Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has become a virtual war zone, thanks to the US-led war in Afghanistan that has now engulfed Pakistan’s tribal areas as well. On November 18, two American missiles struck the village of Janikhel near Bannu, a settled area, killing several people. The US war had already spilled over into Pakistani cities and towns, especially the capital Islamabad. This has caused serious security and safety problems for Pakistanis. The economic crisis — lack of food, fuel and electricity and the resultant skyrocketing prices — together with stifling pollution were bad enough; kidnappings have now become so common that people are afraid to venture out. While the Taliban and their sympathizers battle government forces with truck bombs and “suicide” attacks, criminal gangs disguised as Taliban have taken to kidnapping people for ransom.
Often, it is difficult to tell who is doing what. On November 13, gunmen kidnapped the Iranian Commercial attaché at the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, Heshmatollah Atharzadeh, as he was driving in Peshawar’s upper class locality of Hayatabad. His driver was killed. The following day, two Japanese journalists were injured. Rehman Malik, head of Pakistan’s internal security, blamed the local Taliban for the Iranian diplomat’s kidnapping. On September 22, the Afghan ambassador-designate to Pakistan, Abdul Khaleq Farahi, who was until then Afghan Consul General in Peshawar, was kidnapped in the same area. These have not been the only attacks or kidnappings. In October, the UN asked its non-Pakistani staff to move their families out of the country. The British High Commission has done the same amid an announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross declaring Pakistan a new war zone.
Following a series of blasts at his rallies and home, Asfandyar Wali, head of the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) in the province, fled his village and sought refuge first in Islamabad and then in England. He has since returned but settled in Islamabad in a high security area called the “Red zone” that has been compared to Baghdad’s Green zone. Roads in Pakistan are now so unsafe that most people do not travel on them even during the day for fear of being kidnapped. In many such cases, government operatives themselves are involved.
A kidnapping case at the end of October from Dargai village and how it ended sheds light on the situation. A lecturer at a local college was kidnapped and his car hijacked in broad daylight; the kidnappers demanded a huge ransom for his release. Instead of paying the ransom, villagers gathered in the local mosque and after much discussion, decided to issue an ultimatum to the government: they would blockade the main road through their town to all traffic the next morning; the kidnapped lecturer and his car must be produced within two hours of the start of the blockade or they would attack the nearby village of Skhakot whose leaders are notorious for kidnapping people. Before the ultimatum expired, a subedar (non-commissioned army officer) produced the kidnapped lecturer as well as his car. How did the army know about the whereabouts of the lecturer? There have been other instances in which town nazims (elected local officials) are also involved in taking a cut from the ransom paid for the release of kidnapped individuals.
Such lawlessness is the direct result of the US war in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan. Taking no notice of Pakistani protests, the Americans continue to bomb the tribal areas of Pakistan killing scores of civilians. On November 14, for instance, another missile attack killed a dozen civilians in South Waziristan. The US’s brazen disregard for other countries’ sovereignty and the Pakistani elites’ cowardice are the primary reasons why the masses hate the Americans and their own rulers so much. A few days after Barack Obama’s electoral victory, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gailani announced that he would appeal to the US president-elect to halt attacks on Pakistani territory once he assumed office. Most people interpreted this to mean that until then (January 20, 2009), the Americans were free to attack Pakistan.
There is a widespread feeling in the country that Pakistani protestations are meant only for public consumption. In an article on November 4, 2008 titled, “A Quiet deal with Pakistan”, David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote, “Pakistan is publicly complaining about U.S. airstrikes. But the country’s new chief of intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, visited Washington last week for talks with America’s top military and spy chiefs, and everyone seemed to come away smiling.” Ignatius further wrote that under the deal while the Pakistanis would make loud noises to assuage public anger the Americans would continue with their murderous attacks.
This has also been confirmed by the months-long campaign in Bajaur, the area that borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Pakistani forces are using planes, helicopters and tanks to attack civilians. According to the military’s own account, more than 1,500 civilians — the military insists on calling them “militants” — have been killed. At least 400,000 people, mostly women and children, have been forced to flee their homes and are now living in refugee camps in Peshawar and the surrounding areas. In an ironic twist, the refugees from Bajaur are living in the same camp — Katcha Garhi — that was home to several hundred thousand Afghan refugees for 28 years. The Afghans were forcibly evicted from Katcha Garhi in May and June. This appeared to have been part of a preplanned move for the assault on Bajaur under US pressure. The Americans were unable to take control of Kunar province in Afghan-istan where Gulbud-din Hikmatyar’s fighters are dug in; so they want to enter the province from the Pakistani side, hence the Bajaur operation.
According to Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the US’s war on terror has cost the country $35 billion. The Americans tout the $10 billion given to Pakistan over the last seven years and insist that Islamabad must do more but the Pakistani rulers are in no position to stand up to them. The new civilian dispensation is no different from the military regime that preceded it. Pakistan’s situation has become even more precarious since the government changeover; the precipitous decline in its foreign exchange reserves from nearly $18 billion to mere $6 billion means it has reserves only for two weeks’ imports. President Asif Ali Zardari has been scurrying to various capitals in hopes of raising another $5 billion to prevent Pakistan’s defaulting on interest payments on loans. He has had little success. Pakistan is thus forced to seek additional help from the International Monetary Fund that comes with repressive conditions further compounding the problems of ordinary people. The twin problems of American pressure and the dire economic straits have left Pakistan extremely vulnerable. This grim situation has emerged as a direct result of the incompetence of Pakistani rulers and their subservience to the US. Attacking their own people is part of the price they must pay.
Facing no resistance from Pakistani rulers, the Americans have become even more brazen: they go in and out of Pakistan as if they own it. Perhaps they do, when Pakistan’s rulers are so spineless. Soon after assuming charge of Central Command (Centcom), General David Petraeus’s first port of call was Islamabad where he arrived on November 3 accompanied by Richard Boucher, Washington’s pointman for Pakistan. The Americans’ ostensible purpose was to meet and discuss with Pakistani officials the ongoing “war on terror” but in reality they came to issue fresh instructions. They met all the top officials: President Zardari, army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar.
After the meetings, press releases on behalf of Zardari and the defence minister made the usual points: America’s violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by carrying out attacks were not helpful and creating a “problem of credibility” for the democratically elected government. What credibility? Two days before Petraeus’s arrival, the Americans had carried out yet another drone attack in South Waziristan. Killing Pakistani civilians is something the Americans are good at; they have already killed more than 100,000 civilians in Afghanistan in the name of freedom. Pakistan is also on the verge of being “liberated” — heaven knows from what since their agents are in power all the way down to the local police station. The drone and missile attacks continue with clockwork regularity.
The Americans are involved in even more sinister activities in Pakistan. Islamabad has already given them land near Tarbela where the Americans are setting up a military base to train Pakistani soldiers in counter-insurgency operations against its own people. This is another fine example of protecting Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Americans are digging deep tunnels to store equipment and ammunition. There is concern that in the event of an accident — and it cannot be discounted — it would seriously jeopardize the Tarbela Dam and may even lead to catastrophe in Pakistan if the dam were breached or damaged.
Pakistani rulers, however, are in no position to refuse the demands of the Americans — their real masters — no matter how detrimental these may be to Pakistan’s interests.