Fisk always give hard hitting personal accounts of places he reports from. He spares neither the Pakistani army, the Taliban, nor Pakistani politicians in reporting the horrors of the conflict in Pakistan. The merciless drone attacks are also covered in detail. This is just part of the article. The entire article is available here.
Robert Fisk: Pakistan is in pieces
American drones overhead, Taliban troops on the offensive, and the horrifying rise of child kidnapping – Pakistan is in pieces, writes Robert Fisk, in a devastating portrait of a country thwarted by violence and corruption.
Pakistan ambushes you. The midday heat is also beginning to ambush all who live in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. Canyons of fumes grey out the vast ramparts of the Bala Hisar fort.
“Headquarters Frontier Force” is written on the ancient gateway. I notice the old British cannon on the heights – and the spanking new anti-aircraft gun beside it, barrels deflected to point at us, at all who enter this vast metropolis of pain. There are troops at every intersection, bullets draped in belts over their shoulders, machine guns on tripods erected behind piles of sandbags, the sights of AK-47s brushing impersonally across rickshaws, and rubbish trucks and buses with men clinging to the sides. There are beards that reach to the waist. The soldiers have beards, too, sometimes just as long.
I am sitting in a modest downstairs apartment in the old British cantonment. A young Peshawar journalist sits beside me, talking in a subdued but angry way, as if someone is listening to us, about the pilotless American aircraft which now slaughter by the score – or the four score – along the Afghanistan border. “I was in Damadola when the drones came. They killed more than 80 teenagers – all students – and, yes they were learning the Koran, and the madrasah, the Islamic school, was run by a Taliban commander. But 80! Many of them came from Bajaur, which would be attacked later. Their parents came afterwards, all their mothers were there, but the bodies were in pieces. There were so many children, some as young as 12. We didn’t know how to fit them together.”
The reporter – no name, of course, because he still has to work in Peshawar – was in part of the Bajaur tribal area, to cover negotiations between the government and the Taliban. “The drones stayed around for about half an hour, watching,” he says. “Then two Pakistani helicopter gunships came over. Later, the government said the helicopters did the attack. But it was the drones.”
An Islamabad garden now, light with bright oak trees and big birds that bark at us from the branches, beneath which sit two humanitarian workers, both Europeans who have spent weeks in the Swat valley during and after the Pakistani army’s offensive against the Taliban. “There were dozens – perhaps hundreds – executed by the army. They were revenge killings by the soldiers, no doubt about it. A number of people we had reported to us as arrested – they were later found dead. What does that mean? The Americans and the Brits were aware of this, of course they were, and they intervened with the government. But what does this say about the army? In one village, two bodies lay in the street for two days – it was a way of showing the local people what would happen to them if they supported the Taliban. What does this say about the army? Can they control Pakistan like this?”
Some 70 per cent of the Pakistani army come from Punjab, and 80 per cent of retired army officers come from Punjab. In a few days, Punjab will pay for this.
But lest the Taliban appear in freedom-fighter mode, here is a different account of the Swat valley by one of Pakistan’s most eloquent journalists, Owais Tohid, reporting from the city of Mingora. Read, as they say, and inwardly digest. “Splotches of red blood still stain Ziarat Gul’s memory: his sister was gunned down by the Taliban and her body placed at the chowk [square] where I stand… A year ago, Gul’s sister, Shabana, was shot three times by the bearded and turbaned men.” Shabana was a singing and dancing girl, of whom there are many in the tribal areas; they perform at weddings, while the men play harmoniums and the stringed rabab.
Back to Owais Tohid. “Her body was then strewn with currency notes, CDs of her performances, and her photographs. Pooled in blood, nobody was allowed to her body until the next day. Gul, his father and two cousins were the only ones to offer funeral prayers and bury her the next morning…” Shabana’s friend Shehnaz, a famous dancing girl, was a witness to the murder: “I switched off the light and peeped through a hole; I could see the door was broken. Shabana sat on the floor and Taliban carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers stood around her. Some carried swords. I heard Shabana beg them to spare her life. She was pleading, ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’ But then one of the Taliban said, ‘We warned you … we even offered you our mujahid to marry, but you continued to dance…’ Shabana continued pleading…” Shehnaz heard the gunshots.
I wonder if all these tales are true. Alas, they are. Not far from Peshawar last month, a dancing troupe was returning from a party in Hindko Damaan, when armed men surrounded their vehicle at 3am. Afsana, one of the girls, had her two sisters, Salma and Sana, alongside her in the car, and her stepfather, Azizur Rahman. Her brother, in a following car, argued with the gunmen, who were demanding money. So they shot Afsana dead. She had just divorced, and danced to earn money for her family. Three other girls have been murdered outside Peshawar in the past fortnight.
But the drones dominate the tribal lands. They killed 14 men in just one night last month, at Datta Khel in north Waziristan. The drones come in flocks, and five of them settled over the village, firing a missile each at a pick-up truck, splitting it in two and dismembering six men aboard. When local residents as well as Taliban arrived to help the wounded, the drones attacked again, killing all eight of them. The drones usually return to shoot at the rescuers. It’s a policy started by the Israeli air force over Beirut during the 1982 siege: bomb now, come back 12 minutes later for a second shot. Now Waziristan villagers wait up to half an hour – listening to the shrieks and howls of the dying – before they try to help the wounded.
The drones – Predators and Reapers, or “Shadows”, as the Americans call them when they follow US troops into battle – have acquired mythical proportions in the minds of Pakistanis, a form of spaceship colonialism, imperialism from the sky, caught with literary brilliance by A H Khayal in the daily newspaper The Nation, when he asked where the drones come from: “The masses are piteously ignorant. They just don’t know that the drones are not material creatures. Actually, they are spiritual beings. They don’t need earthly runways for taking off… They live in outer space, beyond the international boundaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“When they feel hungry, they swoop down and kill innocent Afghani women and children. They eat the corpses and fly back to their spacial residences for a siesta. When they again feel hungry, they again swoop down and kill another lot of innocent women and children. Having devoured the dead bodies, they fly back to their bedrooms in space. It has been going on and on like this for years.”
Indeed it has. But where do the drones come from? When President Hamid Karzai flew into Islamabad last month, the entire Pakistani cabinet turned up to welcome this fraudulently elected satrap of the United States. Many are the Pakistanis who found this a natural circumstance. Was not their own President, Asif Ali Zardari, another of Washington’s corrupt satraps, his minions heading to Washington only two weeks later to plead for a vast increase in the $7.8bn (£5.1bn) of aid which Congress voted Pakistan last year? “There was a time when America did not trust you,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Gilani, lectured the upper house of his federal parliament. “You were their ally, but they did not trust you. Now they are trusting you and holding a strategic dialogue.”
It was enough to make the average Pakistani squirm. After Hillary Clinton arrived last November to berate the students of Pakistan on their anti-Americanism – and to hint that their government must surely know the location of al-Qa’ida’s top men in the tribal lands – the Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, set off to Washington last week with his chain-smoking army commander, General Ashfaq Kayani, with the biggest begging bowl in Pakistani history. President Barack Obama wants an exit strategy in Afghanistan and realises – at last – that only Pakistan can provide this. But he also wants to support India as a bulwark against China, and the Pakistanis know that Delhi’s agents are trying to control Afghanistan.
But what struck Pakistanis about Karzai’s visit was not his cloying remarks about the fraternal love of the Afghan and Pakistani people – “India is our close friend but Pakistan is like a twin brother,” he piously observed – but his astonishing statement that the devastating missile attacks against Pakistan by pilotless US drone aircraft were not being launched from inside Afghanistan.
“We are not responsible for these attacks,” he said. “They are being carried out by a powerful sovereign country, namely the United States, which is also a close ally of Pakistan. They [the drones] don’t fly from our territory but in our airspace, and it is beyond our capacity to stop them.” Karzai looked subdued, apologetic, meekly sympathising with Gilani over the growing number of civilian casualties.
Karzai was (for once) telling the truth. The drones launched from the Kandahar airbase are attacking the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban inside the international frontier. The drones attacking Pakistan come from – Pakistan.
In fact, the Americans launch them from a Pakistan Air Force base at Terbile, 50 miles west of Islamabad. US officers were also interested in using the Peshawar airfield – the same runways employed by the old U-2 spy planes, from which Gary Powers took off over the Soviet Union during the Cold War – and the Taliban spent weeks trying to discover the headquarters from which the Americans were directing the drones. They eventually decided that the US drone control centre was on the highest floor of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
They were wrong. US officers did stay at the Marriott, but they were not air force personnel. This, however, was the reason the Marriott was attacked by a suicide bomber in 2007, and then again with a truckload of explosives on 20 September 2008 – not because President Zardari had just given his first speech to parliament a few hundred metres away, but because the Taliban were trying to destroy the “brain” behind the drones. At least 54 civilians were killed – most of them Pakistanis – and 266 wounded. The drone attacks continued, more than ever after Barack Obama became US President.
The war, however, is now directed at the Pakistani army – although the authorities try to portray the Taliban’s targets as purely civilian. The assault on the police torture centre in Lahore on 8 March was merely a warning. Nine policemen were among the 18 dead at a building known for its night-time torture sessions – local inhabitants had complained many times about screams from the basement, not because of the abuse taking place there but because it made their homes a target for bombers. They were right. The worst suicide bombing of the year had already occurred at a volleyball field in Lakki Marwat, when the killer murdered 105 people – many of them policemen and Frontier Corps personnel. On 4 February, another suicide bomber – after a long surveillance operation by the Pakistani Taliban – struck a military convoy in the Koto area of the Lower Dir district. He killed three schoolgirls, a Frontier Corps policeman – and three US soldiers. Since 11 September 2001, more than 5,700 men and women have been killed in insurgent attacks in Pakistan. This is revenge for the army’s offensives in Swat and Waziristan.
The double suicide attack on two army vehicles in Lahore, the Punjabi capital, on 12 March was thus merely the most brazen assault on the Pakistani military. Both killers destroyed themselves next to two army trucks – killing 14 soldiers – in the garrison city, shaming the security authorities and provoking the local chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, to plead shamefully with the Taliban to spare his capital in future. Attack another city, was the implication. Sixty-one men and women were killed – most of them, of course, civilians – and hundreds wounded. Within 24 hours, another suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint in the North West Frontier Province at Saidu Sharif, killing 14 people, most of them soldiers and policemen.
Even the military were surprised by the determination of the Pakistani Taliban to assault them. Four days after the attack in Lahore, the police found 1,500 kilos of explosives and two suicide vests in Iqbal Town in the Punjabi capital, along with Russian-made hand grenades and rifle ammunition. The next day, they discovered another 3,000 kilos of explosives in the same area. Amir Mir, the most accurate of Pakistani journalists amid the chaos of what is in fact a war, has calculated that 321 Pakistanis have been killed and more than 500 wounded in 15 suicide bombings across Pakistan in the first 70 days of 2010. This is up from ‘only’ 11 suicide bombings in the same period last year.
The Institute for Peace Studies in Pakistan has been recording every act of violence in the country since the 2001 attack on America, and concludes that just in 2009 12,632 men and women – civilians, soldiers, Taliban militants, even victims of inter- tribal battles – were killed. Of the dead, 3,021 were killed by insurgents, 6,329 in Pakistan army operations, 1,163 in army-Taliban battles, 700 in border violence, and 1,419 in other violence, including drone missiles.
The scorecard for death over the past four years – I’m afraid that death in Pakistan is today much like a tally – is truly awful. In 2005, a mere 216 Pakistanis were reported killed. In 2006, 907 Pakistanis died; in 2007, 3,448; in 2008, 7,997. By 2009, the total number of victims in just five years came to more than 25,000. When I twice visited Lahore, it felt like a city under martial law, thronged with troops and checkpoints, its bridges and ancient British ministries and schools laced with soldiers in steel helmets.
In just two weeks in March – far from Lahore – lawlessness reached epic proportions. On 14 March, four men were killed in the Khyber tribal area. In Quetta on 17 March, a retired policeman, a member of a “sectarian organisation”, and two construction workers were shot dead or blown up. A day later, 10 men of the Mehsud tribe – quite possibly militants – were killed in a five-missile US drone attack. In a suburb of Peshawar on the same day, three Frontier Force soldiers and two policemen were shot dead. In Karachi that day, two political leaders, their lawyer and a taxi driver were shot. Within 24 hours, a prominent Quetta lawyer was kidnapped. By the end of the same week, the Pakistani Taliban publicly announced that it intended to murder the Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik. And there would be more attacks across the country, the Taliban said, in revenge for the American drone attacks. “Just wait for our reaction,” the Taliban’s spokesman, Azam Tariq, said.
The Pakistani military responded in the time-honoured way. The Taliban’s attacks were “a clear sign of frustration and desperation” on the part of the militants. The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, declared from the safety of Washington that the drone assaults – and other attacks, unspecified – were “the most aggressive operation that the CIA has been involved in in our history. The CIA’s offensive in the Pakistan tribal region had driven Osama bin Laden and his colleagues into hiding – where they have presumably been since 2001 – leaving al-Qa’ida “rudderless and incapable of planning sophisticated operations”.
Pakistan surely deserves better than this nonsense. Embedded with the Pakistani military, writers such as Michael O’Hanlon in The New York Times remind their readers that America’s $17bn in aid since 2001 comes to only half Pakistan’s costs in the “war on terror”, a battle to which the Pakistani army is now fully committed (or so he believes). This, however, does not explain the scores of soldiers who have surrendered to the insurgents over the past 12 months, nor the weird double-game being played by the Pakistani security services, who captured senior members of the Afghan Taliban only to find themselves condemned by Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government for breaking up the secret communications between the Afghan government and its enemies. The US was “extremely gratified” by Pakistan’s arrests, President Obama’s envoy, Richard Holbrooke, says. In other words, the Americans would control contacts with the Afghan Taliban – not their local ruler, Hamid Karzai.
And all the while, the ’security’ experts who dominate the American press have been sowing their suspicions through the dumbed-down intelligence world of the West. For while we bomb the tribal regions with our drones, we are told to fear the imminent theft of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Terrorists, we are told in a West Point journal, may take the country’s atomic arms for use against us – note how this threat never seems to apply to our trusted ally, India – and mythical accounts are told of three separate attacks by “terrorists” (unnamed, of course) on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in the last three years. In the past we were told that Muslim “nationalists” might hijack Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Now the danger is supposed to come from “Islamists”. In fact, the real danger is much closer to home.
Seventy per cent of NATO’s ammunition, vehicles and food in Afghanistan still transits through Pakistan, along with 40 per cent of its fuel. The Taliban’s attacks on these convoys – both the Pakistani and Afghan versions of the movement (for they are not the same) – have over the past two years netted some incredible dividends, which NATO has not seen fit to disclose. Gunmen have managed to steal three separate – disassembled but complete – military helicopters and a clutch of American Humvee armoured vehicles, one of which was used by the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. At least 62 Humvees were burned out in just one raid near Peshawar in 2008.
And all this, you have to remember, takes place against the profound corruption of Pakistani society, from the shoe-shine boy to the president, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, whose own venality is so legendary that only rarely does it cause discussion. Only once in the last month has it been mentioned – when Zardari, addressing a conference on Sufism and peace, announced that he was not afraid of death, that he represented “nothing more than a speck in the universe” and would donate his body organs on his death. Within hours, five people – including my taxi driver, a hotel waiter, the owner of an Islamabad bookshop, a Pakistani humanitarian worker and a lawyer – made precisely the same comment to me: “Zardari will donate his body organs to the people – but not his dollars!”