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2009-01-30

Obama Continues Bush Policy of Deadly Air Strikes in Pakistan

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Sahar Shafqat, Pakistani activist and scholar specializing in comparative politics, associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

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In Pakistan, outrage continues to mount over a US military attack approved by President Obama. Last Friday, unmanned US Predator drones fired missiles at houses in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, killing as many as twenty-two people, including at least three children. We speak to Pakistani scholar Sahar Shafqat. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Pakistan, where outrage continues to mount over the US military’s first act of war approved by President Obama. Last Friday, unmanned US Predator drones fired missiles at houses in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, killing as many as twenty-two people, including at least three children.

The United States has carried out thirty such drone attacks on alleged al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistani territory since last summer, killing some 250 people, according to a tally by Reuters.

The Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday that US drone attacks were "counterproductive" and ended up uniting local communities with militants. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that such strikes will continue and that Pakistani officials are aware of US policy on this matter.

    ROBERT GATES: Both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al-Qaeda wherever al-Qaeda is, and we will continue to pursue them.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Has that decision been transmitted to the Pakistan government?

    ROBERT GATES: Yes, sir.

AMY GOODMAN: Pakistani officials, however, deny there’s any agreement with the United States to secretly allow drone attacks inside Pakistan. Defense Secretary Gates’s comments on the missile attacks were the first to publicly acknowledge the strikes since last Friday. This is an excerpt of last Friday’s White House press briefing with, well, the new press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

    REPORTER: And other US officials have confirmed these Predator drone air strikes, Pakistan. What is it about cannot confirming whether the President was consulted —

    ROBERT GIBBS: I’m not going to get into these matters.

    REPORTER: How does that compromise operational security?

    ROBERT GIBBS: I’m not going to get into these matters.

    REPORTER: Don’t you think it’s justifiable curiosity, Robert, about the President’s first military action —

    ROBERT GIBBS: I think there are many things that you should be justifiably curious about, but I’m not going to get into talking about —

    REPORTER: If other members of the US government are confirming this, why is it that you can’t comment?

    ROBERT GIBBS: I’m not going to get into these matters.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Joseph Biden also refused to comment Sunday as to whether the United States would notify Pakistan before sending forces into their territory. He was on CBS’s Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Last week, an American drone apparently attacked an al-Qaeda force, or what they thought was an al-Qaeda force, in the territorial part of Pakistan, a cross-border operation. It’s my understanding that the President, the previous president, gave our US forces and the CIA permission to go across that border, to go after al-Qaeda if it became necessary on the ground. Does President Obama — will he continue that policy?

    VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Bob, as you know, I can’t speak to any particular attack. I can’t speak to any particular action. It’s not appropriate for me to do that.

    But I can say that the President of the United States said during his campaign and in the debates that if there is an actionable target of a high-level al-Qaeda personnel, that he would not hesitate to use action to deal with that.

    But here’s the good news. The good news is that in my last trip — and I’ve been to Pakistan many times and that region many times — there is a great deal more cooperation going on now between the Pakistan military in an area called the FATA, the Federally Administered Territory — Waziristan, North Waziristan — all that area we hear about, that is really sort of ungovernable — not sort of, it’s been ungovernable for the Pakistani government. That’s where the bad guys are hiding. That’s where the al-Qaeda folks are, and some other malcontents.

    And so, what we’re doing is we’re in the process of working with the Pakistanis to help train up their counterinsurgency capability of their military, and we’re getting new agreements with them about how to deal with cross-border movements of these folks. So we’re making progress.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Would you have notified them before any of these cross-border movements, because, as you well know, there is a fear that there would be leaks on something like that, and there might be a temptation not to? Exactly what is our policy on that?

    VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: I always try to be completely candid with you, but I can’t respond to that question. I’m not going to respond to that question.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: You’re not going to respond to that question.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Biden, being interviewed by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back from break, we’ll speak with a Pakistani activist and scholar about the first military attack in the Obama administration, the unmanned drone attack in Pakistan. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, prepares to head to the region next week, I’m joined now here in the firehouse studio by Pakistani political scientist Sahar Shafqat.
Welcome to Democracy Now!

SAHAR SHAFQAT: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. What about this unmanned drone attack? Where did it happen? What about the denials, on both sides, of US-Pakistani cooperation?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: The attacks happened in FATA, which is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It’s this no man’s land, literally, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, colonial-era sort of administrative region.

The denials, I think, are part of this drama that is sort of in mutually agreed-upon play that both the US and Pakistan are engaged in, which is the US is going to engage —- carry out these drone attacks; the Pakistani government will deny that they had any knowledge and will express outrage for domestic consumption.

But they’re very deeply unpopular, and I should add that they have caused a humanitarian crisis within Pakistan. In Bajaur, for example, it’s estimated that about 300,000 people have fled the region, which is about half the population there. And it’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where that region is.

SAHAR SHAFQAT: That is in part of FATA, which is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Bajaur is one of the agencies within that.

AMY GOODMAN: Right next to Afghanistan.

SAHAR SHAFQAT: Right next to Afghanistan, yes. It’s a series of about ten or eleven different agencies within this — what Vice President Biden called the no man’s land, this ungovernable land. It’s supposed to have autonomy. And this has been, as I said, a colonial-era legacy, which successive Pakistani governments have more or less respected. This, of course, changed dramatically after 9/11, when the Pakistani government was forced to intervene, because Taliban and al-Qaeda had fled there from Afghanistan, so — which was a radical change in policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, this latest attack, what do you know about it? We have learned so far that something like twenty-two people were killed, three of them children.

SAHAR SHAFQAT: I don’t know much more than that, much more than what you know. But I will also add that it’s disappointing, from my perspective, and I think from Pakistanis’ perspective, that the new administration, which clearly has recognized that there were terrible mistakes made in the Bush era that have to be now sort of corrected with policy changes, has refused to acknowledge that there were serious mistakes that have been made in the US policy towards Pakistan and has in fact made clearly a decision to continue US policy towards Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of Richard Holbrooke, who’s headed to the region now?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: Richard Holbrooke, I think — I mean, there are many sort of reasons to object to his involvement, which, you know, sort of pertain to his past, but I do want to point out one additional thing, which is that he has been named the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Originally, he was supposed to be named envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The Indian government lobbied very fiercely to have that designation removed, because they did not want to be lumped in with Afghanistan and Pakistan. And that, from my view, is unfortunate, because, you know, throughout, for example, Obama’s campaign, he noted that the solution to the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan must involve some kind of solution between India and Pakistan, as well, that India is part of this equation. And I agree with that. And so, it’s disappointing that the sort of official designation for Richard Holbrooke is not going to include India at all in this equation.

AMY GOODMAN: The level of support for President Obama before he became president and now?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: In Pakistan? He was definitely more popular before the attacks on Friday, a week ago. And, in fact, the prime minister of Pakistan had more or less guaranteed to the Pakistani public that when President Obama comes into office, these drone attacks are going to stop. So he has, of course, been extremely embarrassed by this action, and there have already been mass protests against US bombing. And I think a lot of disillusionment has set in, because there were hopes that there would be some kind of policy correction, policy change, and that appears to not be the case at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Sahar Shafqat, what about the attacks on Mumbai and the links to Pakistan?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: Well, you know, again, none of that investigation has been made public, so I can only speculate on who exactly was involved. But to the best of our knowledge, we — I think it’s safe to say that, somehow or the other, the Pakistani security establishment was involved, either indirectly or directly or even through sort of — in a way of having knowledge of it and letting it happen. And again, this —

AMY GOODMAN: What makes you say that?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: You know, the groups that have been alleged to be involved are creations of ISI, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliated social group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. And just as an example of how the security establishment tends to patronize and help out these groups, when the Jamaat-ud-Dawa was declared by the United Nations as a terrorist organization, the government took a few days to sort of act, and when they eventually seized the assets of this group, they discovered, lo and behold, that all the money had been taken out of the accounts. I don’t think this was an accident. I think this was an opportunity given to this group to sort of, you know, clear out its money and regroup eventually. Unfortunately, the ISI and other security, you know, agencies in Pakistan have always worked against the interests of the people of Pakistan, and I think this is another instance in which they, again, either directly or indirectly have done that.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan, where it is now under Zardari, the husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto?

SAHAR SHAFQAT: The lawyers’ movement is the most hopeful development in Pakistan in the last, I would say, probably couple of decades. Unfortunately, the movement has been weakened since the civilian government took office almost a year ago. And I should note that the United States has remained sort of steadfastly against the restoration of the judiciary and especially of the chief justice. My hope is that now that we have a former constitutional expert as the new US president, that he will see the importance of maintaining the rule of law and of restoring the judiciary.

The latest announcement by the lawyers’ movement leadership is that there will be a long march on March 9th and that there will be a sit-in until the judiciary is restored, until the chief justice is restored. And most recently, one of the major opposition party leaders, Nawaz Sharif, announced that he is going to participate and support this long march fully.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Sahar Shafqat, Pakistani activist and scholar. She specializes in comparative politics, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

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