Sana Saleem: People are fed up with drone attacks and blame US policy for Afghan war
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
When President Obama was elected, his new strategy for the Afghan War was based on the idea of better relations with Pakistan and having Pakistan more collaborative in dealing with the Afghan Taliban. This included what was supposed to be a civilian surge in Afghanistan, but also, in Pakistan in the areas that border Afghanistan, money for people’s well-being. There was all supposed to be support for NGOs and civil society in Pakistan, less unconditional support for the Pakistani military. And all of this was supposed to lead to a Pakistan that would be moreâ€”one could say, more backbone or stronger in being opposed to extreme Islamist forces, and more democratic. This was supposedly the strategy. Well, as everyone who follows the stories knows, not much of that has happened, and Pakistan-American relations are probably at a worse point than they were four years ago.
Now joining us to talk about all of this is Sana Saleem. Sana is CEO of Bolo Bhi, which means speak up. It’s a human rights organization focusing on policy, advocacy, and research. And Sana also blogs at The Guardian, Global Voices, and Dawn.com. Thanks for joining us, Sana.
SANA SALEEM, WRITER AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
JAY: So what is the state of things in terms of Pakistani public opinion now and the feelings towards the United States and the whole relationship with U.S. and the Pakistan military?
SALEEM: The public’s opinion now on America is no different than it was when the war on terror started. We have to understand what the situation was in Pakistan when the war on terror initially began. Pakistan was under dictatorship of General Musharraf. There was no public consensus on a position on Afghanistan, and there couldn’t have been, because it was not democratic. Parliament wasn’t taken into confidence. And so from the very beginning we’ve had this sort mistrust of the United States, sort of the fact thatâ€”even with dictator Musharraf later revealing that the United States had in fact threatened him to get into this war, that also added up to people’s hatred towards America. And the past ten years in the war on terror, even though our politicians, our leaders, our army, or the intelligence agencies have been collaborating with the United States of America, they have kept on using the anti-American rhetoric for their political card, for sympathy, to sort of rid themselves of responsibility of the drone strikes or forâ€”to make the religious parties happy. So it’s not something that recent, it’s not something that has happened [incompr.] thing or after the Osama bin Laden raid or nothing. It’s something that has been there since the beginning of war on terror, in fact. And the fact that after the war on terror began and the way that we were pulled into it, that, as well as how the international community sort of reacted to itâ€”.
Pakistanis have always felt isolated for what they know. Firstly, people don’t have a very clear perception of history in Pakistan. Thankfully, because of the [incompr.] dictatorship, our history books do not build a holistic picture. So what little we do know, and which is in fact true, is that America used Pakistan again during a dictatorshipâ€”one of the worst, Zia-ul-Haq’s timeâ€”as an ally to break down the Soviet Union. And this is something that has caused repercussion for Pakistan. So even for [incompr.] Taliban, Pakistanis, a majority, blame America for it.
And now for the past ten years they feel that for something that the U.S. was also equally responsibleâ€”or let me say more responsible, since the war was in our neighborhood and not theirsâ€”that we are constantly being told to do more, to do more. And the past ten years, ever since the suicide bombings started and ever since the religious political parties have used this war on terror as sort ofâ€”let me just say, sort of a justification to say that these suicide bombers are actually doing this or they’re actually killing soldiers or civilians because they don’t want us to be allies with America, so this isn’t our war, this is America’s war, this is something that you would [crosstalk]
JAY: So the point here is that this kind of U.S. policy strengthens the extreme religious parties.
SALEEM: Yeah, U.S. policy strengthens this, yes. But secondly, it’s also the Pakistani politicians and Pakistani army never being truly honest to their people. There is no transparency. We don’t know the level of collaboration between the two governments. And whenever the opportunity has come, they’ve come up and they’ve said things that could fuel anti-American sentiment, without really considering the aftermath [crosstalk]
JAY: So President Obama had promised this sort of new relationship that was going to be based on more attention to Pakistani civilians. I think he even gave some special assignment to Vice President Biden to try to pursue this. But how much of that has happened, support for civil society and, you can say, human development, rather than just military support?
SALEEM: So USAID has pooled in a lot of money in Pakistan, like, a lot of money. And I would just say, as a personal opinion, I sometimes feel really sorry for the American taxpayer, because a lot of money has been pooled in. They’ve beenâ€”they’ve pledged schools in Swat. So I wouldn’t say they haven’t done it. They have pooled in a lot of money. But at the same time, drone strikes have doubled, tripled, and so have the terrorist strikes. So a lot of Pakistani people don’t see USAID money. In fact, a lot of times when the U.S. Embassy or the USAID does something, majority of these human rights organizations do not want to reveal that they are in fact being supported by the USAID, because they’ll be declared U.S. agents, and because people feel disrespected that on one side, you’re killing our people, and on the other side, you think that giving aid wouldâ€”and doing pretty things like cultural events would sort of stop us from asking for justice. That’s how a lot of people feel about these things. So you would see a lot of organizations that are supported by USAID not using the logo, not disclosing that they’re being supported by them at all.
JAY: Right. Now, so the drone strikes are so widely condemned in Pakistan that the otherâ€”whatever there is happening on the aid side isn’t so significant. But the counterargument you’ll hearâ€”from the American officials, at leastâ€”is that the Pakistani authorities simply don’t really go after the Afghan Taliban. And, in fact, I think it’s fairly well accepted, the Afghan Taliban, as differentiated from the Pakistani Taliban, were more ofâ€”the Afghan Taliban were more or less nurtured, brought into being by the Pakistani ISI, and it’s allâ€”people, at least observers, have always thought of the Afghan Taliban as being a lever of power of Pakistanis’ military in Afghanistan. And so the Americans are saying, well, you don’t go after them; so if you don’t and we can’t send American troops into Pakistan, how else do you go after the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership? How do people respond to that argument?
SALEEM: People don’t respond to that at all. People don’t want to respond to that at all, because this is war tactic, this is warfare, and people feel invisible. Like, for the past ten years, people have felt invisible because of the war on terror, primarily because it’sâ€”our foreign policy and war on terror have overshadowed everything else, everything positive as well as everything negative. It’s sort ofâ€”it’s always aboutâ€”whenever it’s about Pakistan, it’s always about terrorism. And a lot of people don’t want to understand the fact that they actually don’t care if the Americans want to go afterâ€”the Afghans and the Pakistanis are not cooperating, because a lot of them, and especially people on the streetâ€”if you ask them, you hear contrasting opinions. If you want to talk [to them about] the war on terror, they would say, we don’t have electricity at home, weâ€”there’s a lot of corruption, we don’t trust our government, we don’t have employment, we’re not happy with the state of affairs, and on top of that, when we get out of our house, we don’t feel safe anymore. So we’ve had enough of this. We think that it’s not working. So a majority of the people think that it’s not working. And I don’t think we can expect people to sort of care for warfare and to care that it’s a war tactic and this is what’s going to happen, because, again, I like to imply that they don’t understandâ€”they don’t understand this war.
And it’s been more complicated because the Pakistani government or the Pakistani intelligence agencies and the military has not been transparent at all. What you’re telling me is what the United States government has been saying to its people. It’s been very clear and very transparent with its people, saying that, look, we need to do drone strikes because of this, this, this; this is a valid threat. Well, that’s not what the Pakistani government has been saying. Every time there’s a drone strike, every time there is a protest, our prime minister or our president or the military spokesperson or [incompr.] spokesperson have said only one thing: we do not legitimize this; we don’t have anything to do with it; we don’t provide any intelligence for this; America is constantly interfering in our sovereignty, and we’re not going to put up with it. And then they do nothing about it. So what it does, it pushes people into a vicious cycle of helplessness and anti-Americanism. And you don’tâ€”you cannot expect them to discard what their military chief is saying and their prime minister or the president’s saying, and then the religious parties, and sort of go ahead and say, oh, no, we understand why the Americans are doing this.
JAY: Right. Now, when you look at the numbers, far, far more innocent people have been killed in these drone strikes than al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders. And for Americans, they shrug their shoulders and say, well, that’s collateral damage, that’s war. But I guess that’s what the Pakistani people don’t accept, that you can have so many innocent people killed in these strikes. Is that what the issue is?
SALEEM: Thatâ€”of course that is an issue as well. But, unfortunately, there hasn’t beenâ€”like, extra judicial killings, unfortunately, hasn’t been covered as much in the mainstream media as it is. More anger seems to be why is America interfering in our sovereignty. Like, it’sâ€”nobody has asked if the same has happened in Swat, because our army [incompr.] definitely there will be innocent life lost during war, so definitely [incompr.] in Swat. So majority of even the coverage in Pakistan hasn’t been that this many innocent civilians have been killed. It’s always like, oh, suspected terrorists or suspected militants have been killed, when it should be about extrajudicial killings. Yes, religious parties, though, have said that, you know, these are innocent people and this shouldn’t happen, but primarily (I’ll just be honest with you) it’s about why is America doing this, America shouldn’t be interfering and killing these people and [crosstalk]
JAY: So what do you think U.S. policy should be towards Pakistan?
SALEEM: Before pointing anything about U.S. policy, I would say that whatever the U.S. policy between Pakistan andâ€”you know, whatever the policy between Pakistan and United States is, it needs to be very, very transparent. It needs to beâ€”on paper it needs to be told to the people, because what we see now and what a majority feels is that we’re [incompr.] for dictations of America, that they don’t really trust us, that our soldiers are not fullyâ€”like, they’re not fully sold outâ€”I hate to use that word, but it’s not fully sold out to this war.
So do we have a strategy? We have no strategy. What America, I think, needs to do is push Pakistan, if they can, to build their own counterâ€”. We stillâ€”ten years, and we still do not have a counterterrorism strategy. So if you ask any defense analyst, if you were a third party observing it, anybody would conclude that it is a puppet war, because if a country that has its soldiers on the front of the line, those are dying, actively engaging with those militants on the ground, is fighting without a strategy, how [incompr.] that happening? And they also need toâ€”it’s like two selfish people together in one alliance. [incompr.] America, and it seems like, okay, we’re going to [conduct] drone strikes and wipe out all those Afghan Taliban because these are a real problem. And then there’s Pakistan that says, we’re going to go on ground and kill the Pakistani Taliban that are against the army because that’s our problem. And both these wars seem to be completely distant and different from each other. They don’t seem [crosstalk]
JAY: Okay. Just to be clear for people who don’t get the distinction, what we’re calling the Pakistani Taliban have as their main enemy the Pakistani state, and the Afghan Taliban have as their main objective taking power in Afghanistan. And you’re saying there’s two separate wars going on here.
SALEEM: It seems to the common people that there are two separate wars going on here. Even if you were to check, even if you were to sort of read into it, like you said, the drone strikes sort of work in favor of America, because American government believes that the Pakistani soldiers or the Pakistani army, despite going on the ground, is not really going after the Afghan Taliban. And at the same time, it’s the Pakistani government or the Pakistani military that says, these are the people who are a real threat, and we need to deal with them, so we’re dealing with them on the ground. So what Iâ€”before suggesting anything to the United States of America, I don’t know if I’m in a position to suggest something to them when my own government is not being wholly truthful to us.
There’s one thing. We need to be completely and totally transparent with our level of alliance with America. The military or the government needs to accept if it is in fact [incompr.] had legitimized these drone strikes, because if you ask a military spokesperson off the record, they would say that they find drone strikes pretty effective; they would say that these areas are not under their control and these areas are not areas where they can send their army, and it wouldn’t be beneficial for them, it would cause much more life loss for the army to go on the ground and do that. But they don’t say that in public.
So if we were to forge an alliance, and if you’re supposed to get to an end goal in this war without inflaming a lot of sentiment in Pakistan or without gettingâ€”you know, without worsening the situation and we need to put an end to it, we have to take people into confidence. And the Pakistani government essentially needs to stop treating its people like they’re ignorant or they won’t understand the complications involved in this war.
JAY: And would you say majority public opinion in Pakistan would like the U.S. just to get out of Afghanistan and out of this region in terms of directing things? Or is opinion more divided?
SALEEM: Definitely the opinion is divided. But the majority’s opinion seems to be that America needs to go and the Pakistan military needs to do its ownâ€”they need to fight their own war, and America needs to move out now. And I think a lot of Americans feel similar.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Sana. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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