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Tariq Ali on a People’s Victory in Pakistan, Obama’s Escalation of Afghanistan War, and 6 Years of US Occupation in Iraq

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Pakistani British author Tariq Ali, author of the The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, reacts to the Pakistani government’s reinstatement of dismissed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry following massive public outcry. Ali also talks about what he calls President Obama’s “inexplicable” expansion of the US occupation of Afghanistan and reflects on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: After days of protests and several incidents of police brutality and the holding of key figures in preventive detention, the Pakistani government backed down and announced Monday the decision to reinstate the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been deposed two years ago under General Musharraf.

The streets were filled with thousands of supporters of the chief justice. They were led by the lawyers’ movement, as well as opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif had broken free from house arrest on Sunday and had threatened a mass protest. They were in the midst of a “long march” to the capital, where they planned to stage a sit-in until the chief justice was restored, when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made the announcement on national television early Monday morning.

    PRIME MINISTER YOUSAF RAZA GILANI: [translated] On behalf of the President of Pakistan and myself, I announce the restoration of all deposed judges to their positions, including Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. On March 21st, upon the retirement of Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, Chief Justice Chaudhry will assume the office of chief justice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Prime Minister Gilani’s announcement led to jubilation across Pakistan, and lawyers and activists danced in the streets as Nawaz Sharif called off the planned protests.

US officials said Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had telephoned both President Asif Ali Zardari and his rival Nawaz Sharif to defuse the deepening crisis and reportedly warned them that US aid could be at risk if the political turmoil continued. The Army’s Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, is also reported to have met with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to urge a solution.

On Sunday, as Nawaz Sharif was heading to the capital, his supporters voiced their anger at the Zardari government.

    HAFIZ BASHARAT: [translated] God willing, this long march will shake the palaces of Islamabad. These voices will be reaching Zardari, and he, himself, will be watching it. Every Pakistani is loudly saying into his ear, “Go, Zardari! Go!”

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times reports President Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan beyond the tribal areas and deep into Baluchistan, around the area, the city, of Quetta.

To discuss all this and more, we’re joined now in our firehouse studio by the veteran journalist, activist, Pakistani British writer, Tariq Ali, born in Lahore, Pakistan, lives in London, written over a dozen books, frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the London Review of Books, on the editorial board of the New Left Review. His latest book, called The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TARIQ ALI: Hi, Amy. Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this US war that is not exactly declared, not at all declared, on Pakistan.

TARIQ ALI: You know, what is quite staggering is that in order to sustain the occupation of Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people, the United States is now seriously considering destabilizing Pakistan, which is a country of 175 million people. And they don’t seem to understand that if they destabilize this country and if the Pakistani military begins to crack up and split, what we are seeing in Afghanistan will be absolutely nothing compared to what could happen in Pakistan. It’s a very serious business.

And it’s incredible that the Obama administration is going ahead with this, or appears to be going ahead with this, without any serious consideration of what the consequences are going to be in Pakistan. I mean, they imagine that the main problem in Pakistan is terrorism. That is their obsession. Well, this is not the view of large numbers of people who live in that country. For them, the main problem is malnutrition. For them, the main problem is large-scale unemployment, lack of education, lack of health and, as you’ve seen, the struggle of the people for democracy, restoring the chief justice. What has that got to do with terrorism? It’s a struggle for the separation of powers, wanting an independent judiciary. I mean, that is the Pakistan I know.

The longer the US stays in Afghanistan, the more it creates instability on the Afghan-Pakistan border, because it’s a porous border and it’s impossible to police it. So if they are now going to fire drones, which they’ve started doing — I mean, the same day the chief justice was restored and people were celebrating, a US drone killed nine civilians in a Pakistani village. So it’s a crazy situation, and I don’t think they understand the seriousness of it. And one was hoping that with a new administration in office in Washington with some serious advisers, they would warn them, “Don’t do it.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the amazing thing, though, is that Obama made it pretty clear during the campaign that this was precisely what he was going to do. He was going to shift the focus to Afghanistan and to Pakistan. And it almost — it’s very reminiscent of the Vietnam War as the war began to expand into Laos and Cambodia, with the bombings that occurred in the neighboring countries also aimed at cutting off guerrillas that were supposedly supplying the main front, which in this case now is Afghanistan, as you’re seeing it. But he made it clear, from the start, this was what he was going to do.

TARIQ ALI: Well, he did make it clear, and some of us criticized him strongly over it. But his supporters argued that this was just pre-election rhetoric so that he didn’t appear weak on two warfronts: given that he was wanting a pullout from Iraq, he couldn’t do it in Afghanistan. Now we see that he is doing what he said he was going to do. And I think it’s time for people in the United States to wake up and understand what this is going to mean.

AMY GOODMAN: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on Charlie Rose, on the PBS show, last week. They talked about US attacks inside Pakistani territory.

    CHARLIE ROSE: What do you state to them when you ask this question — you clearly understand that the President is on record as saying that if they have reliable information about high-profile terrorists in your — in Pakistan, you will go after them?

    ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: They know — well, General Kayani, specifically, is the individual I deal most with, and I think he fully understands that. And it’s a conversation I’ve had many times, not just with the military leadership, but also the political leadership, that any president of the United States would respond to an attack on US citizens, another attack coming out of the FATA to strike the United States, and any president would have no choice. And so, they understand that very clearly, and they don’t disagree with that. It makes sense to them. That’s certainly a solemn duty that we have here.

    CHARLIE ROSE: But isn’t it now a sensitive political issue in Pakistan?

    ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: Sure. Absolutely, it’s sensitive. I think — I mean, you’re at the heart of dealing with the most difficult part of the problems we have there, where we have this safe haven in a sovereign country that is threatening, plotting against Americans and other Western countries, and it must be eliminated. Ideally, that would come through the pressure that the Pakistanis bring to eliminate that threat. But what I worry about is if that kind of attack is consummated, has that kind of effect, that the response that would certainly be generated from that. And what we’re working hard on is try to make sure that doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: Well, they’re living in a dream world. Of course General Kayani will agree, and President Zardari, whom many people in Pakistan regard as a US drone anyway, would also agree with that. But that’s not the point. 80 percent of the population is hostile to it. I mean, sometimes you feel that in the United States the ruling elite is so separated from its own people that it’s not a big problem for it. It deals elite to elite. It doesn’t understand that anger within Pakistan against these policies could actually destabilize this elite they are backing. Zardari is one of the most hated leaders. He’s only been in power for a year and is already despised by large sections of the population.

The military, General Kayani may agree with them. What about the junior officers? What about the soldiers who refuse orders to open fire on insurgents on the Pak-Afghan border? What about the junior officers taking early retirements so they’re not sent to fight and kill their own people? This is what the US intelligence services should be aware of. Certainly in Pakistan, the military is perfectly well aware of it, that it is actually affecting the fabric of the military itself. And the more they use Pakistani military bases to fire US drones to kill Pakistani citizens, the more problems they are going to have in the future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the situation with the government in Pakistan? Obviously, President Zardari, after meeting with the military, suddenly decides that he is going to change his policy toward the ex-chief justice. What is your sense of, again, how the military is functioning within the country vis-à-vis the different political factions?

TARIQ ALI: There are three players in Pakistani politics. The key is the military. The second now is the civilian politicians. And the third, equally important, is the US embassy. And Anne Patterson, the US ambassador in Pakistan, was openly acting as a politician in the country, rushing from the house of one opposition leader to the other in the days before the chief justice was restored. If you talk to politicians in Pakistan seriously, they will tell you that the main reason we didn’t restore the chief justice earlier is because the US and other Western embassies didn’t want him restored to office.


TARIQ ALI: Because he is a guy who has called in the intelligence chiefs into the court and ordered the release of disappeared prisoners when there’s no evidence against them. This is why he was denounced by the US earlier, a year ago, as a Taliban supporter, which is utter nonsense. He’s one of the few chief justices Pakistan has had who really tries to preserve the letter of the law and implement it as he sees it. So if there’s no evidence, case goes out.

AMY GOODMAN: Benazir Bhutto’s widow — Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Zardari, the President, afraid of him because he’s gone after him for corruption as a businessman?

TARIQ ALI: This is also true. Zardari is not fond of the judiciary, and Iftikhar Chaudhry was a junior judge in the Supreme Court when Zardari was sent to prison for corruption. And Zardari is accused of two murders, which have never been brought to trial. He is one of the most despicable and despised politicians in the country now, and he’s backed by the United States and Washington, because Bush and Negroponte decided to throw their weight behind the Bhutto dynasty. And this is a policy which Hillary Clinton and Obama seem to be continuing. It is crazy to do that.

So the fact that they gave the Pakistanis the green light, the US, to restore the chief justice is a tiny sign, a positive sign. But, you know, you can’t just do that. That is not going to restore stability in the country. We need an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Unless — as long as there’s — US and its allies occupy Afghanistan, there is going to be instability inside Pakistan, because no one likes that occupation. The New America Foundation conducted an opinion poll in Pakistan. 70 percent of the people questioned said that they regard the US as the biggest danger to world peace and peace in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: In these last few minutes — this is the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. March 19th, 2003, the bombs started to fall on Baghdad. Can you respond to that and where we are today with Iraq and then fit it into the surge, the escalation of war in Afghanistan spilling over into Pakistan?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think, basically, what the United States did in Iraq was to buy off the opposition. Large numbers of people who were fighting them, especially from the Sunni section of society, were paid a lot of money and partially given control of their towns, not just the money. Fallujah, for instance, which was the site of a devastating attack by the United States and untold brutalities, they finally had to pay the people their money and withdraw. The question is this: with the United States now on the verge of beginning a serious pullout, what has been the consequences for Iraq? In my opinion, whether they like it or not, the United States has handed Iraq over to Iran.


TARIQ ALI: To Iran. The people in power in Iraq now are very close to Iran. So Iran now becomes, as a result of the US occupation of Iraq, the strongest player in that region, whether they like it or not. And there’s no way they’re going to stop it. Iran is also a big player in Afghanistan. And so, the United States government will need to talk very seriously and have a reconciliation with Iran and expect Iran to be its local relay and preserve Iraqi stability. That is where we’re at now. And if they can’t do a deal with Iran, then they’re going to be in trouble.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But there certainly does seem to be that direction that the Obama administration seems to be going to, to open up negotiations and begin some realistic talks with Iran.

TARIQ ALI: Well, they have, and the last time Ahmadinejad visited New York, the easy ride he was given on Larry King and other chat shows on US television was an indication the way they’re moving. They have to do it, from their own point of view, because no one else can preserve the stability of Iraq once they leave.

AMY GOODMAN: And Afghanistan now? The difference in approach, Barack Obama talking about drawing down troops in Iraq, though not exactly leaving, 50,000 — no mention of what’s going to happen with the mercenaries and the private contractors at over 100,000 or whether US military bases will be left there. But Afghanistan, what this means?

TARIQ ALI: Well, in Afghanistan, it’s inexplicable why they want to prolong this war. The notion that — I mean, all the intelligence agencies have said that al-Qaeda has declined as a force. It isn’t even present to that extent in Afghanistan. Secretly, the US and the British have been negotiating with the Afghan resistance, the neo-Taliban, the people who’ve used the Taliban as an umbrella to fight them, and pleading with them to enter a coalition government. The Taliban say to the US and the British, “We won’t do it, unless foreign troops are withdrawn. We cannot form part of any government as long as foreign troops are present,” proving they’re marginally more principled than many of their Iraqi co-religionists. Now, in this situation, the US has no option. It’s a very different situation from Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

TARIQ ALI: The bulk of the country is opposed to their presence there.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, it’s too short. Tariq Ali, veteran journalist, commentator and activist, he’s written over a dozen books. His latest book is called The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.

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