Pakistani paramilitary forces have begun a fourth day of assaults on suspected Taliban sites in the northwest region of the country. The offensive marks the first major Pakistani offensive against Taliban fighters in the Khyber region and the first major military operation since Pakistan’s new government came to power in March. We speak with journalist and author David Barsamian. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Pakistan. Paramilitary forces have begun a fourth day of assaults on suspected Taliban sites in the northwest region of the country. Troops from the Frontier Corps, bolstered by tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters, battled militants from the mountainous Khyber tribal area just outside Peshawar. It marks the first major Pakistani offensive against Taliban fighters in the Khyber region and the first major military operation since Pakistan’s new government came to power in March. The offensive comes as US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, arrived in Pakistan for talks with the government.
David Barsamian is the founder and host of Alternative Radio
, an independent, award-winnings weekly broadcast based in Boulder, Colorado. He’s spent extensive time reporting from abroad, traveling in India, Pakistan and Iran in the past year. His latest books include Targeting Iran and What We Say Goes. He joins me here in Denver.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Welcome to Colorado.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be here, David. Talk about the fighting. What should we understand about what’s happening in northwest Pakistan?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, it’s significant that Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher is in Islamabad right now, essentially giving orders to the Pakistani government: we pay, you obey. And the US has been pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan over the last six, seven years. Most of that money has been going to the Pakistani military. This current operation, I believe, is going to set off a tremendous internal conflict inside of Pakistan, already a deeply conflicted society, because many Pakistanis believe that the so-called war on terror is a war on Muslims, it’s a war on Islam, and why should Pakistanis be killing other Pakistanis to carry out a US agenda? I think one thing that’s important for listeners and viewers to understand is that there’s a tremendous sense of humiliation in Pakistan over how they’re being treated in a very condescending way. It’s almost like the godfather giving orders. You know, you do this, as I said, we pay the bills. You, you know, march to our command. And that has created a lot of backlash inside the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us a brief thumbnail history of Pakistan?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Brief thumbnail history. Very brief. Well, since its inception in 1947, it has essentially been a US dependency.
AMY GOODMAN: How was Pakistan born as an independent nation?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Pakistan was created out of the division of British India in 1947 into two states, a largely Hindu-dominated India and a largely Muslim-dominated state of Pakistan. Almost immediately from its inception, Pakistan is drawn into the network of US power. It’s recruited to be part of CTO, CENTO, the Baghdad Pact. Pakistani military officers are brought to the United States. It was the classic Latin American model, now applied to South Asia. Historically, the US has always allied itself with militaries in Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean, and now this was being expanded globally, and specifically to Pakistan. So what this has meant for Pakistan as a country is that the military has been highly privileged. It has been foreground because of US attention and intention. It has been, you know, lavishly supplied with money and with arms. And at the same time, this has created real fissures in civil society, which hasn’t developed along so-called normal lines, whatever that might be.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Barsamian, who’s a broadcaster, author, journalist. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, what’s happening today?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, first of all, it’s a 2,500-kilometer-long border. Americans have some sense of how difficult it is to control the border along with Mexico. There is — you know, there are various Taliban movements. The Taliban, which means the students, were actually created by the Pakistani ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, probably the most powerful and secretive organization operating inside of Pakistan. This is all an outgrowth, incidentally — again, that context and background, which is so sorely missing in most reporting — of the great jihad of the 1980s, when the US brought militants from all over the Islamic world. I remember Eqbal Ahmed telling me once that he saw planeloads and planeloads of these jihadis being brought in from Yemen, from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from Algeria, to fight against the Soviet Union. Well, you know that actions have consequences. And many of the Taliban today, and al-Qaeda, as well, are not just the actual members from that period, but their sons and grandsons are now fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: And the US approach right now to Iran, how does it affect that whole region? How does it affect Pakistan?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Pakistan has a long border with Iran in Baluchistan. When I was in Iran last year, formations across the border from Pakistan blew up a bus, killing more than twenty Iranians. There has been in Pakistani Baluchistan a longstanding resistance to control in Islamabad. There has been an independence movement there. Sy Hersh and others have reported — and I think with credibility — that the US has been funding groups inside of Baluchistan to cross over into Iran, neighboring Iran, to try to create incidents and destabilize the regime in Tehran. Pakistanis have very close affinity with Iran, and any US military action on Iran, I think, will again produce an enormous amount of resentment and already fuel what is called anti-American hatred. This is a little more subtle and complicated than that.
AMY GOODMAN: The food riots, David Barsamian, that we’ve been seeing around the world and the escalating cost of food, how are they playing out in Pakistan now?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: There’s an acute shortage of atta, which is flour, which is the staple of the Pakistani diet. There are acute shortages of electricity, drinking water, water for irrigation. There’s an enormous amount of dislocation and dysfunctioning inside of the Pakistani economic system. And this economic system cannot be understood unless we talk about the role of the army inside of the economy. It’s quite astonishing to learn and to know that the penetration of the Pakistani army as an economic institution into all facets of life in that country is truly breathtaking, from banks, from strip malls, from housing estates. There’s twenty-two feudal families that have a great deal of land in the country. And I kind of make this quip, you know, quoting the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, that if you want to understand Pakistan, well, 50 percent of the country is controlled by these twenty-two feudal families, and the other 90 percent is controlled by the military.
AMY GOODMAN: And how Pervez Musharraf has remained in power as long as he has, as unpopular as he has?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: He is intensely disliked. Yet, nevertheless, he commands the respect and friendship of George W. Bush. The US has backed Musharraf consistently since he overthrew Nawaz Sharif in a military coup d’état in 1999. Billions of dollars have gone into Pakistan, but the Pakistani people have not seen any of that money. It’s all gone into the military sector. And so, again, this has created enormous imbalances inside the country and a huge amount of resentment toward the United States by most Pakistanis, who feel the country is being manipulated, that they don’t exist. American policymakers don’t see Pakistanis as a people; they just see them as an instrument to further the US agenda in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Pervez Musharraf and the United States, Benazir Bhutto, the investigation of her death and how she came back to Pakistan — put that all together for us, as Richard Boucher is in Pakistan today.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to '91, and then a second term from ’93 to ’96. Both of her terms were marked by an enormous amount of corruption, particularly involving her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the titular head of the Pakistan Peoples Party. One of the internal problems in Pakistan is that the political parties have basically been family-run businesses. They haven't really existed as parts of, you know, a much larger organization, and this is exemplified by Benazir Bhutto, who declared herself chairperson for life. And then, when she was assassinated on the 27th of December in 2007, she — you know, in her will, she bequeathed the party to her son. And until her son matures — he’s now twenty years old — the party will be run by Asif Ali Zardari. So Pakistan has had a deeply problematic political system, again, from its very origins. And the military has had paramountcy, it has primacy within the political system. It’s been very influential.
AMY GOODMAN: And how the US relationship with Musharraf has affected the hunt for Osama bin Laden?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, I think one of the reasons that there’s been so much pressure from Washington right now on the Pakistani military is time is running out on Bush. And I think one of the things that he and Cheney may be thinking to save their presidency is to somehow, you know, find and kill Zawahiri and/or bin Laden. This would somehow recuperate or recover, you know, the enormous, ignominious record that they’ve managed to compile over the last seven or eight years.
One of the things that Benazir Bhutto agreed to in a deal brokered by the Americans for her to return to Pakistan — you’ll recall that she was in exile for eight or nine years — one of the components of that was Benazir Bhutto was going to allow US troops to openly operate inside of Pakistan. They had been doing so clandestinely for a number of years. There have been drone attacks. There have been sightings of US military personnel inside the country, and particularly in the contested so-called tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Now the war is coming closer to Peshawar, which is a city of three million. It’s the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. There’s a garrison of some fifty to sixty thousand Pakistani troops there. But the Pakistani military, large segments of it, have no stomach for this fight. They are highly demoralized. And they — you know, they have historically been more concerned about India and the threat posed from India in terms of Pakistan’s viability.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Obama’s comments about the bombing of Pakistan unilaterally, if Pakistan wasn’t dealing with high-level targets that the US knew were there?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Widely commented upon and widely deplored throughout Pakistan. Again, the kind of infringement of Pakistani sovereignty that so rankles, you know, average people in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: David Barsamian, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author, journalist, founder and director of the weekly internationally syndicated broadcast Alternative Radio, which is based right next door to us in Denver. It’s in Boulder, Colorado. He has co-authored more than a dozen books, including several collections of interviews with Noam Chomsky — his latest, What We Say Goes and Targeting Iran.