Pakistan calls for support from the international community as it struggles to recover from the worst flooding in its history. US special envoy Richard Holbrooke says the world cannot foot the entire bill for recovery as Washington continues to spend billions on the wars in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We speak with British Pakistani political commentator, writer and activist, Tariq Ali. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As Pakistan struggles to recover from the worst flooding in recent history, the battle has now turned to aid and who will foot the bill for reconstructing the flood-ravaged country.
Over the weekend, the United Nations launched its largest-ever natural disaster appeal, seeking more than $2 billion for Pakistani flood victims devastated by nearly two months of flooding. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it the worst natural disaster in the UN’s sixty-five-year-old history. The UN’s new appeal is more than four times the original amount of $460 million sought last month. Two billion dollars is expected to provide aid for up to 14 million people over a twelve-month period.
Meanwhile, Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the world cannot pay for the disaster in Pakistan and urged the country’s leaders to redouble their efforts to help flood victims and rebuild the damaged areas. The US is spending billions on the wars in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the UN meeting, the World Bank called on Pakistan to take steps to reassure donor countries it will implement economic reforms and is capable of using their funds “responsibly and transparently.”
For more on Pakistan, I’m joined now in New York by Tariq Ali. He’s a British Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist and editor of the New Left Review. He’s been writing on Pakistan and also on Kashmir in recent months. His latest book that’s just out is called The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. We will also talk about that.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tariq.
TARIQ ALI: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s start with Pakistan and this catastrophe there and who is helping to help the people.
TARIQ ALI: It is the worst disaster we have seen for a very long time — 24 million people homeless; massive malnutrition, which already existed, now worse; malaria and cholera raging in the camps, if one can call them that, where people are taking refuge. This should be a global appeal to the entire world to send doctors, to send medicines, to send food, to — for the United Nations really to move in and take over the rescue effort. That is what needs to be done. Any government — I admit the Pakistani government under Zardari is totally corrupt, and that is putting people off giving money, but there are lots of other organizations at work there which can be given money, and teams of doctors can be sent with medicines. I mean, the Cubans went during the last earthquake, and it was very effective.
But, I mean, just remember what happened in this country when the levees burst in New Orleans. People were stunned and shocked by the images that were coming out from New Orleans. Well, this is a hundred times worse. And so, this country really needs — its people need all the help they can get. Their tragedy is that they are ruled by a venal and corrupt elite. That’s not the fault of the people. And the overwhelming majority of the country is not involved in religious extremism. The images of Pakistan which we’ve seen on the screens just talks about sort of beards and people, you know, picking up guns. The overwhelming majority of the country is not like that, and it really needs help.
AMY GOODMAN: Just looking at the latest figures that the United States is spending, not on helping Pakistan, but on war, President Obama signed into legislation — this was one month ago — a war funding bill that provided 37 billion more dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama signed the bill without public remarks in a low-key Oval Office session. With the new war spending, the total amount of money Congress has allotted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has now surpassed $1 trillion.
TARIQ ALI: This is obscene. I mean, on any level, judged by any criteria — moral, political, economic — it is obscene what is taking place and the amount of money being spent on the wars. And, I mean, I’ll give you a concrete example. A few weeks ago, the city of Jacobabad in the province of Sindh in Pakistan was threatened by the River Indus. A hundred thousand people were risking their lives. Their homes had already gone. The government’s health department appealed to the Pakistani air force that they needed helicopters to transport people to take medicines. They were told that they couldn’t use the nearest air force base, the Shahbaz Air Force Base near Jacobabad, because it was occupied by the United States, and the United States were using it to send drones to kill villagers in other parts of the country and would not make that air base available for rescue operations. So the priorities are all upside down. And, you know, this is a president who put out, initially, a sort of humane face to the world: “We’re going to be different.” It’s virtually — it’s the same business which goes on.
AMY GOODMAN: We have heard that story over and over, the secret base, that not only was it not used to be a place for aid, but that water was diverted so that it flooded areas of hundreds of thousands of people around it so it wouldn’t flood the base. But this issue going on, Obama administration has been criticized for sending only six helicopters, despite a Pakistani request for dozens more. The US has denied the request because helicopters play such a key role in the war in Afghanistan. A senior military official was asked about this by the Washington Post, and he said the decision would have had to come from Washington, adding, “Do [the helicopters] exist in the region? Yes. Are they available? No.”
But this goes to a very important issue of national security and the justification for the wars in Iraq and the drone attacks in Pakistan. It’s about national security in the United States. It’s about going after people who threatened the United States. So this issue of killing in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the amount of money that’s used for it versus paying for aid that could well sway so many millions of people to feel much more positively about the United States.
TARIQ ALI: Well, exactly. You know, I mean, on that level, they should have poured in aid to try and help peoples, encourage the rest of the world to send doctors. All this should have been done. They don’t think like that, Amy. This war has now become obsessive for the American military political rulers. And Obama, as we know, has in fact ordered more drone attacks on Pakistan in his two years in office than Bush did for his previous eight years. And these drone attacks are largely killing civilians. When you read “terrorists destroyed, militants killed,” don’t believe it. Very unlikely that more than ten percent of those people targeted have anything to do with helping the Taliban or whatever they’re accused of. It’s largely innocent people being killed. And, you know, a year ago or so when that poor Iranian woman died, Neda, in Tehran and the entire world wept for her and a moist-eyed president appeared on the White House lawn, that same day US drones killed fifty women and children in Pakistan, and there wasn’t a mention of it on the news. So, their behavior is creating so much anger. So the notion that these wars are going to stop people hating or racking the United States is just nonsense. It’s the exact opposite that’s going on.
AMY GOODMAN: A Pew poll recently done said 59 percent of Pakistanis now view the United States as an enemy. And it’s interesting that there’s this issue of being very hesitant about pouring millions into a corrupt government, the corrupt government of Pakistan, which you believe it is, and yet when it comes to military spending and shoring up the Pakistani government, they don’t seem to have the same questions.
TARIQ ALI: No, no problem at all. And they know perfectly well that quite a lot of the money which goes in to supposedly shore up the military in Pakistan, quite a lot of it is siphoned off by the corrupt rackets within the Pakistani administration. So that’s fine. But they will not take any bold initiatives on helping ordinary people whose — I mean, it’s the worst situation. I can’t even begin to tell you. I’ve read now six detailed reports of what is happening to people in that country, and it’s just totally depressing.
AMY GOODMAN: You also have the situation inside Pakistan — as I was describing, the repeated stories of the US diverting water from the base so that it wouldn’t flood it — true for Pakistani elite, as well. The Agence France-Presse is reporting many people suspect powerful Pakistanis are able to manipulate the flow of water by influencing which levees were breached. Outrage has been especially pronounced in Sindh, where hundreds of thousands of people watch floods swamp their fields, destroy their homes, as the lands of a federal minister on the opposite side of the Indus remain dry.
TARIQ ALI: This is absolutely true. And this is creating such anger that you have television talk show hosts on some of Pakistan’s private channels publicly preaching, calling for revolution. I mean, I was amazed to hear a television chat show host saying, “What we need is, like, something like the French Revolution,” he said, “to wipe out all these people who have been oppressing our poor and who live in a bubble, who are unaffected.” It’s the poor who are affected. So, not only do they do little to help them, they’ve actually made their conditions worse by protecting themselves, protecting their privileges, and this is a government which is considered the most friendly government to the United States ever in Pakistani history. They do what the US embassy tells them to do. And Patterson, sitting in the giant US embassy in Islamabad, essentially meets politicians, behaves like a viceroy, gives Zardari his orders.
AMY GOODMAN: And the power of the Pakistani Taliban and perhaps that Osama bin Laden himself is in Pakistan, that this feeling of public sentiment really does matter when it comes to how people feel about the United States in Pakistan.
TARIQ ALI: It does. And, you know, the State Department — Holbrooke, Clinton — and the White House — Obama — should be thinking very hard about this poll. Fifty-nine percent see the US as the enemy. I think it’s an underestimate. And the fact that they do cannot be laid on the door of religion or religious extremism, because everyone admits that the religious extremists are under two percent of the population, if that. This is the mainstream of the country seeing the country wrecked, time and time again, by rash, irrational US interventions.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tariq Ali, and he has a new book out. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about it. It’s called The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. It’s great to be home. Back in a minute.