Ending Obama’s War (con’t)

October 13, 2009 § 5 Comments

Below is the text of the talk given by APP member Adaner Usmani, on October 7th, 2009 (at the event advertised in the previous post). Audio of the full discussion, including a very helpful Q & A session, is available here.

Because I only have a few minutes to speak on the issues I’ve been assigned, I want to start by saying that I won’t be able to represent to you all of the complexities that characterize the situation in Pakistan–and specifically in the NW. What I want to do, though, is to begin from what I think are the simple, and in some sense most important points that the anti-war movement must be prepared to assert–and then start to outline some of the more specific issues.


So, first–the most simple, straightforward, but also most critical point: It has by now become a point of general agreement amongst progressives that–contrary to the reductive, apocalyptic and even Oriental framing of Pakistan in the mainstream media–the country does, indeed, possess history, culture, music, art.

All of this is important, of course. Yet what is too often absent from this and similar correctives, I think, is the fact of the progressive struggles of its people. Too often, the staple liberal narrative acknowledges Pakistan, but as a perennial and helpless hostage (be it to radical Islam, to corrupt politicians, to Empire, or to foreign capital). Particularly as the US mobilizes the tropes of a 21st-century civilizing mission in Af-Pak–that we’re here to liberate their women, that we’re here to stabilize their democracy, that we’re here to save their children–we must insist on a simple premise: the Pakistani people have always been capable of, if not engaged in, emancipating themselves.

In response to an absurd question that a friend of mine was once asked, when participating on a similar panel on Af-Pak–YES, Pakistan has a left–it has a labor movement, a peasants’ movement, a fisherfolk movement, a women’s movement, a communist movement.This is not to deny that–like elsewhere–the Left is in crisis. And if there’s interest, maybe we can discuss, later, the serious challenges that confront movements in Pakistan, many of which have everything to do with imperial escalation in the region.

But–and this is simple point number one–the people, and their struggle, exist.


Now, the second point to be made is also a simple one: an American anti-war movement trying to understand the troubles in Pakistan, today, need look no further than the heinous foreign policy pursued by the American establishment. Historically, the US government has backed the forces of reaction to the hilt, against the people of the country. The reasons, I think, are well-known–in the post-WWII world, Pakistan quickly became a willing satrap, joining the South East Asia Treaty Organizatoin (SEATO) in 1954, signing the anti-Nasserite Baghdad Pact a year later; readily recognizing American client regimes in South Korea and South Vietnam; even condoning the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 until the Americans expressed their opposition.

Our ruling-classes have prostrated themselves before the US, to their own enrichment and political benefit. Moreover, what’s important for us, here, but should come as no surprise, is the unequivocal and well-known fact that this close relationship has thrived particularly during that half of our existence that we have spent under the thumb of the military. In 1957 the Committee on Foreign Relations described the Pakistani military as the “greatest single stabilizing force in the country…” This, only a year before our first coup, which would be led by Ayub Khan–the same Ayub who would justify his dictatorship on the grounds that, “Democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate as in Britain.”

Today’s co-ordination between the Obama administration and the Pakistani establishment is, I would argue, very much of a piece with this earlier history. This may seem harsh–the Obama crowd may argue that, today, the Americans have allied themselves with a civilian government–that they are in this sense making a break with many of the failed policies of the past.

But–and this is CRUCIAL–when it comes down to it–and particularly when we’re thinking about the conflict in the NW and in Afghanistan–our civilian government is tolerated by the US only insofar as the policy it pursues is in line with America’s military escalation in the region. In other words: this is a government that Obama and the rest have found they can work with, precisely because it has embraced the militarized logic of the Long War. It is not simple coincidence that the current Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, was ambassador to Colombia from 2000 to 2003, where she oversaw Plan Colombia in the early stages of its implementation. What’s more: her successor, William Wood, left Colombia to become ambassador to Afghanistan in 2007–Obama replaced him, earlier this year, with–of all people–a career army officer, Karl Eikenberry.

Change you can believe in, I think it’s called.

So we in Pakistan have seen our State feted as a “reliable and committed ally”–but only after it confirmed America’s faith by unleashing its overdeveloped security apparatus on the Pashtun populations of the NW. Under Musharraf, the Pakistan military had been engaged, in on and off fashion, in operations in the north-west since 2002. In the last year or two, though, the battle has been escalated considerably–the State has waged merciless, brutal, and indiscriminate counter-insurgency campaigns in different districts of NWFP and FATA.

I was in Pakistan as the country dealt with the consequences: for one, the largest internal displacement crisis in our 62-year history (roughly 2.7 million, all told, of which up to one million haven’t yet returned). What’s more, there was a complete media blackout, as reporters were effectively barred from the areas under siege, leaving the Fourth Estate to report the military’s side of the story as “fact.”

It was said–and many of you will have no doubt heard–that these were popular, successful offensives–an indigenously conceived war for the country’s survival. But I trust you not to be fooled. The narratives emerging from the areas under siege are terrifying; they speak of an indiscriminate onslaught, and a horrific civilian toll. In recently-“pacified” Swat, some three to four hundred corpses of suspected rebels have been dumped on streets and by homes, most showing signs of severe torture. “Often,” the Economist reported last week, “the dead were last seen being taken away by soldiers.” Similarly, a fact-finding mission sent to Swat in the aftermath of the operation documented the discovery of mass graves in the district.


This brings me to the third point that I want to make. As many of you who have followed the situation will know, there are, admittedly, certain, “progressive” individuals and groups in Pakistan who have come out in support of our home-grown War on Terror. Invoking the spectre of militant terror, of sharia law, these individuals have sided with the Army against the bogey of “Islamo-Facism.” I will not, here, concentrate on the fact that this is the same Army that is engaged, as we speak, in the wholescale repression of a liberation movement in the province of Baluchistan–or that this is the same Army that committed genocide in Bangladesh in 1971. But it stands noted.

Perhaps the most prominent of these pro-war voices is Pervaiz Hoodboy–who, to the chagrin of every serious Pakistani activist I know, has constituted himself as the representative of the Pakistani “Left” to American progressives. It is therefore particularly critical that the American anti-war movement understand the full extent of the shortsightedness of the pro-war argument–and, thus, by extension, the urgent need to unconditionally oppose all projects to militarize the fight against fundamentalism in Af-Pak and beyond.

The Pakistani military and security services, as you well know, were an integral part of the networks of patronage that established the ideological and material infrastructure for militant Islam in the 1980s. The ISI was fundamental in the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in the mid-90s, after their favored client–the rabidly reactoinary Gulbuddin Hekmatyar–didn’t succeed in taking power. This was part of the Pakistani State’s infamous doctrine of “strategic depth,” of course, but it also is reflective of the establishment’s historic willingness to use these networks–and Islam, more generally–to deflect attention from its own gaping insufficiencies.

They have always seen this ideology as an asset. Nothing has changed.

The Pakistani Taliban, after all, is a motley alliance of different jihadist outfits that came together in December 2007 on one point of unity–to fight the Pakistani State. But their alliance has been tenuous, which has suited the Army perfectly–it has been actively engaged in sorting the pliable terrorists, from the intransigent ones. It has fought what is often satirized as the “Bad Taliban,” while ignoring and/or nurturing the “Good Taliban.” As it prepares for the mother of all military offensives in South Waziristan, for example, there are active negotiations underway to ensure that two prominent Taliban commanders–Maulvi Nazir from S. Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur from N. Waziristan–fight on the side of the army (or at least remain neutral).

How, again, is this a war on fundamentalism?


Though there’s more to say, because I am running out of time I want to conclude with one final point. In the narrative of the war’s backers, there is a lazy and very pernicious tendency to conflate the problems associated with the general, noticeable Islamization of our society (i.e., attacks on minorities, on women, increasing ideological intolerance, etc.), with the phenomenon of the Taliban. But this is madness–these are entirely distinct sociological phenomena. A war on the Taliban of the NW–a handful of largely rural and tribal insurgencies comprising not more than several thousand, primitively-armed guerillas–will do absolutely nothing to free women or minds in our country. This we forget at our peril. “Talibanization” has become a catchword for all forms of bigotry in our society. And, thus, our nervous and disengaged elite has found–in this aggressively marketed War on the Taliban–a panacea for all their anxieties about creeping fundamentalism.

It might be important to mention that much CAN be done to combat militant Islam, aside from ending the US occupation of Afghanistan. For one, tackling, directly and forcefully, the horrific socio-economic deprivation that is the oxygen in which much of these groups grow: an estimated 90% of FATA households, for example, live on under $2/day–the entire region, moreover, has been gravely affected by two years of rampant inflation in everyday goods. Or, the thoroughgoing abolition of the colonial administrative apparatus in FATA–this has been announced, but no concrete action has yet been taken. This legislation legalizes collective punishment, bans political parties, and makes FATA entirely subservient to the executive. There was one case half a year ago that tells you all you need to know–an entire tribe in N. Waziristan was punished because a few of their members had led protests against shortages of flour in the area. Or, consider that, as of 2004, there were roughly seventy children languishing in jails, imprisioned under Section 40 of the British-authored FCR for crimes committed by members of their extended family.

The path to revolution or even effective reform, we must remind ourselves, passes through a reinvigorated and resolutely anti-army/pro-people Pakistani Left–not through armchair war-mongering from the safety of bourgeois offworlds.


To finish then: American policy towards Pakistan–as I’ve argued–only promises to inflate the military monster–70% of the 15.4 billion dollars of US aid to Pakistan over the last seven years have gone towards military-related expenditure. This pattern promises to cement the domination of authoritarian and unresponsive institutions in our political life.

It is critical, then, that the American anti-war movement stand in firm opposition to Obama’s surge, and in solidarity with regional anti-war activism. It will certainly not be easy–but, to paraphrase Joan Baez, the only real antitode to pessimsm, is action. In this spirit, let us hope that the eighth anniversary of this war also marks the beginning of the end.


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§ 5 Responses to Ending Obama’s War (con’t)

  • Asim Jaan says:

    Adaner: You have raised very pertinent issues.

    I will make following comments on your first and second point although they are just a repetition of what u have already said.

    The relationship b/w US elite and Pak elite (not people from both sides) since early 1950’s has worked to the detriment of Pakistani people’s movements for a more democratic, egalitarian, just society.

    It has worked to strengthen authoritarianism, whether in military form, or in veil of sham formal democracy devoid of any reality. Thus ruling class (in military or civilian garb or mostly in combination) have used the helping hand of offshore powers and special relationships with them to weaken, crush all indigenous movements for change.

    In contrast they have spend the fortunes, labor and sweat of 170 million people inhabiting this land to serve imperial great game interests while safeguarding hegemony of their own class in the bargain.

  • AM says:

    Recent events in Pakistan, even just since your presentation, seem to underscore the inherent failure of American and Pakistani militarism as solutions to fundamentalism in the area.

    You raised many excellent points for (?)Left advocates of militarism to consider… I think you’d have to willfully blind yourself to the brutal history of oppression and human rights abuses that the Pakistani army has perpetrated over the past decades, to rationalize it as a legitimate intervention against fundamentalism. Or perhaps, it’s a matter of combatting fundamentalism ‘by any means necessary’. And like Madeline Albright infamously proclaimed ‘we think the price is worth it’ in response to Leslie Stahl’s question whether economic sanctions were worth the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, perhaps Left advocates of militarism in Pakistan also feel the torture, summary detentions, disappearances of ‘suspected’ insurgents all over pakistan is worth it(!).

    Many thanks for posting the presentation. Also thought Dr. Sahar Shafqat (of APP) made fantasic points on Oct 15th Riz Khan Show on Aljazeera. Hope APP will consider linking it on to this site.

  • putool says:

    hon’ble progpak founders,

    i wonder if you can link APP Dr. Sahar Shafqat’s transcript of his fantasic points raised on Oct 15th during his talk show with Riz Khan on Aljazeera, if necessary through the kind co-operation of APP Authorities.

    i keep hearing of this excellent talk show which, i missed out due to frequent load-shedding by the wapda.

    thanking you in anticipation, i remain,


    • progpak says:

      Dear Putool,

      We have posted the Riz Khan show on which Dr. Sahar Shafqat appeared on the front page of our blog.

      In solidarity,

  • […] ranks” of the Taliban, and U.S. military intervention in Pakistan, check out this amazing talk with South Asia Solidarity Initiative activist Adaner Usmani: “…An American anti-war […]

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