art of resistance, Pakistan

Tariq Ali: The Duel (excerpt).

The following is an excerpt from Tariq Ali’s book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (published by Simon & Schuster).

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“Books have a destiny. This is my third study of Pakistan. The first, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?, was written in 1969 and predicted the breakup of the state. It was banned in Pakistan. Critics of every persuasion, even those who liked the book, thought it was going too far in suggesting that the state could disintegrate, but a few years later that is exactly what happened. Just over a decade later I wrote Can Pakistan Survive? The question mark was not unimportant but nonetheless struck a raw nerve in General Zia’s Pakistan, where to even pose the question was unacceptable. The general himself was extremely angry about its publication, as were sections of the bureaucracy, willing instruments of every despotism. Zia attacked both me and the book at a press conference in India, which was helpful and much appreciated by the publisher’s sales department. That book too was banned, but to my delight was shamelessly pirated in many editions in Pakistan. They don’t ban books anymore, or at least not recently, which is a relief and a small step forward.

When I left in 1963, the country consisted of West and East Pakistan. Eight years later the East defected and became Bangladesh. The population of the Western wing was then 40-45 million. It has grown phenomenally ever since and is now approaching the 200 million mark. The under-thirties constitute a majority.

This book centers on the long duel between a U.S.-backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country. In earlier years the State Department would provide the seconds for the duel, but with U.S. troops now in neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. bombs falling on homes inside Pakistan, the conflict is assuming a more direct form. Were it to proceed further, as some have been arguing in Washington, there is a distinct possibility that serious cracks would threaten the much-vaunted unity of the Pakistan military high command. The relationship with Washington, always controversial in the country, now threatens the Pakistan army. Political commentators in the United States together with a cabal of mimics in Pakistan regularly suggest that an Islamist revolution is incubating in a country that is seriously threatened by ‘jihadi terrorists.’ The only function of such a wild assertion is to invite a partial U.S. occupation and make the jihadi takeover a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The most important aspect of the duel is not the highly publicized conflict in Waziristan, but the divide between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers. This duel is often fought without weapons, sometimes in the mind, but it never goes away. An important reason for the deep hostility to the United States has little to do with religion, but is based on the knowledge that Washington has backed every military dictator who has squatted on top of the country. With Pakistan once again a strategic asset, the fear is that Washington will do so again, since it regards the military as the only functioning institution in the country, without showing any signs of comprehension as to why this is the case. This book might help in this regard.

What explains my continuing interest in Pakistan? I was born and educated there. Most of my family still lives there, and in periods when I haven’t been banned from entering the country, I visit regularly. I enjoy running into old friends and acquaintances, especially now that most of them have retired from important positions and can speak openly and laugh again. I never feel alone in Pakistan. Something of me stayed behind in the soil and the trees and the people so even in bad times I am welcome.

I love the mountains. At least they can’t be skyscrapered and forced to look like Dubai. Palm trees, Gulf kitsch, and the Himalayas don’t mix, not that it prevents some from trying. The cityscapes are something else. They have greatly changed over the years; new unplanned and poorly designed buildings have wrecked most of the larger towns. In Islamabad, the capital, one of the U.S. architects who built the city in the late sixties, Edward Stone, was unhappy with the site because it sat on a geological fault line and had weak soil. He advised that no building higher than three stories should ever be built there. He was ignored by the military dictator of the day. When a massive earthquake hit the country in 2005, buildings trembled all over Islamabad. I was there during the aftershocks, which were bad enough.

It was not only the earthquake that hurt Pakistan. This latest tragedy brought other wounds to the surface. A deeper and darker malaise, barely noticed by the elite and taken for granted by most citizens, had infected the country and was now publicly visible. The earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people shone a light on a country tainted by corrupted bureaucrats, army officers, and politicians, by governments rotten to the core, by protected mafias, and by the bloated profits of the heroin industry and the arms trade. Add to this the brutal hypocrisy of the Islamist parties, which exploit the state religion, and the picture is complete. Many ordinary people on the street, unsurprised by tales of privilege and graft, viewed the disaster in this context. At a state school in Lahore, students collecting toys for the children who’d survived the tragedy were asked whom they would like to address them. They voted unanimously against any politician, army officer, or civilian bureaucrat. They wanted a doctor.

None of this, of course, explains the urge to keep writing about a country. The reason is simple. However much I despise the callousness, corruption, and narcissism of a degenerate ruling elite, I have never allowed that to define my attitude toward the country. I have always harbored a deep respect and affection for the common people, whose instincts and intelligence, despite high levels of illiteracy, consistently display a much sounder appreciation of what the country requires than those who have lorded it over them since 1947. Any independent-minded Pakistani journalist or writer will confirm this view.

The people cannot be blamed for the tragedies that have afflicted their country. They are not to blame for the spirit of hopelessness and inescapable bondage that sometimes overcomes them. The surprise is that more of them don’t turn to extremist religious groups, but they have generally remained stubbornly aloof from all that, which is highlighted in every election, including the latest, held in February 2008. Given the chance, they vote in large majorities for those who promise social change and reforms and against those in power. They are always disappointed.

Colin Robinson, my long-standing editor, first at Verso, later at the New Press, and now at Scribner, was strongly convinced that I should write this book long before I was. His persistence paid off. His instincts were better than mine. As I was working on the book, Mary-Kay Wilmers, stern janitor of the London Review of Books, plucked a lengthy extract from the work-in-progress on Benazir Bhutto’s return home. It was, as readers will discover, sharply critical. Two weeks after I delivered it, as I was working on this manuscript, Bhutto was assassinated. Sentiment dictated I soften the prose, but despite my sadness and anger at her death, I resisted. As the German writer Lessing once remarked, ‘The man who presents truth in all sorts of masks and disguises may be her pander, but never her lover.’ And truth usually visits Pakistan in whispers. We owe it to the people to speak our minds. The death of Benazir, whom I knew well over many years, was undoubtedly tragic. But not sufficient reason to change my assessment. That she handed over her party to her husband till her son came of age was a sad reflection on the state of democratic politics in Pakistan and confirmed my judgment. The country needs a break from uniforms and dynasties.

My thanks are due to numerous people in Pakistan from all walks of life, from peasants and trade unionists to generals, civil servants, and old friends, who spoke without inhibition during my trips over the last few years. Naming them would not necessarily be construed as friendly. Thanks also, as always, to Susan Watkins, my companion for almost three decades, a friendly but firm editor of the New Left Review, as many contributors (myself included) have discovered.

When I began to write this book a London friend asked, ‘Isn’t it reckless to start a book while the dice is still in the air?’ If I waited for the dice to fall, I would never have written anything on Pakistan.”

• • •

For more on this book, go to Simon & Schuster.

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Yemen

Another One Bites The Dust: Yemen in Crisis.

Yemen is finally getting some media attention. The country is falling apart. One of the most beautiful countries in the world is falling apart (when it comes to beauty of the nature and architecture – Yemen is the shining jewel). Photos by the great Steve McCurry (throughout this post) are here to remind us of that beauty.

Yemen was for centuries the center of civilization and wealth on the Arabian peninsula. The Romans referred to the area as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia.” Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes in Yemen: The Unknown Arabia: “Yemen…had something of a Dictionary Land about it: as well as the talking hoopoes and dambusting rodents, men chewed leaves and camels lived on fish; they (the men) wore pinstriped lounge-suit jackets on top, skirt below, and wicked curved daggers in the middle; the cities seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread; Yemen was part of Arabia but the landscape looked like… well, nowhere else on Earth.”

00014_18.adj, Hajjah, Yemen, 1999, final print_milan

Unfortunately, Yemen is now not in the news because of its beauty. This week, Saudi Arabia and other regional allies launched a military campaign in Yemen targeting Houthi rebels. The Saudi-led airstrikes are intended to thwart the Houthis’ advance after seizing control of the capital Sana’a last year and deposing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi last month. Hadi called for international intervention on his behalf earlier this week. There are conflicting reports over his whereabouts as Houthis advance on his outpost of Aden. Unconfirmed statements say Hadi has fled Yemen by boat. The Houthi-run Health Ministry says the strikes have killed at least 20 civilians in Sana’a and wounded 30 others. The Saudi government says it has consulted “very closely” with the White House on its military campaign.

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In an apparent reference to Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the operation aimed to counter the “aggression of Houthi militias backed by regional powers.” Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that the kingdom was contributing one hundred warplanes to operation Storm of Resolve and more than eighty were provided by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.

This week, Democracy Now! hosted a discussion with Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. When asked how this crisis ocurred, Craig said it was something like  “a car crash in slow motion, to watch it.

She continued to say: “This has come after the Arab Spring in 2011. When Ali Abdullah Saleh signed over power, he was granted immunity from that point, and he was allowed to stay in Yemen. And so, he was allowed to still continue in politics, really, and keep manipulating as he always had done, but from then on from the side. And really, this was—then seemed to be a plan of action then to use the Houthis as a way of almost getting revenge against Islah, Yemen’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood, and creating this scenario that we are now in, in Yemen. And Hadi has been forced into a corner as a result of all of this. So it’s really as a result of events after the Arab Spring and the transition deal that was then signed, that didn’t address the grievances of the Houthis or the Southern Movement and others. And despite the international community pushing on with the transition, it was almost inevitable that this was going to come to a head at some point.

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Last week, a prominent Yemeni journalist, Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani, was assassinated in the capital Sana’a. He was reportedly shot dead near his home by gunmen riding a motorbike. “He was a Houthi supporter and activist, but he was much more than that… A very outspoken voice for a long, long time against the old regime and against Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for his assassination, but, really, it’s got to be viewed as a politically motivated assassination“, Craig said.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 before heading the united republic, has over the years spent most of his political capital consolidating his position rather than knitting together a stable state. In 2012, the Yemeni parliament passed a law that granted Saleh immunity from being prosecuted and he left Yemen for treatment in the United States. Saleh stepped down and formally ceded power to his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Saleh came back to Yemen after his treatment in the USA and continued his manipulative politics. All in all – poverty, corruption and the hopelessly weak rule of law form the backdrop to al-Qaeda’s entry into Yemen.

Last year, Vice News took a look at how Yemen’s embattled government is dealing with sectarian rivalries, CIA drone strikes, and one of al Qaeda’s most sophisticated branches. Here’s the video Yemen: A Failed State.

I truly hope there is a way for Yemen, its people, its natural beauty, its architecture and rich history – to stay safe, to stay in one piece.

/all photos © Steve McCurry/

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Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Under The Spell of Opium.

Afghanistan has had opium issues for many years now (the country is the leading opium supplier in the world). In a society disrupted by ongoing conflicts, where more than eighty percent of citizens are farmers, opium has been the only possible getaway for many people – for those producing it – it was a getaway from starvation, and for those consuming it – it was a getaway from the depressing reality. Afghanistan’s economy has thus evolved to the point where it is now highly dependent on opium, just like its people are.

NYC59855/Badakshan province. A farmer collects poppies. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

In the 2014 Afghanistan Opium Survey (UNODC & Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics), there are several key findings:

The vast majority (89%) of opium cultivation took place in nine provinces in Afghanistan’s Southern and Western regions, which include the country’s most insecure provinces. The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares in 2014, a 7% increase from 2013.  Average opium yield amounted to 28.7 kilograms per hectare in 2014, which was 9% more than in 2013 (26.3 kilograms per hectare), and potential opium production was estimated at 6,400 tons.

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Eradication efforts have forced many poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. To many of them, opium is the only way of securing annual income, only way to survive. That is the way they have been living for many years. War has a lot to do with it, of course. War has everything to do with it, acutally. Since the 1979 Soviet invasion and the insecurity that came with it, opium poppy cultivation became the core of Afghanistan’s agricultural economy. Afghanistan overtook Myanmar as top producer of illicit opium in 1991, and the cultivation has been increasing ever since (with short downfall periods – after 2008, eradication efforts, as well as a cash incentive program for provinces that eradicated all opium poppy crops, helped reduce cultivation drastically through 2010).

NYC59778/Nangahar province. Women and children stand in a corner as DEA and Afghan interdiction troops assault a village hiding chemicals and drugs. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

Incapable and corrupt government does not make it easier for the farmers. The provinces that are poppy-free receive $1 million awards from the American Embassy, paid directly to the governor’s office. It is not known how that money is divided among people, or what is done for the people with it. Many farmers continue cultivating in new places, in the deep jungle of the countryside.

In the provinces that are not poppy-free, farmers are just angry and sick of promises – many of them are promised wheat seeds and fertilizers to start a new cultivation business, but most of them were never given any, the same way the USAID money (and other aid money) often goes to suspicious places and projects that are never carried out.

hsod/photo via UNODC/

Afghanistan is a country still broken in many ways, and it seems that the only thing it is good at is producing opium. Afghanistan could become a true narco-state. In an article ‘Can Afghanistan Win The War Against Opium?‘ (February 2011 National Geographic), veteran Afghan law enforcement official said: “Afghanistan is controlled by the drug mafia. How else do you think those people in the government with their low-paying salaries bought their fancy houses in Dubai and the U.S. in the past few years?”

Another issue concerning opium is the addiction – around ten percent of Afghans are addicted to drugs, often opium or herion. They rarely receive drug treatments, because there are not many rehabilitation programs, and if there are – they are underfunded.

NYC59824/A poster warning against the use of opium. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

The overall situation in Afghanistan could be described with one line from Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater: “I take it for granted, that those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.”

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