Hearts, Minds, and Dollars

POLITICS: U.S. in Pakistan’s Mind: Nothing But Aversion

Analysis by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

With Nato supply convoys passing through the FATA region, US military hardware frequently falls into the hands of insurgents.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct 30 (IPS) – To the west of Peshawar on the Jamrud Road that leads to the historic Khyber Pass sits the Karkhano Market, a series of shopping plazas whose usual offering of contraband is now supplemented by standard issue U.S. military equipment, including combat fatigues, night vision goggles, body armour and army knives.

Beyond the market is a checkpoint, which separates the city from the semi-autonomous tribal region of Khyber. In the past, if one lingered near the barrier long enough, one was usually approached by someone from the far side selling hashish, alcohol, guns, or even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. These days such salesman could also be selling U.S. semi-automatics, sniper rifles and hand guns. Those who buy do it less for their quality—the AK-47 still remains the weapon of choice here—than as mementos of a dying Empire.

The realisation may be dawning slowly on some U.S. allies, but here everyone is convinced that Western forces have lost the war. However, at a time when in Afghanistan the efficacy of force as a counterinsurgency tool is being increasingly questioned, there is a newfound affinity for it in Pakistan.

A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July 2009, which excluded the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)—the regions directly affected by war—found 69 percent of respondents supporting the military operation in Swat.

A different survey undertaken by the U.S. polling firm Gallup around the same time, which covered all of Pakistan, found only 41 percent supporting the operation. The Gallup poll also found a higher number—43 percent—favouring political resolution through dialogue.

The two polls also offer a useful perspective on how Pakistanis perceive the terrorist threat. If the country is unanimous on the need to confront militancy, it is equally undivided in its aversion for the U.S. Yet, both threats are not seen as equal: the Gallup survey found 59 percent of Pakistanis considering the U.S. as the bigger threat when compared to 11 percent for the Taliban; and, according to the IRI poll, fewer saw the Taliban (13 percent) as the biggest challenge compared to the spiralling inflation which is wrecking the economy (40 percent).

In 2001, when the United States launched its ‘war on terror’, many among Pakistan’s political elite and intelligentsia supported it, miscalculating the public mood, which was overwhelmingly hostile. This led to the protest vote which brought to power the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in two of the frontier provinces. The MMA had been alone in openly opposing U.S. intervention.

However, as Afghanistan fell, things went quiet and passions subsided. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator, was able to present his decision to participate in the “war on terror” as a difficult but unavoidable choice. Internationally, his isolation ended, and as a reward the various sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the nuclear tests of 1998 were lifted.

The economy grew, so did Musharraf’s popularity. When under intense U.S. pressure in 2004 he sent the Pakistani military into the restive FATA region, people barely noticed. He managed to retain his support despite reports of atrocities, which, according to Human Rights Watch, included indiscriminate use of force, home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances. Indeed, if he was blamed at all, it was for not going far enough.

Things changed when on Musharraf’s orders, soldiers stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by Taliban sympathizers in August 2007, which resulted in the deaths of many seminarians. The Taliban retaliated by taking the war to the mainland and terrorist attacks hit several major cities.

Musharraf was blamed, and with an emerging challenge from the civil society in the form of a lawyers’ movement and an insurgent media, his popularity went into terminal decline. Meanwhile, in the Malakand region, Swat and Dir emerged as new flashpoints. The threat from Taliban militants could no longer be ignored, but opinions differed as to how best to confront it. The majority supported a negotiated settlement.

The turning point came in May, when, after a peace deal between the government and militants had broken down, the military embarked on a major offensive in Malakand. Though the truce had temporarily brought calm to the region, both sides had failed to live up to their commitments.

Yet, in the aftermath the Taliban alone were blamed, and in the media a consensus developed against any further negotiations with the militants. The operation was hailed as a success despite the loss of countless lives and the displacement of up to three million people.

However, in the frontier itself, analysts remained less sanguine. Rahimullah Yusufzai, deemed the most knowledgeable commentator on frontier politics, considered it an “avoidable” war. Another leading analyst, Rustam Shah Mohmand, wondered if it was not a war against the Pakhtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the NWFP, since no similar actions were considered in other lawless regions.

Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary, described it as an “unnecessary war” which was “easy to prevent … difficult to justify and harder to win”. In the political mainstream all major parties felt obliged to support the war for fear of being labelled unpatriotic. The opposition came mainly from religious parties, and from cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice).

Opinions were reinforced in favour of a military solution when militants launched a wave of terrorist attacks in anticipation of the Pakistani army’s new operation in FATA.

While the effects of the terrorist atrocities were there for all to see, the consequences of months of aerial bombing and artillery shelling that preceded the operation were less known.

A third of the total population of South Waziristan—site of the government’s newly launched anti-Taliban offensive—has been displaced, and it has received little relief. When an Associated Press crew met the refugees, they expressed their anger at the government by chanting “Long live the Taliban”.

Instead of winning hearts and minds, the Pakistani government is delivering them to the enemy.

Despite the best efforts of sections of the elite to take ownership of the war, the view persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war. That the military operation in South Waziristan follows an inducement of 1.5 billion U.S. dollars from the U.S. government, and is supported by U.S. drone surveillance, does little to disabuse sceptics of their notions.

Following the bombing of the International Islamic University in Islamabad last week, an Al Jazeera correspondent—a Scot—was accosted by an angry student who, mistaking him for an American, held him responsible for the attack.

Pakistanis are acutely aware that before 2002 there was no terrorist threat, and they remain equally convinced that the threat will vanish once U.S. forces withdraw from the region. But before that happens, some fear, Pakistan will have compromised its long-term stability.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (m.idrees@gmail.com) is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.org.

UPDATE: I was interviewed on Talk Nation Radio about this article which you can listen to here. This article also appeared on Asia Times, 3 November 2009.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

5 thoughts on “Hearts, Minds, and Dollars”

  1. This is very much a war against the Pashtuns , led by a dual passport carrying mainly punjabi elite.Hence only hitting targets in Punjabs major cities will sober up any lingering tacit public support.

    One other point to look into is the historical background foundations of this Pakistani elite which is taking ownership of the latest round of the war.When Pakistan was artificially made in the late 40s it was via a deal between Feudal elites on the understanding no major land reforms would be implemented to stifle the old land-owning families.The area that became west Pakistan had no functioning civil service;strong political parties; co-ordinated judicial infrastructure or any other ingredient required for the functioning of a viable state.Their heritage and loyalty is to their privilege , not to an artificial entity.

    This has resulted in Punjab functioning as a sub-colonial region which extracts , rather than shares resources with the rest of the country.The elite in return extracts resources within punjab to itself and extracts it to foreign shores , where it send its sons to be educated , ultimately becoming ciphers;interlocurs and spokesmen for thier class rather than their nation in the west.Hence why you get so-called pakistani experts advocating the Pakistan army kill more of their own citizens whilst they watch the fallout sipping colombian coffee in Manhattan.

    The elite we have today is directly descended from the neo-latifundia birth pangs of a non-reformed fuedal state.Many of the left progressive pinup boys are descendants of this class which done very well out of the colonial period of British Domination , such as the Bhutto family , and this unreformed and uninterupted elite has continued the class based racism towards minorities and other groups within Pakistani borders that are not in their rubric.This elite likes to see Pashtuns driving their buses or fixing their air-conditioning , not asking or articulating their rights as equal participants in a federal state.

    The elite and current war embracing intellectuals who appear to have a shaky and tempestious relationship with common sense should be looked at with this understanding in mind.

  2. Interesting article and comment. What I struggle to understand is the ultimate goal of the Pathan population? Do they want to be participants in the federal Pakistani state at all? Have they ever? My understanding is that they were haphazardly conjoined to the Pakistani state by the British and Indians during the partition. Are the Pathans not an indigenous group of people with little affinity to Pakistan? Their underlying goals for mass murder of innocent civilians seem to be this lack of loyalty or sense of nationalism to Pakistan and a sign that they view themselves as a separate entity. Therefore, I do not think that acts of aggression were initiated by the Pakistani military or Pakistani non-pashtun people in order to suppress and disenfranchise this group, but are being conducted in retaliation for acts of violence against the state of Pakistan and Pakistani CIVILIANS. The Pakistani people are scared of this “marginalized group.” Swat used to be one of the most beautiful places in Pakistan, and it has become one of the most deadly and scary places in the world. This is sad for Pakistanis more than anyone else. The only sustainable solution is to bring to this region education, economic stability, and accurate interpretations of human rights and peace in Islam. Maybe then they will not be driving buses and fixing air conditioning. More schools, less troops – this must work both ways in order to work.

  3. To an extent you have answered your own question.Namely , Is Zardari;a failed feudal-run sham artificially created state;Feudal landlords masquerading as , and bizarrely being lauded in the West , modern day Trotskys ;The Pakistan army acting as a US sponsered Death squad;Punjab eating all resources of the other conponents of the federal state; systematic under resourcing in the 40s/50s/60s/70s/80s/90s part of the solution or problem is the correct vehicle or template “to bring to this region education, economic stability, and accurate interpretations of human rights and peace in Islam”.

    A cursory case study of the resources of Balochistan and the Northern area in terms of Gas and Water and how much the elite heartlands have benefited and how little the zones containing these precious minerals have had invested back into their infrasturcure should be enough to make whether Pakistan is a federal state or an example of sub-colonial society into a rhetorical question.

    Your theses about Pathan loyalty can only hold substance if one ignores the tens of thousands that have been killed since the inception of GTWOT in the northern parts such as Waziristan and beyond at the request of the US , one must recall that the negroponte-bhutto-neo-con bitter enders alliance was made to replace Musharraf because he was not killing enough citizens on his side of the Durrand line.

    Retaliation implies someone else , the other ( In this case the Pashtuns), strikes the first blow and then one is obliged to defend oneself.

    One would have to attend the Israeli school of false propaganda and historical revisionism to devise a narrative in which some 70,000 nationals are killed before they strike the first blow to the proxy attacking them , on behalf of an overseas foreign power, to be considered an act of first strike violence warranting righteous retaliation.

    The Pashtuns have been very consistant throughout History.They reject foreign occupiers and their proxies and endeavour to kick them out.

    The real question to ask is not if the Pashtuns are loyal to an artificially created mal-functioning state , but rather if the Pakistani Army is going to be a continuing proxy for an ailing Patron on the wane or not?

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