Yesterday, the United States military fired three missiles into a house in northwest Pakistan and killed five people it alleges were Taliban insurgents. So far this year, the U.S. has used un-manned drones to fire – a reported 30 missiles – at targets inside Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan.
Add to that the increased number of suicide bombings in several Pakistani cities, as well long-running internal conflicts that seem to be restricting the Pakistani government’s ability to secure the country and there’s a growing sense that civilians are getting caught in the middle of a power struggle over which they have little control.
Robert Fisk has been covering the situation in Pakistan. And he says that its troubles have a great deal to do with the politics of the countries that surround it. Robert Fisk is a correspondent with the British newspaper, The Independent. He was in Toronto this morning.
Robert Fisk after being beaten and pelted with stones by Afghan refugeees, after his vehicle broke down near the Afghan/Pakistan, while he drove from Jalalabad to Quetta in 2001.
Robert Fisk: Pakistan is in pieces
Tuesday, 6 April 2010
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.
Written by Robert Fisk for The Independent
Robert Fisk’s World: As things get worse in Pakistan, the optimism continues to soar
Civilians have paid the price in revenge attacks that usually target the army
Saturday, 20 March 2010
A few days ago, I was driving around Lahore, its population still shattered by the suicide bombers who blew themselves up next to two army trucks, killing 18 Pakistani soldiers and 48 civilians. The civilians, of course, were the usual “collateral damage” – the bad guys have even adopted our own obscene expression for unintended casualties – and they paid the price for Pakistan’s continuing war against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan on behalf of America’s “war on terror”. Indeed, the conflict here is primarily between the army and the Taliban. I couldn’t help noticing that the street where the bombs exploded is in the RA Barracks area of Lahore – and it took a time before I discovered that RA stands for Royal Artillery. Yes, our imperial ghosts continue to stalk this place while America’s more recent empire ensures that its people suffer as they did under the Raj. Will freedom at midnight never come?
Yet far more outrageous was Richard Holbrooke’s cocky, overconfident performance on CNN just three days later. Things are getting better on the “Af-Pak” scene, he told the world – how I hate these infantile expressions (“Af-Pak”, “strategic depth”, “spikes” and “surges”) and al-Qa’ida is “under great pressure after losing key members of its leadership”. Ten to 12 al-Qa’ida leaders had been “eliminated” over the past year – mostly in pilotless drone attacks on Pakistani territory, it should be added, which cost 667 lives in 2009 alone . Pakistan’s civilians have paid the price in revenge attacks that usually target the Pakistani army: 322 Pakistanis killed and more than 500 wounded in 15 suicide bombings in the first 70 days of this year. The Pakistani army now has two divisions in Swat and several more in south Waziristan and Mr Holbrooke would like to see them move into north Waziristan as well, although – he generously agrees – that will be up to the commander of the Pakistani army.
So that’s it, folks. Just like Bushy and Blair of Kut-al-Amara on Iraq, it’s the same old story. The worse things get, the greater the optimism. If it’s bad, it’s getting better. By last year, Pakistan’s dead since 2001 – from suicide bombers, Pakistani army operations, inter-tribal battles and Nato drone attacks – reached a total of 12,632 (with 12,815 wounded). Not bad, huh? And the overall political situation in Pakistan – where the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has just appealed to the Taliban to stop bombing Lahore on the grounds that residents hate the Americans (and ex-dictator Pervez Musharraf) just as much as they do – is “much better now”, according to Dickie Holbrooke. After all, the Pakistani military is no longer in Pakistan’s “complicated” politics. We shall see.
I can recall sitting on the lawn one evening this week with Imran Khan – among the most honest of Pakistan’s politicians (there aren’t many, I promise you) – as dusk fell over the Margalla mountains. And Imran was raging. “My God, these people in Waziristan, they are wonderful, beautiful people and what are we doing to them? The army fire their artillery 20km from their target, and they’re told they are shooting at 11 Taliban people and then they fire and the army announce that 11 Taliban have been killed. We are killing our own people. This has to stop.” But there’s not much point in thinking that Obama and his dotty secretary of state care a damn. They are lost.
Why, only a few months ago, la Clinton was bitching about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to stop building settlements following Obama’s “reach-out” – another of those bloody phrases – to Muslims. She meant all settlements, she said. Illegal settlements, “legal” settlements, outposts, whatever the Israelis liked to call it. And when Netanyahu offered his ridiculous “freeze” on just West Bank Jewish colonies for a mere six months – not in Jerusalem, mark you – off la Clinton trotted to the Arab League to publicise this extraordinary and “unprecedented” offer by the land-grabbers of the Netanyahu government.
Now she is huffing and puffing again. Joe Biden turns up in the land to which the United States has donated almost £200bn over the past decade in the hope of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other again – and Netanyahu’s government announces another 1,600 Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Biden, of course, should have jumped back on his plane and flown back to America. Hasn’t the US, after all, registered 39 vetoes to protect its little Middle Eastern Prussia in the UN? No way. The timing of the statement – the timing, mark you – was “unhelpful”. Netanyahu said he didn’t know about the announcement in advance – which, if true, suggests we should all believe in Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of the garden.
But what does la Clinton do? Not appreciating that Biden and she and Obama have been treated by the Israelis with the contempt they deserve, she rants on the phone to Netanyahu about the “affront” and the “insult” of the timing of the announcement. But this is preposterous.
The affront and the insult were not caused to la Clinton or Obama. So self-regarding is this wretched woman that she could not grasp that the real affront and insult were being endured by the Palestinians – who are again being driven from their homes and dispossessed so that Netanyahu’s Israeli colonists can move further into east Jerusalem. La Clinton should have asked Netanyahu how he could inflict such punishment on innocent Palestinians – but she thought that she and Obama were the victims.
My guess is that it’s only a matter of time before Obama’s pitiful envoy George Mitchell will be replaced by a tougher man – and who better than Dickie Holbrooke, the tough guy who knows how to handle “Af-Pak” and will know how to handle Netanyahu? Why, it’s not so long ago that he produced “peace” in Bosnia at Dayton, Ohio – one S Milosevic being an honoured guest – while telling a pleading delegation of Kosovo Muslims to get lost. Nothing should get in the way of peace in Bosnia. So the Kosovars departed to endure their own ethnic cleansing when Nato went to war with Serbia. You may remember that we were fighting this war to get the Kosovo Albanians back into their homes – even though most of them were in their homes when our USAF and RAF warriors started their bombing campaign against Serbia.
But who cares? Things are getting better in Pakistan. It’s only the Americans who are upset about Netanyahu. One thing at a time. That’s what Holbrooke told the Kosovo Muslims. Al-Qa’ida are on the run. And they expect us to believe all this guff.
Written by Robert Fisk for The Independent