri people's wishes.

Of course, if that were to happen, the Pakistani military wouldn't change, nor would Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed disband. But it would result in stability along the border with India.

Since India has managed to extricate itself from these regional talks, it has avoided getting pressured toward a solution in Kashmir. But this, in turn, guarantees an ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, at the expense of the region, and especially the people of Kashmir.

COULDN'T U.S. plans backfire and cause of further destabilization not only of Afghanistan, but now Pakistan as well?

WE CAN'T underestimate the hubris of an imperialist state like the U.S. Despite eight years of war, occupation and counter-insurgency, and seeing that they aren't working and are, in fact, backfiring, U.S. thinking doesn't seem to be shifting at all.

In Pakistan, the U.S. policy could really destabilize the country. A military coup is a real possibility. The military is always happy to step in and overrule civilian democracy. The reason that it hasn't done so is because it suffered such a severe public relations crisis in the last few years of the Musharraf regime. It did not feel it could come back.

But given the way things are going--especially all the finger-wagging by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton against the civilian government for being fragile and incapable of handling things--it seems like the U.S. might support a return to military dictatorship.

The U.S. has always been happier dealing with the Army, whether it has been in power or not. And the Pakistani Army's most important backer is the U.S. state. The U.S. has fed the army, nurtured it and allowed it to become the monster it is. Certainly, the Pakistani military has had no support from below--that all comes from above, and from the U.S. in particular.

The army suffered this huge PR crisis under Musharraf because it was seen as doing the U.S.'s dirty work--which, to be honest, it has been doing for 50 years. So it retreated. Gen Ashfaq Kayani has been very happy to work behind the curtain of the civilian government, because the military ultimately knows that it's always in control. It will do whatever it has to, and let the blame fall at the feet of the civilian government.

But if events turn in such a direction and the army is successful in winning back moral authority, it could take power. Part of the hysterics about "the Taliban are coming; the Taliban are coming" was drummed out for the U.S., and part was for the domestic consumption of the Pakistani elite.

The liberal elite supported the Pakistani Army in attacking the Taliban. This is just after having pushed Musharraf out of power.

There's a constant vacillation among the liberal elite between democratic rule and the Pakistan Army. So knowing that the Pakistani military helped create and backed the Taliban in the first place, the liberal elite supported the attack. This is dangerous, since it is re-legitimizing one of the most reactionary forces in Pakistan--the military.

RECENT OPINION polls in Pakistan show the majority of Pakistanis are concerned about the economic mess, and not terrorism. What do you make of this?

WHAT YOU see in these polls is the split between the haves and have-nots.

The aim of the army has been to win back the liberal elite. Of course, the military would love the support of the masses. But the liberal elite is what matters to them. And on the ground, conditions are so dire for the masses of the people that nothing the Pakistani military is doing is going to shore up mass support for it.

For example, people in Swat say that before this current operation, the Pakistani military targeted the Taliban. In the U.S. and Pakistani media, military leaders played out a drama for our consumption--they pretended to attack the Taliban, when, in fact, they weren't.

The Pakistani state has always provided safe haven to the Taliban, as well as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, even when Musharraf declared them illegal. That was only done to please the U.S. It was obvious these groups were never repressed. When the military raided the offices, no one was there. When it arrested people, it wasn't the leadership. This was all a drama staged for American consumption.

In Swat, the Pakistani military was doing nothing but terrorizing civilians. On top of that, those who lived close to the border with Afghanistan have had to deal with the U.S. drone strikes. So the masses of people feel completely helpless and angry at all sides.

The Pakistani military will never be able to win over those people who actually experienced what is happening on the ground. And certainly those people are not Taliban supporters either, since they have experienced the terror of the Taliban.

But the elite sitting in the cities are really terrified of the Taliban. Now, if one could assume the Taliban could become a major force in those cities, there would be something to be afraid of. But that's not going to happen. My worry is that this whole fear of the Taliban will function to make that the Pakistani elite willing to accept anything else--from the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with all of his connections to the fundamentalists, to the military itself.

HOW HAS U.S. pressure for Pakistan to attack the Taliban affected the lawyers movement that developed in opposition to Musharraf after he got rid of Pakistan's chief justice? Now the movement has had to confront the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, the corrupt husband of assassinated political leader Benazir Bhutto who succeeded Musharraf. Does the lawyers' movement offer hope for progressive social change in Pakistan?

TO BEGIN with, some of leadership of the lawyers movement did come from the upper class, but the main section came from the middle class--the petty bourgeoisie--and extended on down from there.

So when the confrontation between the lawyers movement and Zardari came to a head, the liberal elite was against the Long March to demand that Zardari restore the chief justice. The elite's biggest fear is the Taliban--that is, this religious takeover of Pakistan.

Never mind that they have been fine with the general religiosity that has flooded Pakistan since General Zia-ul-Hak's dictatorship. They felt that it had no effect on their lives; they could go to their clubs and say, "So what if the rest of Pakistan is becoming more and more religious."

The liberal elite was thus complicit with this spread of Islamism. It failed to step up and make secularism mainstream the way it used to be. In the 1970s, the political discourse was so different than it is now. This liberal elite therefore supports Zardari uncritically because it sees him as the only secular force.

Musharraf made his whole political career by saying that if it weren't for him, the fundamentalists would take over. He sold this very effectively to the U.S., but also to the upper-class liberals. They very much saw him as their man until that was untenable.

This same kind of thinking is now behind the uncritical support for Zardari, because the elite wrongly believe that if it weren't for him, the whole country would be taken over by the Taliban. The upper-class liberals were therefore critical of the Long March because they thought it was attacking Zardari, and any action or criticism would therefore open the floodgates for the fundamentalists or the army.

HOW HAS the left in Pakistan responded to the military operation against the Taliban?

THE LEFT is very fragmented and small in Pakistan. That, of course, has its own history because of its complete decimation under the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. Among some elements of the left, there is tremendous confusion about the situation.

For example, I can speak about the Communist Party of Balochistan and its positions. It has been anti-Taliban and pro-secular, and trying to speak from the position of the Swati people. But the discussion for a long time on its e-mail list was that it should support the army going in and attacking the Taliban.

This is a disastrous position. It does not take a very sophisticated analysis to see that the army stands to gain from this whole operation. The action is designed to build up support for the army and show that it is an effective force that needs more money.

Of course, there are always small groups and individuals which have taken a principled stand.

There have also been a few altercations between the principled left and the liberal elite on this issue. The elite's position has been pro-army. The principled leftists have argued against army action because the army is deeply involved in creating this mess, isn't interested in addressing the main issue of the Taliban, and the whole action is window-dressing. So there were actual altercations at public meetings between these two positions.

WHAT SHOULD the principled left position be?

THE PRINCIPLED position is always to be anti-army--not just on an abstract level, but drawing on the actual history of the relation of the army to groups like the Taliban and the Pakistani people. If you've been paying any attention to these things, it boggles the mind that someone would call on and expect the army to protect the people. It shows the ideological confusion.

It's not so long ago that we were marching against the army for its cozy relationship with the US, the "war on terror," and the disappearances under Musharraf. I don't understand the basis on which the left would be calling on the Pakistani Army to solve the current problem.

I think a principled position would denounce the army for its disinterest in dealing with these groups, for actually cultivating these groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for its continuing extraction of money from the U.S., and for its ongoing mobilization against India.

Now with India's investment in Afghanistan growing, the Pakistani Army investment in the Taliban is even higher. The Pakistani Army supported the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, which they perceived to be supported by India.

With India giving aid to Afghanistan, establishing an embassy there, and supporting infrastructural projects, the Pakistani Army will have a greater stake in supporting forces like the Taliban as a counterweight. The Pakistani Army is locked in this conflict with India, which is increasingly a sub-imperial power in the region.

WHAT SHOULD the left say about the Taliban?

IT'S SAD and shocking to hear people talk about the Taliban as an expression of class anger. At one level, that analysis is really troubling because it presumes the Taliban has a vast amount of popular support. But if you talk with refugees coming from Swat, it's clear that the Taliban doesn't. We must oppose the Army, but clearly not because we support the Taliban. A principled left position is to oppose both.

A left position must talk about the disenfranchised and the federal issues in Pakistan, as well as expose the Pakistani military and the entire ruling elite's complete disinterest in its people. The Pakistani state has never honored the rights of its federated units. [In the war of 1971], the ruling West Pakistani establishment was happy to let go of East Pakistan [now Bangladesh], rather than give in to its demands for a more balanced relationship between the center and the provinces. And East Pakistan was not a small federated unit; it was the majority of the population at the time.

The West Pakistani establishment constructed an image of East Pakistan as a hotbed of Hindus and communists, and during the army action in 1971, the army brutalized the population of East Pakistan, for which the Pakistani state has never apologized. That's the real face of the army and its relation to the Pakistani people.

A left position should focus also on the developing class anger and struggles among the peasants, as well as among the proletariat across whole of the country, including in Punjab. These struggles must be reported and not ignored. The fact that they are ignored has a huge impact on the balance of power in the political sphere.

If you don't acknowledge that these struggles exist and that they matter, then it can seem as if the Islamists are the only opposition to injustice and imperialism. That's simply not the case, as the massive lawyers movement, as well as these many local class struggles, prove.

WHAT SHOULD the U.S. antiwar movement say about Obama's new surge in Afghanistan and his expansion of the war into Pakistan?

IN LIBERAL circles, Iraq is looked upon as the bad war, of course. That was Obama's main argument. He was never an antiwar candidate. He was against the war in Iraq to some extent as a distraction.

But now, after his election victory, we've seen the split in the antiwar movement between people who opposed the entire "war on terror" and those who just opposed the Iraq war. So there is no effective antiwar movement to counter Obama's escalation of the war into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In this context, the American military is having a field day. It's obvious for anyone to see that Obama has carried over the personnel, the ideologies and the policies of the Bush Administration.

The Obama administration is certainly trying to repackage essential continuity with the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there isn't a whole lot of finessing that needs to be done to sell this to the American public, since there is a whole lot of agreement that the Afghan war is the moral war, and that Pakistan is thought of as an untrustworthy and reluctant ally that is crawling with militants.

In this context, the antiwar movement must educate people about the true situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It must demand that the drone attacks stop, and that the U.S. get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The rhetoric of the Obama administration is disingenuous; the concern is not about getting bin Laden if it ever was. They have had eight years to do this and haven't succeeded. Their real ambitions have little to do with bin Laden, and are actually much larger.

As Pepe Escobar, Tom Hayden and Gareth Porter have argued, the U.S. is planning a 50-year engagement, a new Great Game for control of the region--and that is not something that the U.S. antiwar movement should endorse. The antiwar movement should not let Obama continue this imperial policy of aggression into Afghanistan, Pakistan and potentially lots of other states.

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