How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes

This article appeared at The Atlantic.

Nawaz SharifThe picturesque valleys of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan are overlooked by the immense snowcaps of Nanga Parbat. At more than 26,000 feet, it is the world’s ninth tallest mountain, but for alpinists it is a challenge far greater than Everest. It’s a rare mountaineer who is unaware of its reputation as “the killer mountain.” The notoriety derives from its deadly avalanches and crevasses, but the death that was visited on a group of climbers last month took a much different form. Eleven mountaineers were killed when militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban entered their basecamp and unleashed a deadly fusillade.

The assailants claimed the slaughter was retaliation for a June 7 drone strike that killed the Taliban deputy leader Waliur Rehman. Unlike the mountaineers, Pakistan was braced for the attack. Only the location came as a surprise.

Earlier in the month, when the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, he had used his inaugural address to ask the U.S. to refrain from further attacks in Pakistan. It took less than 48 hours for the CIA to ignore his demand and launch the deadly strike that killed nine, including the Taliban leader. Pakistanis were incensed. It was more than a breach of the country’s sovereignty; it was also an intervention in its politics and an invitation to further violence.

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Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges

An earlier version of this appeared in The National last week.

It was a “season of fear,” he said. Government trimming facts and evidence “to fit ideological predispositions”; making “decisions based on fear rather than foresight; setting aside principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford”. “In other words,” he concluded, “we went off course”.

We “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values”, he said. Institutions will have to be updated with “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.”

It was a fine speech: thoughtful, bold, idealistic. US president Barack Obama delivered it at the National Archives in Washington, on May 21, 2009.

Last Thursday, when President Obama again addressed the question of national security, he sounded equally high-minded. But where in his first speech he had to address the excesses of his predecessor; this time he had his own to consider. The most serious of these were born of Obama’s inability to deliver fully on promises he made in 2009.

At the National Archives speech, Obama had vowed to end torture, shut down CIA black sites, and close Guantanamo. It was the clean break he had promised his base. But faced with a Republican backlash, Obama caved. Torture and black sites were abolished, but Guantanamo remained. Torture memos were released, but torturers roamed free. And to shield himself against charges of weakness, Obama escalated the covert war.

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Everybody has to buy bread

The following piece appears on the London Review of Books Blog.

For most of the world’s media, Pakistan’s general election was about terrorism. Candidates were identified according to their attitude towards the Taliban, and labelled as ‘secular’ or ‘conservative’. Little was said about party platforms. Circumstances appeared to justify the focus. There was a savage campaign of intimidation by domestic extremists in the run-up to the vote. More than a hundred people died, most of them members of the outgoing ruling coalition parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they were targeted because of their uncompromising attitude towards the Taliban and avowedly secular views. There is some truth to this; but their enthusiastic embrace of the ‘global war on terror’ was a more immediate cause.

Despite the violence, turnout was nearly 60 per cent, the highest in Pakistan’s history. Youth participation was unprecedented. Critics of the ‘war on terror’ roundly defeated its supporters. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has taken a consistent antiwar position, crushed the ANP in the north-west. The PTI did particularly well in Swat, Dir and the Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas, where most of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations and US drone attacks are carried out. Also leery of the war, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) evicted the PPP from Punjab, Pakistan’s richest, most populous and developed province.

Terrorism may be foremost in the minds of Western observers; Pakistanis are more worried about the economy, education and corruption. Opinion polls showed that people’s biggest concerns are inflation and unemployment, as well as power outages and high energy costs, which have stunted economic growth and caused much misery: 20-hour blackouts are not unknown. Not all Pakistanis are exposed to terrorist violence; everyone has to buy bread.

You can read the rest here

Hawking Women’s Rights

Considering the amount of uninformed commentary that has been proliferating on Pakistan, readers might want to check out Tanqeed, an important new initiative started by a group of progressive Pakistani academics, writers and journalists. The trigger was a typically obtuse ‘debate’ on New York Times about the recent assassination attempt on a school-girl in Swat. In response Tanqeed (which means ‘criticism’) asked 6 Pakistani writers to present a less ideologically skewed take on the same event (and its broader context). You can find the result here. The following is my contribution:

Ten year old Nadia, whose family was incinerated in a drone strike.

For advocacy to be successful, it has to come from a place of empathy rather than superiority. Many of the most vocal advocates of women’s rights in Pakistan today are also known for their sanguine views on the “war on terror.” It is, therefore, doubtful that their new self-image as the deliverers of women from patriarchal tyranny will gain much purchase among the sufferers.

Women have doubtless borne the brunt of the dislocation and insecurity occasioned by the “war on terror.” But, to treat women’s rights in isolation from the general malaise merely serves to put the concern under a pall of suspicion. Women’s rights have been long used as a pretext for imperial aggression. Far from bringing relief, their invocation by the apologists for war merely helps obscurantist criminals, like the TTP, elevate misogyny into an anti-imperial expression.

The situation in Pakistan’s troubled northwest is no doubt ugly. From the indiscriminate violence of the Taliban, the gratuitous butchery of sectarian criminals, the bombing of girls’schools, the targeting of children, to the threats against the media, it is a predicament that is begging for a visionary political solution.

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Peshawar Blues

Excerpts from my article on Peshawar which appears in the special Pakistan issue of Critical Muslim.

In Peshawar no one walks as a potential victim. It must be part of human nature to never imagine oneself in the day’s plane crash or car wreck. Death always seems escapable; not so the burden of existence. The astronomical rise in the cost of living is putting a visible strain on most people. Inflation has remained in double-digits since 2008, second only to Vietnam in Asia. Prices of some commodities are comparable to those in Britain. Bananas are cheaper at Sainsbury’s in London.

The free flow of dollars in Afghanistan has created a further distortion, raising prices and emptying markets of commodities which are flowing freely across the border. Smuggling is rife. According to Sayad Waqar Husain of the Institute of Management Sciences, with 141 transit points along the Durand Line, and with dysfunctional customs regulation, there are now 133 illegal markets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) alone where trade in non-custom paid goods is booming. Property prices have also risen and rents are high. Real estate prices amplified by inflation are making people invest in the only commodity which is likely to keep its price. With an exploding population, accommodation is always scarce and buyers always at hand.

Although Pakistan’s cumulative birth rate has declined in recent years, the fertility rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still the country’s highest. In 1809, when the first British envoy to Kabul Monstuart Elphinstone visited the city, it had a population of about 100,000. Following the Sikh conquest in 1832, the number fell to 80,000, dwindling further to 63,079 by 1891. After independence, however, the population began to increase steadily reaching 109,715 in 1951, and 166,273 by 1961. But by 2010, the number had shot up to 3,625,000. This figure very likely excludes the large number of unregistered Afghan refugees who at one time numbered in the millions. All of this places an enormous strain on the city’s resources. Water, which had always been abundant, is now scarce. The city’s sanitation system is overwhelmed—it is impossible to escape the vague odour of raw sewage in most parts of the city. Where oncePeshawar dazzled visitors with its verdure, today it is permanently covered under a coat of dust; the varieties of flowers which were eulogized by everyone from Babar to Elphinstone have today receded into private enclosures.

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A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey

Al Jazeera’s 2009 documentary about the courageous Swati girl Malala Yousafzai who was critically injured in a cowardly assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban.

On October 9, 2012, masked gunmen ambushed a van carrying schoolgirls home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. They shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai at point blank range in the head and neck leaving her in critical condition. The Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed to “finish the chapter” in Malala’s story. Bringing and end to education for girls has long been one of their goals. The young activist was only 11 when she first stood up to the Taliban and despite numerous threats she continued to speak out against them.

This documentary filmed in 2009 follows the journey of Malala and her father as the deteriorating security situation forces them to leave not just their home in Swat Valley but their life’s passion.

Living Under Drones

An important new report from the Stanford and New York University law schools finds drone use has caused widespread post-tramatic stress disorder and an overall breakdown of functional society in North Waziristan. In addition, the report finds the use of a “double tap” procedure, in which a drone strikes once and strikes again not long after, has led to deaths of rescuers and medical professionals. Follow the conversation #UnderDrones

Don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s commentary on the report.