Pakistan: A land of competing narratives

US Politics
on 22 Comments

After an interminable 48 hours of traveling, I am at home, and looking back at my trip to Pakistan with a bit more distance and perspective. If there is a unifying theme as my thoughts crystallize it is this: There is always more than one narrative, and it is incumbent upon us to seek them out as we travel. As a journalist and an activist, I see my challenge as to always remain in the listening mode – taking a stand, yes – because “balance” can be the enemy of justice – but also remaining ready and able to adjust to the true realities on the ground.

Competing narratives: Malala and the Taliban

The global media coverage of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai continues to expand and attract major players of all stripes, including Madonna, who stripped down at a Los Angeles concert to expose a “Malala” tattoo on her back. Unfortunately, almost from the very beginning, various parties have either sought to avoid the broader challenges highlighted by the crime against her or to use it to shove a competing narrative off the public agenda.

In my last post, I noted the false choice that seemed to be emerging amidst all the outpouring of grief (and a certain amount of hoopla) surrounding the shooting of Malala: In other words, stop the U.S. drone attacks or the Taliban. Since then, that debate has now come front and center, along with a growing suspicion among sectors of the public of everyone involved. Two narratives. Two agendas. Both have merit, but instead of the parties working together for mutual good, an epic battle is shaping up.

One of the parties caught in the crosshairs is the charismatic politician Imran Khan, who hopes to become Pakistan’s next prime minister in 2013 – in part based on a campaign against the U.S. drone attacks that regularly kill civilians as well as “militants” in the border regions of his country. Although Khan has clearly come out against the shooting, he has disappointed many by avoiding any direct criticism of the Taliban faction that has reportedly claimed credit for the crime. He fears, Kahn has said, for the safety of his party’s workers in the region.

Fahd Husain, host of “Tonight with Fahd” on Pakistan’s Waqt News, eloquently expressed his feeling of betrayal at this weak response:

You are the fountain from which your followers drink their political nectar. They parrot you (often nauseatingly on social media), they regurgitate your arguments and they peddle your logic. Your party leadership pushes your line on TV and defends your rationale on public forums.

In the last week or so, they have fallen flat on their faces. The reason: your ideas are not fully fleshed out.

Is it so because, a) Pakistani Taliban are our people, who are misguided and can be reformed? b) They have killed forty thousand other Pakistanis because we are fighting America’s war and so they do, err… kind of, have a point? c) If the drones would stop, they would stop attacking Malalas and Kainats and Shazias, and stop dynamiting girls’ schools and stop demanding their version of the Sharia for the entire Pakistani society? Or Mr Khan, is it what you have said in your Economist interview, that if you condemn them who will protect your party workers from them?

The last one has left me at a loss of words. Are you saying, Mr Khan, that you will not condemn them, not out of conviction and power of logic, but because of – horror of horrors – fear?

I can be fearful. Your supporters can be fearful. Even your detractors can be fearful. But none of us, Mr Khan, are claiming the leadership of this country; a bold and courageous leadership, I may add.

Make no mistake, sir. This fight against extremism is an existential one. Think it through. Your words matter. Your ideas matter. Your thoughts matter. People believe you. And they want to believe in you. Do not let them down like you have the past week.

You may ask, why am I addressing this to you and not the others. It’s actually pretty simple: I don’t have many expectations from others. The politico-religious leaders are a write-off when it comes to this issue. They are muddled, befuddled, Extremist-Lites. Pakistanis have seen through them. The other politicians sway with the wind and lack spine. They are the reason this country is where it is. The armed forces created these extremists in the first place, and perhaps they will now atone for their sins by going after them.

But you, Mr Khan, claim to be the ‘Great Big Hope’. I, for one, hope that you are. God knows, we need hope. But hope is not a plan of action. Clear-headed thinking, leading to clear-headed action, is. Which is why, if you are confused, so are we.

Meanwhile, there is a parallel rumbling, noted today in an article in the New York Times on the “Malala Moment,” from individuals who are no longer hiding their suspicion that the Taliban might not have been the real mastermind behind the shooting. This op-ed by Dr. Shahida Wizaratin in the Frontier Post is representative:

“It is intriguing to note that after the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the casualties from drone attacks increased to 18 and 27 the day before and yesterday respectively. This precious loss of life and the crimes against humanity committed by the US against these innocents is now not drawing any attention in the international media…

It needs to be remembered that… the US will try to accelerate the killings of innocent Pakistanis both through drone attacks and by orchestrating Malala-type incidents, designed to draw attention to the seriousness of the threats from the ‘militants’ (and justify attacks against them). The hidden agenda behind the do-more admonitions is to accelerate the pace towards the predictions of the CIA report, Global Trends in 2015, which state that KPK and Balochistan (territories on the border with Afghanistan) will not be in the control of the government of Pakistan by the year 2015.”

What I know is that both the shooting of Malala (who thankfully is now reported to be standing with assistance) and the innocents killed by drones (who rarely if ever get anywhere near the publicity accorded this 14-year-old girl) are tragic, and whatever role the U.S. plays in these crimes – directly or indirectly — must be stopped. It is time to stop treating these troubled countries like an imperialist chess game.

One of the saddest outcomes of the latest events has been the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI, Khan’s political party) decision to cancel a rally outside the UN next week. “Unfortunately,” wrote Dr. Arif Alvi, PTI General Secretary, “the attack on Malala, which is very condemnable itself, has taken the anti-terror war in a different direction.” Khan’s convoy into the drone-ravaged KPK region and the participation of the Codepink delegation had generated unprecedented U.S. media analysis of American drone policy. Taking the debate to the streets outside of the UN would have kept the heat on.

Meanwhile, this news item appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 18:

The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, U.S. officials said.

The proposal by CIA Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and be able, if directed, to shift aircraft to emerging al-Qaeda threats in North Africa or other trouble spots, officials said.

If approved, the CIA could add as many as 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 over the past few years.

The outcome has broad implications for counterterrorism policy and whether the CIA gradually returns to an organization focused mainly on gathering intelligence, or remains a central player in the targeted killing of terrorism suspects abroad.

Competing narratives: Pakistani sovereignty vs. drones

Within the left-leaning groups opposing U.S. drone strikes, a debate is emerging.

In early October, RT (Russia Television) reported that Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik had urged the U.S. to share drone technology with his country’s government, explaining that Islamabad could put it to better, more legitimate use against terrorism.

“They have given us F-16s, and we haven’t used them against India. Instead, they were used in [the] War against Terror. Now [the] United States should provide drones to Pakistan in order to target militants in areas bordering Afghanistan,” he said. Pakistan, Malik explained, has no objection to using drones against militants; rather, anti-American hostility is fueled when the United States acts unilaterally as an imperialist power.

Where should we stand on this issue as anti-war activists, who on the one hand oppose imperialistic interference and on the other fight remote-controlled murder?

Within the Codepink delegation, two opposing points of view emerged. One side was eloquently expressed this way: “I thought one of the issues regarding drones is the impossibility to surrender, have a trial, and protect the basic rights of citizens and soldiers at war. It does not matter who is steering (a drone – the U.S. or Pakistan). It is still wrong.”

Others take a more pragmatic, opposing view adhering narrowly to international law: “If the Pakistani government is explicitly involved, then I think the question of extrajudicial killing is not so clear. There are areas of Pakistan where the Pakistani state is not exercising total authority and cannot necessarily make arrests and carry out legal functions. I don’t think you could find international law experts who would say that the Pakistani state doesn’t have authority to use force to reestablish its control over its national territory. That doesn’t make it wonderful, but wonderful and lawful are not the same thing.”

Where do I stand? I believe that returning the power to make and carry out these types of decisions and actions to Pakistani sovereignty is a good and necessary step. Beyond that, we have no say (other than deciding whether to give or sell drone technology to Pakistan). However, my personal opinion continues to be that drones pre-empt due process and kill innocents no matter who operates them.

Side notes: 1) The news we learned while in Pakistan that the U.S. is expanding its embassy there by 84 acres, while beefing up the barricades around it, does not bode well for any lessening of anti-American sentiment. Does anyone in the State Department even take that into account? 2) There is often talk of providing compensation to the families of drone victims. However, we received a clear message from those with whom we talked: You can’t compensate for loss of life! The only redress is to stop the attacks.

Competing narratives: ‘Oppressed Islamist women’ vs. strength expressed in different ways

One of the most common disconnects I encounter when I visit Gaza, Palestine, as well as other Islamic countries such as Pakistan, is between liberal/leftist Western women and the females they meet who actively practice the dictates of their religion and culture in terms of dress, separation between men and women, etc.

There is this almost automatic assumption on the part of Western women that any female who wears the hijab, stays indoors after 6 p.m. or obeys other practices that are perceived as restricting the freedom of women is oppressed and deserves our pity. However, I have continually been reminded that many of these women do not feel oppressed, and see our attitudes as just another form of orientalism.

The first such woman to eloquently express this point of view to me was Sameeha Elwan, a beautiful and highly intelligent teacher from Gaza. In her blog, “Here, I was Born,” she once wrote: “Internationals should really respect cultural differences. I’m from a different culture. If your parents allow you to go out alone after midnight, mine do not. Has this affected me in any way possible? Not in the least. That’s it. Period.”

In Pakistan, where people in the tribal regions practice “purda” – total separation of men and women – my wake-up call came from Shaista Tabussam Khan Sultanpuri, a young woman from South Waziristan who became the first female member of the Islamabad Bar Association, and now is running to be vice president of the group. “Yes, we have our own customs,” she told me with a big smile. “But you know, the women are stronger than the men!”

Competing narratives: Dangerous Pakistan vs. a place one chooses for home

Like many participants in the Codepink delegation, many people questioned my decision to travel to Pakistan, fearing that I was endangering my life by merely stepping foot into the country. In fact, the mother of one of our delegates offered to pay her $1,000 (the cost of her airfare) if she agreed to stay home.

Some of that fear was based on the anti-U.S. sentiment that is indeed widespread within the country – and understandably so. However, all of the individuals I met were very able and willing to separate Americans from U.S. policy, and were simply thrilled that we cared enough to learn more about their country for ourselves.

There is also the perception that Pakistan as a country is inhabited mostly by “militants” (however one defines that) – a stereotype common to Gaza as well. For these people, my prescription is to spend a few days in Lahore with my friend Waqas, who – after spending a year attending high school in the United States – has decided that while he may return to America to earn his master’s degree, he wants to live and work in Pakistan. “Americans live to work,” he explained. “I want to work to live.”

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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22 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    October 20, 2012, 3:41 pm

    i thought this was a telling link from the nyt coverage:

    Others, however, see a silver lining: that Pakistanis have drawn one major red line when it comes to Taliban aggression. “You can be a devout Muslim, hate America and be more upset than Imran Khan about drones,” said Nusrat Javed, a television commentator. “But if you have daughters who want to go to school, there is universal condemnation of something like this.”

    note how after the attempt on her life it changed the nature of the conversation from drones to children. and of course that is what it takes to make it into the nyt. the balance effect.

    women are continually used to influence the public to align with western interests but clearly the interests of women and children have nothing to do with our state departments interests in them. and just like in iraq, where we go women and children suffer and generally do not live better lives because of our intervention. so i completely reject no drone advocacy being juxtaposed with anything to do with women vs the taliban issues. studies have shown that drone increase recruitment for extremists groups so there’s no doubt in my mind the conflict with AQ/taliban or whatever is used as a pretext for our intervention. the reason we are there is this: the U.S. is expanding its embassy there by 84 acres, and if the taliban or malala or anyone else can facilitate that..we’ll use it.

    the reason some people (myself for example) don’t like addressing the taliban is because they are not all uniform. they are made up of several groups and most of them are co-oped, covertly or otherwise, to carry out the interests of others be it the US, china, india, the state of pakistan or afghanistan, saudi arabia and the list goes on (and the civilians on the ground know it which is why they do not buy the propaganda of westerners and we reference it as ‘conspiracy’, hell yes it’s a conspiracy). that’s just the way it is they’re not that different than outside groups (like the US state department) supporting salifists in syria. so while we might completely ignore taliban activity in one place, we bomb others and we’re not the only ones. here’s an example of this from 2010

    Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban rely in part on money from foreign donors. Attacks that kill members of the international coalition make the groups seem successful and prompt donors to believe that their support is buying results and to send more money.

    “As long as the Taliban is perceived as winning, there’s a large extremist community out there that will send money to the poor, so to speak,” said a NATO official with knowledge of Taliban tactics who requested anonymity while discussing security matters.

    The Afghan Defense Ministry denied that the bomber had been one of its soldiers, saying that it had no units in that area. And the statement by the intelligence official appeared to rule out that possibility.

    The Pakistani Taliban account described the bomber as a “C.I.A. agent,” probably meaning an informer, who had contacted Pakistani Taliban commanders and said he was willing to attack the Americans on the militants’ behalf, according to an interview with a Pakistani Taliban leader by The Associated Press in Pakistan.

    “Thank God that we then trained him and sent him to the Khost air base,” the news agency quoted Qari Hussain, a Pakistani Taliban commander, as saying. “The one who was their own man, he succeeded in getting his target.”

    here’s the thing, it isn’t only ‘extremists’ supporting them..but they don’t mention that. why do you think it is we didn’t bother with bombing pakistan until musharaff made a trip to china and signed that pipeline deal w/iran? and then we didn’t like him anymore so how do we justify sticking our nose into pakistan when we don’t have a puppet there anymore? the taliban. but who was it that went behind the back of the ISI and tried to cut a deal with the taliban when they were unhappy w/pakistan wrt how they were dealing with afghanistan? the US. and they gave this taliban guy all this money and the military announced they’d cut some great deal until whoops, the guy split town. turns out it was a set up by the ISI. so this is all a sham. and yes, the taliban, a bunch of them can be really screwed and horrible, but the US won’t change that. we loooove the taliban when they are doing our bidding just like we loved osama when he was fighting russia and how we loved hakim in iraq when he was slaughtering sunnis for us. just like we love jumbullah when they are blowing up civilians in iran.

    so this is why informed people might not engage in this ‘competing narrative’, because between the ‘2 sides’ there is zilch narrative about world powers utilizing these groups to do their bidding.

  2. more progressive
    October 20, 2012, 5:03 pm

    the murder of Pakistani citizens by the Taliban and other violent radical groups long predates any US drone strikes into Pakistan and anyone claiming that the murders would suddenly cease with the end to those drone strikes is pretty much fulla shift.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 20, 2012, 7:36 pm

      since no one i have ever heard has made that argument is it kind of a moot point. however, the argument being made repeatedly by many experts is that civilian deaths act as recruiting tools which in turn accelerate extremism.

      • more progressive
        October 20, 2012, 7:59 pm

        Re-read the post and you’ll come to it…….

        ” c) If the drones would stop, they would stop attacking Malalas and Kainats and Shazias, and stop dynamiting girls’ schools and stop demanding their version of the Sharia for the entire Pakistani society? “

      • Annie Robbins
        October 20, 2012, 9:56 pm

        that is a rhetorical question directed at Imran Khan during an election year from a political adversary. since a response was not provided in the text above or the link perhaps you could provide us with mr. khan’s response or some other statement of his so we can have a better understanding of his counter argument. i think we can all rest assured he didn’t make any kind of claim resembling your comment, nor did anyone else.

    • MRW
      October 20, 2012, 8:14 pm

      @more progressive,

      You obviously missed Part 3 of The Power of Nightmares. At least it’s entertaining while it informs. This is a higher quality version than youtube, and the powers that be are continually taking down the youtube versions. This is banned in the US.

      • more progressive
        October 20, 2012, 8:57 pm

        thanks for the link. as soon as I get the new speakers for the computer hooked up, I give it an airing.

  3. Pam Bailey
    October 20, 2012, 5:35 pm

    You made one point, Annie, that I want to emphasize. I meant to include it in my article and I completely forgot. There is no one “Taliban.” Like any other movement or party, it has many different factions and people join for many different reasons. Khan is quite correct that while there are some elements beyond negotiation, there are others who can be engaged. Consider this excerpt from Pakistan’s English-language DAWN, written by Munir Akram (former Pakistani ambassador to the UN):

    “A plan of action against terrorist violence needs to start from a full analysis of the composition, motivation and modus operandi of the militant groups operating in Pakistan. This is a motley crowd. The generic word ‘Taliban’ is now an overextended brand name applied to a variety of groups within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    It is not possible, nor necessary, for Pakistan to fight all of those who are called, or call themselves, ‘Taliban’. All of them are not involved in attacks against Pakistan. Nor is it possible, as some have suggested, to negotiate peace with all of those called ‘Taliban’.

    Most of the attacks in Pakistan have emanated from fighters grouped under the Al Qaeda-linked Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — the so-called ‘Pakistani Taliban’, presently led by Hakeemullah Mehsud. The Mehsuds rose against the Pakistan Army after its first ingress into South Waziristan in 2003. Following the Red Mosque episode, the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud brought together a variety of Pakistani militant groups, including those operating in Swat as well as the so-called ‘Punjabi Taliban’, under the umbrella of the TTP.

    These groups are united on one issue: opposition to Pakistan’s alliance with the US ‘war on terror’ (which they construe as a war on Islam). But each component group within the TTP also has its own specific objectives and priorities.”

  4. piotr
    October 21, 2012, 1:38 pm

    There is a need for some middle way between de-facto acceptance of Muslim extremists and dirty war. Pakistan in particular seems to oscillate between the two.

    Swat, a fertile valley with Pushtun majority and more than million inhabitants is a good example. For some period, government had a truce agreement with local Taliban giving them de-facto autonomous rule. Afterwards number of kidnappings and murders were attributed to extremists based in Swat. I do not know if correctly so, but what definitely seems credible that in the areas ruled by extremists they violently eliminate their opponents. In 2009 there were widely publicized video of Taliban members in Swat flogging women, and the government commenced a huge military action removing Taliban from control of Swat, leading to 200,000 “internal refugees”; lack of adequate services to those refugees was mentioned a year later.

    This suggest to me that the government does not know how to take over an area de-facto controlled by Taliban without mayhem, displacements of hundreds of thousands and resulting huge cost and backlash. This can explain why it is so reluctant to take over Waziristan.

    Somewhat less explicably, US government also does not know a middle way between neglect and mayhem. In the context of the border drone war, I would imagine that the middle way would be to strongly increase the number of drones and the intensity of electronic surveillance, while restricting the attacks to persons who are observed crossing the border illegally or entering some other prohibited zones (e.g. Taliban is attacking towers with antennas for wireless communication, and one could make some arrangements to restrict access to the vicinity of these towers), or in reaction to attacks.

    • Pam Bailey
      October 21, 2012, 10:20 pm

      Well, “piotr,” I do not believe it is the United States’ responsibility or right to be using drones or any other violent means to exterminate the Taliban in Pakistan. 1) The only justification under international law for U.S. military intervention is self defense or request of the country involved, and there is no credible evidence of the former and the latter has not been extended at this point in time. 2) Drones are not precise. They cannot be “restricted” to only targeted individuals. That has been more than amply demonstrated.

      • piotr
        October 21, 2012, 11:07 pm

        If authorized by Afghanistan, they can shoot on the border. Not beyond the border. Drones are as precise as any weapon. If you shoot at homes, you kill families. If you shoot at people moving on streets, you kill or maim those who share the street. In the case of Pakistan, the government was emphatic many times that they do not wish drone attacks.

        In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to tell. Basically, the war makes no sense and our military is lashing out. Vaunted “counterinsurgency” is dirty war, whether it is done by Assad or by Americans. But perhaps there is another way? I am not sure if there is any way for a culturally alien country to do anything constructive. On the ground it seems that we hate them and they hate us. But Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria etc. need some ways to deal with rebellions and terror.

      • Pam Bailey
        October 22, 2012, 10:11 am

        Yes, I agree, piotr. Pakistan does indeed need to develop a capability of managing its internal problems. My argument is two-fold: 1) It’s not our job. We only breed further resentment and hate, which in turn gives the various Taliban factions a recruitment tool. 2) (related to the first) Military solutions are rarely long-term solutions. Just look at what happened after we intervened in Afghanistan. Can anyone argue with any credibility that conditions on the ground are better today? (And for whom?)

      • more progressive
        October 21, 2012, 11:50 pm

        of course, if the Talibanis in Pakistan are attacking US troops in Afghanistan, there’s really nothing in international law that prevents the US from attacking them other than the formal objections of the pakistani government.

        and drones are quite precise in their bombardment compared to most other bombing platforms.

      • Pam Bailey
        October 22, 2012, 10:20 am

        Under the Obama administration, “more progressive,” drone strikes are increasingly of the “signature” type, which means they are targeting patterns of suspicious activity rather than specific individuals. Individuals from within have testified that merely gathering in large groups (like at a wedding) and/or being an adult male often qualifies as “suspicious.”

        I’d also add what I said in response to piotr: Please convince me that this kind of violent targeting of an entire region will actually lead to long-term peace.

      • more progressive
        October 22, 2012, 4:03 pm

        I can not even attempt to convince anyone that acts of war will lead to peace any more than I can attempt to claim that acts of terrorism will lead to justice.

        but I’m certainly not going to swallow the notion that drone strikes aren’t highly precise and accurate in comparison to other forms of bombardment.

        I’m not going to attempt to say that drone strikes never kill innocent people or that they are never launched in error, but I’m nt at all going to swallow the fiction that they are not usually well aimed and killing armed militants and those standing with them.

      • manfromatlan
        October 23, 2012, 9:15 am

        Fair enough. How do you feel about the president (and all future presidents) giving themselves the power to kill anyone, including US citizens, on the basis of ‘human intelligence’?

  5. manfromatlan
    October 21, 2012, 9:38 pm

    Pam, thank you for your visit to Pakistan with Code Pink and writing about it. I hope we’ll hear more from you. As someone who comes from there, it really bothers me to see the country where I was born so misrepresented by the media. Code Pink met real Pakistanis, and not, the crude stereotypes we read about every day.

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  7. gamal
    June 10, 2017, 10:47 am

    Dear Ms. Bailey

    i’ve posted this here before if you haven’t read Zafar Bangashs’ piece you might find it interesting. As an aside i don’t know what we can learn by deploying terms like “militant”, “extremist” etc, it seems to me that westerners who know relatively little of the Muslim world would be better looking a little deeper, these epithets don’t really aid your understanding at all, Dr. Farid Esack writes about the Red Mosque affair for instance it might be worth a look.

    “Malala was born on July 12, 1997. Her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, owns a number of for-profit schools. While almost everything else in Pakistan is going down the drain, for-profit schools and the closely related non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are generously financed from abroad are thriving businesses.

    It was a BBC reporter Abdul Hai Kakkar who discovered Malala in early 2009. His assignment was to find a courageous schoolgirl willing to share her experiences of the threats by Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against girls getting education. The TTP led by Mullah Fazlullah was shutting down schools in Swat Valley as it flexed its muscles. Kakkar approached Ziauddin Yusufzai for help and he willingly offered his own daughter’s experiences.

    The plan gelled into Malala, then 11 years old, writing her diary that the BBC World Service would put on its website under the title, “The Diary of a Pakistani School Girl.” In order to protect her identity, Malala was given the pseudonym “Gul Makai” (corn flower). The diary detailed Malala’s life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls. One cannot help but wonder whether her father’s motive was in promoting girls’ education or he feared his income dwindling if the girls’ schools he was running were shut down.

    Malala’s cover, however, was blown that summer when Adam B. Ellick of the New York Times featured her in two videos describing her family’s life as well as showed her at school. This was the time the Pakistani military was about to launch an attack on Swat Valley.”

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