Letter from the Road #45

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Pakistan: The Politics of Fear: Part 2


The U.S. Role in the Return of the Taliban
After 9/11 the people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many international optimists like me expected the US-led international community to commit to rebuilding Afghanistan and undertaking reforms in Pakistan – a western-led Marshal plan for the region. What we got instead was a Republican president and congress that openly disavowed international humanitarian actions. There was to be no “nation-building” under Bush – only wars to be fought.

During my journey to Pakistan, when I asked people for a comment on U.S. foreign policy, many spoke, almost sadly, about the damage they feel the U.S. did to their country under Bush’s leadership. When I pointed to all the money the U.S. has given to Pakistan they would say, “That has done nothing for the people here – it has only built our military dictatorship.”

Between 2002 and 2006, Bush’s administration gave 10 billion dollars to Pakistan – of which more than half – $5.5 billion – was paid directly to the Pakistan army as compensation for helping U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. If I am doing the math right that came to more than $110 million a month for services rendered. In return we received a few hundred al Qaeda operatives.

Much of this money went into indoctrinating new fighters recruited from the Afghan refugee camps and madrassas in Pakistan and training them in combat, communications, IEDs and suicide operations, and then paid them to filter back into Afghanistan to create the Taliban “insurgency.” I was told the price today for a suicide bomber in Pakistan is about $50,000.  In a poor family with 8 or 9 children, one may be selected to make this sacrifice for the betterment of the whole family. The family receives great prestige, a certificate from the Taliban and the assurance that the young martyr goes right to paradise.

Confronted by the U.N. in a scathing report in 2004 for funding the very people the International forces were fighting, the ISI simply took their support for the Taliban “off the books” and funneled it through hidden organizations. When the U.N. and NATO put pressure on Bush to compel Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban, Bush demurred that the U.S. had no resources to gather the necessary intelligence because all resources were needed in Iraq. Instead he drew down American troops from Afghanistan and transferred them to Iraq. This neglect allowed the Taliban to continue to flourish even after their defeat by the U.S., and eventually establish a shadow government in Afghanistan – a government that would be more agreeable to Pakistan than Karzai.

Today, despite a civilian government, the Pakistan Army and its intelligence service remain engines of jihadist intrigue. Dr. Alem Cheema, a Pakistani peace activist, told me that “The biggest threat in the world is not that a terrorist might gain access to a nuclear weapon, it is that a rogue element within the Pakistan army might feel pushed into using one.

As Jamalia Hussain, a Pakistani artist and activist, observed, “The government tries to tell us that Islam is the glue, but it is not Islam that holds Pakistan together – the military does. People are always looking over their shoulder to see if their neighbor is being more religious than they are. That is not Islam, that is fear.”

The Politics of Fear
“Everyone in Pakistan has at least 100 conspiracy theories,” said Tabassum Joyo, a young peace worker and musician. “Fear breeds hate, and hate under the pretext of security has been the policy of Pakistan.”

The men of Pakistan that we talked with, from President Zardari to a local tailor in a bazaar, were unambiguously suspicious about the negative intentions of their own “Axis of Evil:” India, Israel and the United States. Pakistanis believe they need their heavy-handed military because they are at continual risk. The only other country I have worked in where so many citizens readily express their fear of their neighbors is Israel.

Ayaz, a journalist from Islamabad, put it most poetically: “Pakistanis on the whole are bad dancers – not because there is anything wrong with our limbs, but because there is some kind of problem with our souls. Deep down where it really matters, we are not completely free. Something hems us in. We seem to have inherited not the wisdom of the ages, but the fear of the ages.”

From its inception, Pakistan has had contested borders. The bloody 1947 partition left unresolved whether the area of Kashmir was part of Pakistan or India. The region was given to India on the condition that a plebiscite would be held to give the people of Kashmir the right to choose which country they want to join. For 53 years India’s government has refused to hold this vote. Kashmir is 70% Muslim.

Pakistan’s felt need to support training camps for radical jihadist in Afghanistan was to fill the ranks of its ongoing paramilitary rebellion within Kashmir to reclaim it from India.

Pakistan’s policies toward Afghanistan, as well as it nuclear build-up, can be traced to this unresolved issue.

This distrust of India, by Pakistanis, also plays out in a kind of sibling rivalry. There is resentment at India’s success in the global economy and a lingering anger that Pakistan got far greater sanctions from the international community than did India for building and testing nuclear weapons.

India’s current high level of investment in Afghan development projects further exacerbates Pakistan insecurity and is seen as a direct threat to Pakistan’s existence, as does India’s recent offer to train the Afghan army. “Why does India need 13 consulates in Afghanistan – to bury Pakistan, that’s why,” said Javid Haq, a tribal elder from Peshawar.

Who benefits from stimulating this enmity?  Kashmir and Afghanistan are the raison d’etre for a powerful military build-up in the region. “The military has been the power in Pakistan since partition and the military needs an enemy.  So we are told we are threatened by virtually everyone”, said Abdellah, a Pakistani who lives in Islamabad and works with NGO’s in the Northwestern Frontier Provinces

For the ordinary Pakistani, life is getting worse. More and more money go into the military. The military has become more fundamentalist. 30 years of breeding and harboring radical jihadist to undermine its neighbors has now come full circle. Extremist once supported by the ISI are now threatening to undermine Pakistan itself.

The Pakistan Taliban and foreign radicals have expanded across northern Pakistan much faster than any could have imagined. Suicide bombings are now a daily part of life in many cities. Most people don’t know whether the current civilian political leadership can control either the ISI or its policy toward the militants. And some suggested the Pakistan army is so divided it is now fighting a civil war.

What Next?
The organizer of the conference on Sufism and Peace wrote all foreign participants after the conference thanking us, and saying that he was sure that we “have discovered a Pakistan which is liberal, forward looking and enlightened.”  I met many such people, but even among this progressive, educated elite, I found a country deeply insecure and distrustful, internally divided, and involved in a complex and dangerous regional war game.

It will take work and commitment at many levels to address the array of issues facing Pakistan. And it is clear there will be no peace in the region until there is real reform in Pakistan.

The Afghan people I talked with are right: the key to the physical security, economic development and human rights of the Afghan people lies in Pakistan.  As long as the Pakistan army believes its needs a fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan to discourage Indian hegemony in the region, and to continue to have training camps for radical militants for Kashmir, there is not likely to be a true woman-respecting, democratic government in Pakistan.

The leading players, the U.N. and the U.S., need to join with all regional powers to agree on a united international initiative to help resolve these regional problems. We need to assure Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity, willing to help resolve the Kashmir issue, and able to pressure India to become more transparent about its activities in Afghanistan.

Such a political initiative needs to be backed by a multi-year international development aid package for regional economic integration, education, and job creation. We need to do some nation-building with the Pakistani people.

(Note: Names in this and the previous Letter have been changed for security reasons.)

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