Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 17, 2009


From a Bill Moyers interview with historian Juan Cole, author of "Engagin the Muslim World" and Shahan Mufti, back from a six month of tour of covering Pakistan for Global Post.

BILL MOYERS: What's missing from the reporting and the analysis we're getting from Pakistan?

SHAHAN MUFTI: One thing that's missing, obviously, that's hard to get into reporting is context. But also hard information. Hard fact. So we're hearing about this military operation going on in the north of Pakistan right now. Yet there are no reporters, no reporters on the ground. . .

There's very little room to independently confirm a lot of the information. Especially in this most recent offensive. That is a huge thing that reporters in Pakistan I know are dealing with. They're referring to "alleged" military operations.

So they're in a position where they can't even independently confirm that an entire military operation took place. Let alone the figures of the Taliban militants dead, or how many civilian casualties there are, or how many armed forces-- people in the armed forces have died. So that is one thing that's very troubling, as a reporter.

BILL MOYERS: Who are the Taliban and what do they want? What are their goals?

JUAN COLE: There are, like, five different groups that we're swooping up and calling the Taliban. The Taliban, properly speaking, are seminary students. They were those refugee boys, many of them orphans, who went through the seminaries or Madrassas in northern Pakistan back in the nineties. And then who emerged as a fighting force. Then you have the old war lords who had fought with the Soviet Union, and were allied with the United States. . . They have formed insurgent groups to fight the Americans now. Because they had fought the Soviet occupation, they now see an American occupation, so they've turned on the United States. They were former allies. So we're calling them Taliban.

And then you have a lot of probably disorganized villagers whose poppy crops, for instance, were burned. And they're angry. So they'll hit a NATO or American checkpoint. . . And then the groups in northern Pakistan who are yet another group. And we're calling it all Taliban.

BILL MOYERS: How many of them?

JUAN COLE:Well, how many of them is impossible to know. But in Pakistan the estimates for fighters are small. 15 thousand. And the current military operation in the Swat Valley is pitting 15 thousand Pakistani troops against 4 thousand Taliban fighters.

That's what's being said. This is small. And the idea [is] that these 4 thousand Taliban in Swat Valley, you know, can take over the capital of the country, or that they're going to spread into the other provinces, which are ethnic provinces, like the Punjab and Sindh, where they're very, very unpopular.

We have a Gallup Poll now, 60 percent of the Punjabis, who are the majority group in Pakistan, say that it's very negative that there should be Taliban operating in Pakistan. And only ten percent say that it's a positive. So in Pakistan, as a whole, this is a small group. It's not a mainstream, big, mass movement.

BILL MOYERS: But how do you explain this mass exodus of. . . maybe a million people on the move out of that northwest region where the fighting is going on?

SHAHAN MUFTI: Well, it's very clear that why that happened is because the Pakistan army asked, or wanted the people, the civilian population, to move out of there because it . . . is being fought as a guerilla war. So the militants are embedding themselves into the civilian population, which is their strength. . .

JUAN COLE: The Pakistani military is a . . . traditional, almost central European kind of military. It was formed to fight India and most of the tanks and the troops are down on the border between India and Pakistan. And they're not trained to do counterinsurgency or counterterrorism.

So their idea of putting down the Taliban is to invade the Swat Valley. And if you've got 15,000 troops with artillery, helicopter gunships, fighter jets, operating a military operation in a valley with a million people in it, [it] is going to produce massive displacement. . .

JUAN COLE: Well I have to be careful here. Because, on the one hand, I don't want to be interpreted as saying this is not a problem. I mean, you've got several thousand militants operating in the North-West Frontier Province. This is a problem. And it wasn't like that, you know, even ten years ago. The idea of Pakistani Taliban is a new idea. The Taliban were always an Afghan phenomenon. So it is a problem. And it needs to be dealt with. But what I'm saying is that let's just have a sense of proportion here.

The North-West Frontier Province is 10 percent of the Pakistan population. That's where this stuff is happening. And most of it is actually happening not in the province itself, but in the federally administrated tribal regions. Which are kind of like our Indian reservations. Only 3.5 million people live there. It's the size of, like, New Hampshire. Pakistan is a country as big as California, Oregon and Washington rolled up in one, with a population of 165 million. So to take this threat, which is a threat locally, to the federally administrated tribal areas, to parts of the North-West Frontier Province, and to magnify it and to say, "Whoa, the Pakistani government is six months from falling, the Taliban is going to get their hands on nuclear weapons." The kinds of things that are being said in Washington, are just fantastical and some kind of science fiction film. How would these guys, with the Kalashnikov machine guns, take over a country that has an army of 550 thousand? [And] which has tanks and artillery and fighter jets? How would they even know here the nuclear weapons are? . . .

BILL MOYERS: We just talked two days ago, to a Pakistan journalist in Lahore, who told us that public tolerance for the Taliban, as you have said, has diminished as the militants have broken their commitments, moved into other regions, and become ever more oppressive, looting and kidnapping. And they don't want them there. They don't want that, right?. . .

JUAN COLE: You should remember that Pakistan has a large middle class. And it's grown enormously in the last ten years. These are urban white-collar people, well educated, hooked in with international media, and half of them are women.

They're lawyers. They're in the judicial system. They're politicians. And they are very threatened by what they call the Talibanization. And they're coming out and speaking against it, and they are extremely influential. You should remember, Pakistan actually has had a woman prime minister. And that social class of middle class and upper class women are very powerful.

BILL MOYERS: Threatened by the Shariah law about the hard-line Islamic attitude toward women? Is that what you mean?

JUAN COLE: That's right. That's right. They don't like the Taliban repression of women at all.

BILL MOYERS: The message coming loud and clear, from both Obama in Washington, and Zardari in Pakistan, is that the Taliban are on the rise. And that they represent, as others have said, an existential threat to Pakistan. You're not denying that this is a problem. But you're not seeing it as this life-and-death matter for the state of Pakistan?

SHAHAN MUFTI: You don't feel it on the ground there. Because, if you're in a city, like Lahore, or if you're in a city of like 16 million, like Karachi, or if you're in a city that looks like southern California, in Islamabad, even if you're in the tribal areas, or in Peshawar, a huge city of its own, which is right in the North-West Frontier, which is Pashtun there is not this sense that the Taliban are coming tomorrow morning, or next week, or the week after. . .

Pakistanis, a lot of them, still see the Taliban as a fringe movement, which they are. The numbers say that. And a fringe movement with is able to wreak a lot of havoc. Especially through its suicide bombings. This tool of suicide bombings is very hard to control. And so people are obviously concerned with how their lives are changing. But this threat of the state falling, I think, nobody in that country takes that too seriously.

BILL MOYERS: In whose interest is it that we're getting the story from Washington and the Pakistani government that it's at the brink of chaos that is coming the Taliban are on the rise?

JUAN COLE: I think it's cynical. And I think that it's a way for Washington to put pressure on the Pakistani civilian and military elites to do what Washington wants them to do. . .

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

JUAN COLE: Well, they wanted this big military campaign against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. Washington is alarmed at the spread of the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province because it has implications for the security of southern Afghanistan, and therefore for US troops and NATO troops in Afghanistan. And so, from their point of view, this is a big crisis.

They don't want more safe havens for the Taliban in Afghanistan who are killing US troops. And they were upset with the Pakistani elite for not taking this problem more seriously. . . . Sort of saying that Pakistan is unstable, or it's about to fall, or the nukes are in danger, all of this sort of thing, is a signal to Islamabad that you had better get serious about this, because it matters to us. So this is Washington strong-arming Pakistan.

SHAHAN MUFTI: I think you're right on. And I think it's problematic because this really harks back to the period right before the Iraq War. . . where there was this hype that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. . .

And it's unfortunate that the press did play its part in that problem. And the press is, once again I think, playing its unfortunate part where it is relaying all of these opinions that are coming from intelligence sources or whatever, and ruling this as information. And all of a sudden we're seeing the same sort of almost hysteria.

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with Shahan, that you're seeing a repeat of the-

JUAN COLE: Yes. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Official propaganda being disseminated as news?

JUAN COLE: Yes. I think that's exactly what's going on. I mean, especially with regard to the nuclear issue. There is no way on God's green earth that these scruffy tribal fundamentalists, in the North-West Frontier Province, are having anything to do with Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Which, by the way, are stored in secret places, and they're not assembled. And assembling them is a complicated process which requires various high-level military and civilian authorizations. And to put that nuclear issue front and forward is just a way of scaring the American public and putting pressure on Pakistan to do something they didn't want to do.

BILL MOYERS: Why isn't Pakistan doing more to control the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and up in that northwest region? Why isn't it more effective?

JUAN COLE: You know, I get very nervous when I hear people talking about controlling that region. It's not controllable. And nobody has ever controlled it. Winston Churchill was down there when he was a young man trying to control it. . .

I've also heard President Obama talking about, you know, Pakistan needs to control this area, and so forth. I don't think they understand the scale of what you're talking about here. This is just a very vast, rugged, arid region which--thinly populated. Local people know the ground much better. The best you can do is, I think, make deals with the tribal chieftains to calm things down. . .

BILL MOYERS: Is our presence there giving the Taliban a unity they wouldn't have had without presence?

SHAHAN MUFTI: On the Pakistani side, for sure. I mean, that is their rallying call now. That as well as their religious call. But definitely American presence in the region is what is really giving them a rallying call among youth of the tribal areas who are caught in poverty and cycles of poverty. And it is their rallying call of the foreign invader. . .

BILL MOYERS: So what does the United States do?

JUAN COLE: Well, the important thing to underline is [that] the Pakistani public doesn't like some US policies, like the war in Afghanistan. But opinion polling shows. . . that they like the United States. And if you ask them, "Well, what would you, what would make better relations with the United States?" They say, "Well, give us civilian development aid. We don't need any more weapons from you." If we can do things for the Pakistan public that they need done for them, they say in opinion polls that that's going to really raise their view of the United States. . .

BILL MOYERS: Both of you seem much more optimistic about Pakistan than I've heard many people talk about it in a long time.

JUAN COLE: That's because we lived there. It doesn't look like what it looks like on the outside. Americans think that Pakistanis are fundamentalists. And almost none of them are. You know, there are religious people [but] they're like Mexican Catholics. They go to shrines and pray for things. And the Taliban hate that. . . And then there's this big urban middle class which is just growing like crazy. And they're all watching Indian movies, and dreaming about being in Bollywood. And . . . the economy has been doing good the last few years. You know, five, six, seven percent growth. I think it was the second largest growth in Asia. . . I can't understand why there isn't more appreciation for the good news that's come out.

You know, in the past two years, the Pakistani public has demanded an end to a military dictatorship. On the grounds that it was violating the rule of law. They demanded free and fair parliamentary elections. They accomplished them. . . The largest party they put in is the left of center or centrist secular party. They then went to the streets to demand the reinstatement of the secular civil Supreme Court. And you've had, really, hundreds of thousands of people involved in this movement for the restoration of democracy and the restoration of the rule of law. If this had happened any other place in the world, it would be reported in Washington as a good news story. Here, we've been told that it's a crisis. That it's a sign of instability and nuclear armed nation. I don't understand that.

SHAHAN MUFTI: For decades the problem with Pakistan is that the army keeps disrupting the power balance and here the Pakistani people deliver a moment, the night that the Chief Justice got reinstated it was around 3:00 AM. And there were people gathered out, thousands of people gathered outside his house. And, in one corner, there were young students playing the guitar and singing nationalist songs.

And then the Islamists came with their flags and they were chanting, "Allah is great." And then the Justice Party people came and they were singing-- they were doing a cappella versions of nationalist songs.

And to see that all of these people had somehow come around, the absolutely secular to the very staunch Islamists, had come around [to] this movement because they somehow, to them, it meant a step towards a stronger democracy. . .


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