Pushed to the brink by disaster and war

November 9, 2010

Saadia Toor, an assistant professor of Anthropology and Social Work at the College of Staten Island and part of Action for a Progressive Pakistan, spoke with Ashley Smith about the situation in Pakistan in the wake of the flood disaster and the increased U.S. drone war in the country's border areas.

IT'S NOW been several weeks since the floods struck Pakistan. What are the conditions like today?

THE SCALE of the catastrophe is almost unimaginable. The UN declared the Pakistani floods have been the single biggest humanitarian disaster in recent history. Its impact was more severe than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the recent earthquake in Haiti combined.

Now, a couple of months since the flooding first began, conditions are still atrocious. Relief efforts are still going on, even though they aren't in the limelight any more. The floodwaters have receded in the northern areas where they first began, and people have started moving back in these areas, but by and large, the situation in Sindh and Baluchistan remains very severe.

Some people have started moving back to Swat, but there is not much to return to, because the floods were so devastating. They have been trying just to survive, as well as scrambling to find the resources to rebuild. Large numbers of survivors remain displaced, many in relief camps, unable to return to their homes.

A family escaping floods in Northwest Pakistan in July
A family escaping floods in Northwest Pakistan in July (Abdul Majeed Goraya | IRIN)

Significantly, we're seeing that many of them do not want to return, because while they have lost everything, they have also left behind some of the worst forms of exploitative social relationships as landless tenants or forced labor for large landowners. All in all, untold numbers of people remain displaced, refugees of an environmental and social crisis which is still unfolding and whose impact will continue to be felt within Pakistan for a long time to come.

WHAT HAVE relief efforts looked like in the midst of this crisis?

FROM THE very beginning, there has been an immense shortage of relief funds. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent out numerous appeals to the international community for relief aid, and only recently was it able to get the $460 million that it had asked for internationally. The U.S. pledged $261 million, but some of that was actually targeted to security measures, and much of it was to be drawn from already existing aid packages.

What's important to note is the connection between the low level of international and U.S. humanitarian aid to Pakistan and the hostility toward Pakistan and Pakistanis that has become part of mainstream discourse in the West, specifically in the U.S. This is, of course, connected to the palpable increase in Islamophobia, but it is also specific to Pakistan and Pakistanis, and it is also not limited to the mainstream media.

For example, a few weeks ago, I happened to be listening to NPR's All Things Considered, and the guest was the director of USAID for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The host of the show demanded an explanation as to why the U.S. gave Pakistan the aid that it did, given that it was such a reluctant ally, and given the high degree of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

She didn't even mention the floods--it was actually the USAID director who brought that up. Her concern--rather, her outrage--was over what she understood to be Pakistan's ingratitude. She actually used the words "generosity" with reference to U.S. aid--and remember, she wasn't even talking about humanitarian aid!

It's pretty outrageous for humanitarian aid to be politicized in this manner on what we think of as "liberal" media outlets, but this kind of hostility toward Pakistan--and ordinary Pakistanis--is very much par for the course in the American mainstream, and even among the liberal-left end of the spectrum.

To get back to the question of actual U.S. aid--although the U.S. had pledged more than any other country, it is unclear how much has actually been disbursed. Even if it is being disbursed, it pales in comparison with the need on the ground. The best estimate of cost for relief and reconstruction is about $30 billion; even the overall UN goal comes nowhere near meeting the need, because it was a call for emergency funds.

If you want to understand the U.S.'s priorities with regard to Pakistan and Pakistanis, all you have to do is compare the amount it has pledged as aid for the floods to what it gives as aid to the Pakistani military and what it is spending on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan more generally.

This year alone, the U.S. has allocated $1.3 billion for the Pakistani military, and at the end of October, another $2 billion has been announced as "military and security aid" to Pakistan. In just one month this February, the U.S. spent $6.7 billion on the war in Afghanistan; the total cost of war up to this point is over $1.7 trillion.

Against this backdrop, when you are spending billions on the war and giving billions to the Pakistani military, giving $261 million for flood relief and acting as if that is inordinately generous (especially given the scale of the disaster) is absurd. The other thing to note is the way in which aid--even this humanitarian aid--to Pakistan is constantly linked to security concerns--for example, as a way to "win hearts and minds."

The fact that security concerns trump humanitarian ones when it comes to Pakistan is clear from the fact that even these devastating floods were covered by the U.S. media from within a security framework. The main issue of concern for the media appeared to be whether and to what degree the militants were using the floods as an opportunity to recruit. What is clear then is that the U.S.'s priorities in Pakistan are not humanitarian, but military.

WHAT HAS the left in Pakistan been able to do organize relief? And what has your group, Action for a Progressive Pakistan, been advocating here in the U.S.?

PAKISTAN'S SMALL left has done its best to organize relief. Labor Party Pakistan has taken a leading role in this effort; they have brought together trade unions and other left forces into the Labor Relief Campaign to gather and disburse funds for a people's reconstruction.

The Labor Relief Campaign came together in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, and it recently formed the Sindh Labor Relief Committee (SLRC) to work in Sindh, the province that was probably the most effected by the floods. The activists of the SLRC have been doing some amazing work.

Here in the U.S., Action for a Progressive Pakistan has joined with other forces to forge a new organization in New York City called the Pakistan Solidarity Network. We are hoping that similar groups will pop up all over the country. We recently organized a teach-in in New York City to raise funds for flood relief.

We have been encouraging people to give to the Sindh Labor Relief Committee. People can also give to Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's largest and most trusted private philanthropic organization, which has been doing important work as well. Of course, people can and should give to other international aid relief agencies--in particular, UNICEF, which has working hard to prevent the spread of water-born diseases like malaria and cholera, which are already starting to show up in camps.

The fact of the matter is that the floodwaters may have receded to some degree and the rains may be at an end, but the humanitarian crisis is far from over--and all these organizations need money to fund continuing efforts at relief and reconstruction.

DURING THE crisis, the Pakistani military publicly denounced the civilian government for failing to respond to the crisis. Given that the military has not exactly shown itself to be a friend of the people, what agenda is it pursuing in the crisis?

THE STANDOFF between the military and government has been all over the news. There is no doubt about the fact that the civilian government led by President Asif Zardari has not responded adequately to the disaster. But it is a little difficult to stomach the military's charge of corruption against the civilian government when it is, in fact, the main center of corruption in the country.

Not only does the military control the massive defense budget--most of which is not made public--but it also dominates the Pakistani economy. Ayesha Siddiqa's wonderful book, Military Inc., reveals just how much of Pakistan is owned and controlled by the military--from services, to insurance agencies, agribusinesses, banks and real estate. It is also the largest landowner in the country.

Military corruption is everywhere. Military officers regularly retire and take over civilian agencies, become CEOs of financial corporations and gain control of huge tracts of land. This is not to say that the civilian government--and Zardari himself--aren't corrupt, or to let them off the hook. However, it is absolutely important to understand the purpose of making these charges at this time and who's making them.

While it's true that the civilian government fell seriously short in terms of providing flood relief, it is also true that the army didn't rush to do so, and certainly not out of any concern for the Pakistani people. What the military has done is use the crisis to whitewash its image, and to attempt to further destabilize the civilian government.

But let's step back from this line of thought, which can pathologize Pakistan. In reality, the crisis is so enormous that no state would have been able to rise to the challenge. And the Pakistani state, for various reasons, was even less prepared to respond to the crisis.

The Pakistani state today is a state hollowed out by neoliberal reforms as a result of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank conditionalities. These conditionalities came as a part of aid agreements brokered by successive military governments. The result is that Pakistan has become a cash cow for imperialist and domestic vested interests.

The IMF has sucked billions out of the country in the form of loan repayments. The aid has gone directly into the pockets of the ruling elite, especially the military establishment. As a result, the state as a result lacked the basic infrastructure to respond to this crisis in the appropriate fashion.

IN THE wake of all the military's criticisms of the civilian government, many commentators have raised the possibility that a coup might be in the works. Is there any merit to this?

LIKE ANY other military, I think it prefers not to be directly in charge, although it also doesn't hesitate to take over when it decides that this is in its interest. In Pakistan, the military has effectively been in charge from almost the very beginning, regardless of whether you have a civilian or military government.

It is no different today--there might be a clash between the interests of the civilian government and those of the military at any given point, but the military continues to call the shots in the last instance. For example, the current civilian government re-appointed Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani without a fuss.

But what the military needed to do in Pakistan was rehabilitate its image. It has been trying to do that ever since the last months of Pervez Musharraf's regime, when the public sentiment against him intensified. At that time, they cut him loose because they didn't want his dirt to wash back on them. They tried to make him seem like one bad apple so that the military as a whole could escape criticism.

The military has won back some ground through this strategy. It gained further ground, especially among the liberal intelligentsia, by playing to their fears of the Taliban and terrorism more generally. It was this fear that allowed the military to conduct their brutal operation in Swat last year, which displaced over a million people.

The military's criticism of the civilian government today over the issue of flood relief is part of this same campaign to make over the army's image. There is an international dimension to the military's public relations strategy as well. It wants to make it clear to the U.S. that it, the Pakistani military, is really the one in charge.

And to be honest, if the military decided to move against the civilian government, the U.S. would support it. The history of U.S.-Pakistan relations bears this out--the U.S. is always happier dealing with the Pakistani military.

ON THE heels of this crisis, the U.S. and NATO have escalated their drone war against militants inside Pakistan. In response, Pakistan shut down a strategic border crossing to deliver supplies to the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan. What's your analysis of this conflict between Pakistan and the U.S. over the drone war?

THE RELATIONSHIP between the U.S. and Pakistan has always been fraught. The U.S. has attempted to use Pakistan as its pawn for decades. At the same time, the Pakistani military has its own regional ambitions, especially its struggle against India, which it sees as its mortal enemy, and this at times leads to conflict. But the Pakistani military is utterly dependent on the money given to it by the U.S.

After the end of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan's special relationship with the U.S. (which was actually the Pakistani military's special relationship with the U.S.) fell apart once the U.S. no longer needed it as a conduit to fund the resistance to the Soviets.

The U.S. also imposed sanctions on Pakistan following its explosion of a nuclear device in the 1990s, and then following Musharraf's 1999 coup. However, after 9/11, the situation completely changed; the U.S. once again needed Pakistan as a frontline state in a war in Afghanistan, this time against al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban.

When it comes to its role in this current war, the Pakistani military establishment is thinking long term. It doesn't want to let go of what it sees as its strategic asset in the region--the Afghan Taliban. It hope to use the Taliban as it did in the 1990s as an ally in its struggle against India.

Thus, the Pakistani military has both agreed to collaborate with the U.S. and yet preserve its cozy relationship with the Afghan Taliban. All the while, the Pakistani military has been trying to milk every opportunity to keep the U.S. on its toes. And so it periodically whips up crises to demonstrate to the Americans how essential it is, saying in essence, "If you do not have us, you have nothing."

This background is key for understanding the issues around the drone war that the U.S. has been waging against Taliban militants in the Pakistani border regions and that has been massively escalated in recent months. This year alone, there have been 76 drone attacks, 22 of them in September alone (In 2009, there were a total of 53 drone attacks).

September was the heaviest month to date in terms of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The annual total of civilian casualties from drones has increased from five in 2004 to 700 in 2010. The total number of civilian casualties from drone attacks during the war is inching toward 2,000. For all the hype about the accuracy of the drones, they kill far more civilians than militants.

During the worst of the flooding in August, the U.S. suspended drone attacks but not out of any humanitarian concern. In the word of the U.S. high command, it was because the "conditions were not optimal for flying."

As soon as these conditions improved, the U.S. resumed drone strikes, even as the humanitarian crisis unfolded in other parts of the country. They were, in fact, eager to do so because they wished to make the point that there will be no recess in the drone war.

The Pakistani military has had no issues with these drone strikes or the civilian casualties they've resulted in. The recent clash between the Pakistani military and the U.S./NATO happened not over drone attacks or the killing of civilians, but because NATO helicopters in "hot pursuit" killed two Pakistani border guards.

This is what caused the military to retaliate by shutting down the supply routes into Afghanistan for nearly two weeks. That act forced the U.S. to issue an apology. Whatever the schisms between them, the U.S. and Pakistan's military are locked in a deadly embrace.

WHERE IS the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan headed?

THE U.S. will continue to pressure the Pakistani military to crack down on the militants on the border regions, particularly on their ability to cross back and forth. But this is an absurd demand. Everyone knows you cannot police that border.

If that border could have been policed, the Pakistani military would have done so a long time ago. Think about it--the U.S. is the biggest military force in the world and it hasn't figured out how to police that border and win the war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has no better chance. This is quite aside from the reality that the Pakistani military establishment's interest doesn't lie in moving against all the militants and all of the Taliban.

Nothing really has changed on the ground with what is going to happen with the war in Afghanistan. We keep hearing stories about the possibility of a negotiated settlement. A few months ago, Ahmed Rashid reported that talks had started. Rashid is the voice of the Pakistani establishment, so clearly something was in the works, but little came out of that because there was such a backlash in the U.S. against it.

The past couple weeks, we've been hearing once more about talks between the government of Hamid Karzai and members of the Taliban, which by all accounts the U.S. and NATO are at the very least facilitating if not encouraging.

The fact is that the U.S. is thus caught between a rock and a hard place in Afghanistan right now, and there is also a clear clash between the U.S. civilian government and the interests of the U.S. military. The Obama administration wants to get out without too much of a loss of face, but it is just as clear that the U.S. military does not want admit defeat, and in any case, perpetual war is the order of the day for the U.S. war machine.

But the U.S. military is incapable of sustaining massive deployments of soldiers indefinitely. Which is why the issue of the drones is so crucial--the U.S. would in all likelihood prefer to shift away from troop deployments to what Tom Engelhardt calls drone wars. The drones are thus a dream come true for both the civilian and military command in the U.S.

They are talked about as efficient killing machines, even though it's clear that they are anything but--various independent investigative reports which have come out recently testify to that, and to the psychological devastation they leave in their wake, along with the loss of civilian life.

From the point of view of the U.S., they are incredibly convenient. You don't have to get your hands dirty, you can sit in your base, play with your joystick, and kill people half a world a way.

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