The conflict in Pakistan has created a major humanitarian crisis as an estimated 1.3 million people are reported to have fled from the fighting. As the world follows the violence and unrest, Bill speaks with historian Juan Cole and GlobalPost journalist Shahan Mufti about how the US’s increasingly strained relationship with the troubled nation will impact prospects for peace, human rights and democracy in the region.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
President Obama was burned in effigy in Pakistan the other day. This photo from the Associated Press depicts a crowd of men with signs saying "Go America Go," meaning go home as an image of the president goes up in flames.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, columnist James Taranto said the burning symbolizes, to all Americans who may doubt it, that Obama is a war president.
For sure, Pakistan and Afghanistan are now both battlegrounds in the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror. So entwined are they that the Pentagon has conflated them into one big combat theater known in military speak as "Afpak."
But reducing this current fighting to military shorthand dehumanizes horrific realities on the ground, where innocent men, women and children are dying every day.
Our own children and grandchildren are already fighting there, and more are on the way. Look at this recent headline in London's Sunday Times, relaying an American threat to the Pakistani government — "Stop the Taliban now, or we will."
Things have gotten worse in the past week. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Pakistan's northwest region to escape fighting between the country's army and the Taliban.
The news is confusing, misleading, fragmented and sometimes frightening, so we've asked two informed observers of that region, both of whom have lived in Pakistan, to try to help us sort it out.
Juan Cole teaches history at the University of Michigan. His Informed Comment blog at juancole.com has become a go to destination for anyone interested in the politics of Islam. The author of several books, this is his latest, Engaging the Muslim World.
Shahan Mufti recently returned from a six month tour covering Pakistan's ongoing political crisis. He reports for globalpost.com, the new international news website. A Pakistani American, Shahan also has written about Pakistan for The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe as well as many other print and broadcast news outlets.
Welcome, both of you, to the Journal.
JUAN COLE: Thank you.
SHAHAN MUFTI: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Shahan, what did you think about this photograph?
SHAHAN MUFTI: Well, it tells a story. But, as any photo, it doesn't tell the complete story. There are protests like this all over the country. There have been ever since the war in Afghanistan began and America started getting involved in the region. This is the story that we get through the mass media for the most part. But there are many other currents in the country that aren't being covered as well.
JUAN COLE: The Jamaat-e-Islami represents very few people. It's a cadre organization. It gets, typically, three percent when there's elections. So, yes, they mount these demonstrations. And you can see that's probably a very small one. And so to make so much of this little picture, it shows a lack of appreciation for proportionality for what really is important in the country.
BILL MOYERS: What is important right now? 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. They had —
BILL MOYERS: I have heard a couple from NPR. They seem to be right among the refugees who are fleeing there.
SHAHAN MUFTI: The refugees are outside of the war zone now. These are the people who have been internally displaced within the country. And they have been, actually, have been evacuated by the army. So before the army moved into these northern areas they disseminated information through radio, television, to tell the people to get out 'cause they were going to move in.
And we've heard of hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people, moving out of these areas. So, really, all the information that we are relaying as reporters, as the media, as information, really is coming from army press releases, for the most part.
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: What we're calling the Taliban, it's actually a misnomer. 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 '90s. And then who emerged as a fighting force. Then you have the old warlords who had fought with the Soviet Union, and were allied with the United States. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, 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. So we're scooping all of this up. 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: 15,000. And the current military operation in the Swat Valley is pitting 15,000 Pakistani troops against 4,000 Taliban fighters. That's what's being said. This is small. And the idea that these 4,000 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, as you say, 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 was — is being fought as a guerilla war. So the militants are embedding themselves into the civilian population, which is their strength. And so this movement out of these northern regions, where the Taliban had control, is a tactical operation. And moving the people out of there, unfortunately, also, it seems, to be military tactic right now
JUAN COLE: The Pakistani military is a tank, you know, 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, is going to produce massive displacement.
They're not sending in SWAT teams against these 4,000 fighters, which I think is what they should have been doing. So when the US caused this — they pressured Pakistan's army to launch a conventional military attack on this small group of guerillas. And it's going to inconvenience, you know, probably half a million people in a very dire way. And is that really going to settle the Pashtuns down?
SHAHAN MUFTI: I would say the Pakistani army feels strong pressure to show that they are performing. So whether they're using — whether they're being heavy-handed, whether they're using a lot of fireworks, to prove a point to the United States. And the government, as well as the army, do feel — who are recipients of large American aid, and all, but also clients of the American military — they feel, they do feel, I think, an obligation to perform well, at least to put up a show that they are performing, and that they're performing well.
BILL MOYERS: Are you two saying that the Taliban are not as great a threat to Pakistan and the United States as the United States has been claiming?
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 550,000? Which has tanks and artillery and fighter jets? How would they even know where the nuclear weapons are? In Pakistan, I just quoted you the Gallup poll. People don't like Taliban, for the most part.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, 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?
SHAHAN MUFTI: And this is a trend. And especially in the last few months this has happened. As the Taliban, after there was the Shariah deal that we heard a lot about, that was the deal to implement Islamic law in some of the northern areas —
BILL MOYERS: This was a deal the government made with the Taliban up there to let them operate that region —
SHAHAN MUFTI: Their version of Islamic law in that region. Exactly. And people — there was hope, until that point at least, that this will somehow settle everything. This will quell, at least quell the violence for a little bit. That didn't happen. And the Taliban started bleeding into the other areas near to Islam. And then that's when we started hearing these alarming things about this Taliban being within —
BILL MOYERS: 90 miles or 60 miles of Islamabad.
SHAHAN MUFTI: Yeah. Islamabad. And at that point I think there was also another huge trend where we, actually, now we hear the Islamist political parties. We hear the nationalists. We hear all, again, all shades of political parties really speaking out against the Taliban.
JUAN COLE: And women. I mean, 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: But, listening to you, I have to then wonder what — I mean, 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: That feeling of doom really doesn't — 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. They are still, I think, 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. And —
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. And I think, 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 as well, where there was this hype that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
We were — we could have been convinced in a second that Iraq was about to use them. 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.
30 percent of these areas are considered administratively inaccessible by the Pakistani government. And they're the people who would know this area and say, "Well, what does it mean? This is administratively inaccessible. It means no bureaucrat has been out there." So I don't think that you — 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.
SHAHAN MUFTI: This is real-estate, Afghanistan in this tribal area, this frontier region of Pakistan that nobody, from Alexander to the British, to the Russians, have — the Russians shared a border with this, and they couldn't keep their hands on it. It was a tinderbox. And now the United States is in there. We're in there. And we're having — we're learning, and it's difficult.
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.
PRESIDENT OBAMA [footage of public speech]:I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.
BILL MOYERS: Is that an achievable goal?
JUAN COLE: Oh, I think it's an achievable goal. But not this way. First of all, the Taliban are not the same as Al Qaeda, and not necessarily connected to them. They're a regional movement. They're about a local kind of religious nationalism. I think Al Qaeda, in the North-West Frontier Province, and in the tribal areas of Pakistan, is a problem. It's a policing problem.
SHAHAN MUFTI: This is all about — I think you're right, this is all about the war in Afghanistan. It has to be. We do know that the Taliban in Pakistan grew out of the campaign in Afghanistan. They bled across the border and then they started carrying out their own personal campaign in Pakistan. What it seems like, what the trajectory has been, it seems like the more Pakistan is pushed to do that project, of eliminating the Taliban as a way of winning the war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government, the state, is putting itself under all sorts of pressures. And when you have a country that is at the frontline of a global — well, an American war right now — it's under extreme pressures from many sides. It shares the border with China, India, Iran, Afghanistan, and then has a 700 mile Arabian Sea coastline.
That's quite a cast of characters to be caught in the middle of. So Pakistan is under extreme pressures to fit in that geographical location. For the Pakistani security establishment, and my conversation with a lot of people in this security establishment, the Taliban, and the situation in Afghanistan, is about India. They're one and the same conversation. Because influence in Afghanistan, ever since the American — ever since President Karzai's government in Afghanistan, India has had a greater influence in Afghanistan, which it was missing during the Taliban.
BILL MOYERS: Karzai has made India his most important trading partner, right?
SHAHAN MUFTI: It is the most important trading partner. Is one of the —
BILL MOYERS: And this has to bother Pakistanis, right?
SHAHAN MUFTI: Immensely. It does bother the Pakistani security establishment. Especially because they view the region as a chess board. As most, as China and —
BILL MOYERS: That's an old story, right?
SHAHAN MUFTI: Yeah. So, for them, this is a huge loss. That Afghanistan, that for ten years was our little satellite state. That Paki — that Afghanistan was under, for the first time, in Pakistan's history at least, Afghanistan, under the Taliban, was friendly towards Pakistan. There had never been a government that was so friendly with Pakistan. And then, all of a sudden, one day, who moves in to help Afghanistan rebuild? It's India.
So what I'm talking about is that, to deal with the issue in Afghanistan, and President Obama was talking about this, in, as late as November last year, a few months before his inauguration, he had started talking about — I don't know if you recall, but I think it was an interview with Time Magazine in which he started talking about the Kashmir issue being the key to solving the war in Afghanistan. And that was a very interesting thought.
BILL MOYERS: The disputed land between India and Pakistan. Both of them are fighting over Kashmir.
SHAHAN MUFTI: Have been for 60 years. It's the main issue between India and Pakistan —
BILL MOYERS: You're saying that's the key to the Pakistani war? That —
SHAHAN MUFTI: I'm not saying that. President Obama said that, in November. And, for, all of a sudden, for the new President-Elect to come out and point out this piece of land between India and Pakistan as the key to solving the Afghanistan issue, was something that made one think about the issue. But whatever thought he had, which is a very interesting and complicated thought, there was some recognition in that period right before the inauguration, that this was somehow a regional issue. That Afghanistan is going to be solved eventually by bringing all the players involved in the region on the table.
BILL MOYERS: But India has told the United States that if Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is the intermediary over there, dares to raise the issue of Kashmir, he will not be welcome in New Delhi.
SHAHAN MUFTI: Hard diplomacy. That, and this is not going to be easy. To bring Kashmir issue back onto the table. To bring China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, in some grand diplomatic gesture, to try to solve this issue. This is not going to be easy. But it's the kind of diplomacy that America is capable of. And has been capable of in the past.
JUAN COLE: You look at the way that the Northern Ireland issue was ultimately resolved was — in some ways, it was a British government acknowledgment of an Irish interest in Northern Ireland. Well, if you could get an Indian government acknowledgement of a Pakistani interest in Kashmir, without that meaning that Kashmir is detached from India, just as Northern Ireland is still part of the UK — it seems to me, actually, a fairly good model for resolving this.
BILL MOYERS: So what does the United States do?
JUAN COLE: Well, the important thing to underline is the Pakistani public doesn't like some US policies, like the war in Afghanistan. But opinion polling shows, and I quote this in my book, 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. And we've seen this happen elsewhere, in Indonesia and so forth. So that's got — has to be an important part of it. I think the Obama administration is right about that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years — resources that will build schools and roads and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan's democracy.
BILL MOYERS: You have to ask the question, how does the money get to the people? Because we all know, everybody knows, how corrupt the Pakistani government is. The president, the present president, is known as Mr. Ten Percent. How does that —
JUAN COLE: It is an underestimate.
BILL MOYERS: It's a serious question though.
SHAHAN MUFTI: I think, Bill, that winning the hearts and minds part of the Pakistanis is not going to be a tough — it's not a tough job at the end of the day. Like you were saying, a lot of these people, especially the urban population that we talked about, these large cities are already sold.
They will — they wouldn't mind a few of the freedoms that are enjoyed here. And if, and especially if development aid that's going in — I think that is really not going to be that hard once the strategic planning, once the strategic planners in Pakistan have been convinced to really come on our side.
JUAN COLE: With regard to the civilian aid, you know, if USAID and the US government does its job, and has accountability, you know, because we don't just give the money to the Pakistan government and say, "Spend it." The problem in the last eight years was that we really just did hand the money over to the Pakistani military. The US government wasn't doing its job with regard to accountability.
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, they're like Mexican Catholics. They go to shrines and pray for things. And the Taliban hate that. In fact, they attacked a shrine recently. 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 so — and then 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. Of course, it's a low starting point. But 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. They voted — 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 in a nuclear armed nation. I don't understand that.
SHAHAN MUFTI: That was one of the biggest moments in Pakistan in the last — from my latest tour in the last six months. You were talking about the — how anywhere else in the world this would have been celebrated. And, most definitely, this moment of the Chief Justice getting reinstated was the democratic moment for Pakistan, at least in the last 60 years, ever since its creation. Because for the longest time, 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 this movement because they somehow, to them, it meant a step towards a stronger democracy. But only if — I think that if the United States could find ways to engage that aspect of Pakistan.
BILL MOYERS: That aspect being the aspiration of the people?
JUAN COLE: Pakistani civil society and its aspirations, yes. And not just to dismiss them as fundamentalists or to assume that you have to work the elites, which has been the way the US has typically done things.
BILL MOYERS: Juan Cole and Shahan Mufti, this has been an interesting discussion of a very complicated situation. And I appreciate your being here with me on the Journal.
SHAHAN MUFTI: Thank you.
JUAN COLE: Thank you.