26 September 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
“Double Tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.
Then there’s a different, nastier kind of “double tap”. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead – and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.
What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.
“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahbad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents the victims of drone strikes, told “The Independent” newspaper recently. “In the past it used to be a one-off, now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”
Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely 2 percent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants. That’s not to say that everybody else killed or injured was an innocent civilian, but these are definitely not “surgical” strikes.
The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who just happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit – often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.
The Stanford/New York University study, entitled “Living Under Drones”, describes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database as “far more reliable than other aggregating sources,” based on a far wider range of sources than other comparable studies. And of course there are no official numbers. The US government doesn’t even try to count the casualties.
Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.
Let’s be honest here: children always get killed in air strikes. When you explode 10 kg (20 lbs) of high explosives on a single target (the standard Hellfire load), there can be nothing surgical about it. The really questionable aspects of the CIA’s drone programme lie elsewhere.
First, is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Second, can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks?
The legal question is particularly problematic in Pakistan, where the government has not authorised the United States to carry out attacks. Islamabad tacitly accepts them, but sometimes public opinion forces it to respond vigorously, as when an American missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year. That blunder also highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between “militants” and civilians through the lens of a remote-controlled camera.
It’s the double-tap attacks that are truly shameful. Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.
There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some fifty countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.
The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 km (1,300 mi), capable of flying over most of the Middle East. If it is really copied from the US drone that Iran captured last year, then it has major air-to-ground capabilities. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?
The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 11. (“These strikes…it”; “The Stanford…casualties”; and “The legal…camera”)
10 September 2012
Blasphemy in Pakistan
By Gwynne Dyer
It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds, tried, and sentenced to prison – or found innocent, set free and then murdered by some Muslim fanatic. This time was different.
The victim this time was a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsa Masih, who is believed to suffer from Down’s syndrome. She was stopped by a young Muslim man who found the half-burned remnants of a book that allegedly included verses from the Quran in her carrier bag. He told the local imam, who called the police, and she was arrested.
This kind of story usually ends badly in Pakistan. Two years ago, for example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested for insulting the Prophet Mohammad while arguing with fellow farm-workers. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but it was such a manifest injustice that the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, publicly called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January, 2011.
The bodyguard was tried for murder and convicted, but he was treated as a hero by many Pakistanis, and the judge who sent him to prison had to flee the country. Two months later the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead when he spoke out against the blasphemy laws. Since then, almost nobody has dared to criticise them.
Asia Bibi remains in prison awaiting execution. Her entire family, including her five children, live in hiding and cannot work or go to school. And while the higher courts would once have thrown out her conviction – they have overturned hundreds of sentences for blasphemy imposed by lower courts that were too vulnerable to local pressures – she can no longer even be confident of that.
So the outlook seemed grim for Rimsa Masih when she was arrested last month – but then the imam who had called the police, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chisti, was arrested for doctoring the evidence. His own deputy had seen him adding pages from the Quran to the young Christian’s bag.
“I asked him what he was doing,” the deputy told a television station, “and he said this is the evidence against them (the local Christians) and this is how we can get them out from this area.” Two other witnesses came forward against Chisti, and Hafiz Mohammad Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior Muslim clerics, declared that “Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chisti did.”
Ashrafi added that Chisti was acting on behalf of a group who wanted to drive out the Christian minority in the area: “I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa (on their land).” They have already succeeded: some 300 Christian families have fled in fear for their lives, and they probably won’t be back. But at least the state is starting to defy the fanatics.
Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but on 8 September Rimsa Masih was freed on bail, and a military helicopter lifted her out of the prison yard and into hiding. And Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony, whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was murdered last year, broke a political taboo by explaining why ordinary Pakistanis are more hostile to the religious minorities in their midst than most Muslims elsewhere.
“It is not just a religious problem,” Bhatti said. “It’s a caste factor, because (the victims) belong to the poorest and most marginalised people. Unfortunately they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.”
Islam teaches the equality of all believers, but the caste system is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Go far enough back, and almost all Pakistani Muslims are descended from Hindus – and when those Hindu communities converted to Islam, they retained their ideas and prejudices about caste.
This was particularly disheartening for groups at the bottom of the caste pecking order who had hoped that Islam would free them. When the British empire arrived in the area, therefore, it was the poorest and most despised section of the population who converted to Christianity.
So everybody knows that most Christians are really “untouchables.” The argument that got Asia Bibi in trouble, for example, broke out when some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water she had fetched because Christians were “unclean”.
The Hindu minority is mostly just as low-caste as the Christians, and equally vulnerable. Together they are only 6 million out of 187 million Pakistanis, but they account for the vast majority of blasphemy accusations. In many cases, these accusations are merely a convenient weapon for Muslims engaged in land disputes and other quarrels with members of the minority groups.
Maybe the Pakistani government has finally found the nerve to deal with this corrupt law and to protect its victims. The Rimsa Masih case is a hopeful sign. But Pakistan still has a long way to go before all of its citizens are really equal under the law.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Asia…that”; and “Ashrafi…fanatics”)
4 May 2012
A Signal Honour
By Gwynne Dyer
I wanted you to be the first to know. It has just been revealed by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy in the United States that I am on a very short list of journalists (eight in Western countries, and seven others in India, Pakistan and Arab countries) to whom Osama bin Laden wanted to send “special media material” on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. To what do I owe this honour?
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the letters that the American forces seized when they raided bin Laden’s house in northern Pakistan a year ago, but according to the CTC’s translation the plan was to send these carefully selected and named journalists a site address and password “at the right time” so that we could download his “special material”.
That never happened, because bin Laden was killed before the anniversary rolled round, but it does raise an interesting question. None of the people he named (me, Bob Fisk of the “Independent” in Britain, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the United States, and independent journalist Eric Margolis in Canada, for example) has actually written in favour of al-Qaeda and its goals – so what did he think he would gain by sending us the stuff?
The answer, I suspect, is that he had been reduced to grasping at straws. He had been on the run for ten years, and trapped in that rather bare house in Abbottabad (now bulldozed) for six. He had no real-time communication with anybody in the rest of the world, because if he used telephones, the internet, indeed anything electronic except the TV and Playstation, it would almost certainly lead the Americans to his lair within weeks.
He tried to go on directing al-Qaeda by sending numerous letters, but they would have taken weeks to reach their destinations, and in any case by last year the organisation was in an advanced state of disintegration. As an ideology and a franchise it lives on, but even in that attenuated form its ability to attract recruits and popular support has been gravely damaged by the events of the “Arab Spring”.
In other words, Osama bin Laden no longer had much relevance in the world, and he had a lot of time on his hands. But he certainly went on reading his clippings. Terrorists always read their clippings.
Terrorists are a recently evolved subset of the grand old category of “revolutionaries.” Their deeds, however ugly, are not “senseless”: their ultimate goal is almost always to change a government somewhere. They cannot achieve it by peaceful means, and the population whose interests they think they serve is not ready to revolt, so they resort to terrorism in an attempt to motivate and mobilise the masses.
I’m using the word “terrorist” here not in its pejorative sense, but its professional one. When somebody seeks to achieve political goals by using violence, and is not operating under the protection of a sovereign state, we call him a terrorist. And since the amount of violence a terrorist can bring to bear, as a non-state actor, is usually quite limited, he depends on its psychological impact more than its sheer destructiveness.
The point of terrorism isn’t just to frighten people, but to stampede them (or rather their governments) into some ill-considered action that will actually benefit the terrorists’ strategy. In the post-colonial context, the violence is usually meant to make the target government behave very badly, “cracking down” in ways that will drive people – maybe its own citizens, maybe a different group entirely – into the arms of the revolutionaries.
In the case of al-Qaeda, the goal of 9/11 was to terrorise and enrage the American people, but not so that they would overthrow their own government. They obviously weren’t going to do that. However, their outrage would probably make the US government send massive military forces into the Arab world to “stamp out” the terrorism. That, in turn, would outrage the Arabs – who were the real object of bin Laden’s revolutionary ambitions.
Well, it worked, in the sense that the West has not been so unpopular in the Arab world since the time of the Crusades. But the revolutions, when they finally started happening in Arab countries in 2010, rejected the leadership of jihadis like bin Laden and sought democracy instead. He probably died a deeply disappointed man.
As a professional revolutionary, however, he would have retained his interest in the strategies and methods of terrorism down to the end. Since there was not much informed analysis of those issues available in the Arabic-language media, he would have followed it in the English-language media instead.
As did all his colleagues, probably – I always assumed that al-Qaeda’s leadership was getting at least a precis of the article every time I wrote about their strategy and tactics. But for bin Laden, locked up in his house in Abbottabad, it could easily have become an obsession. I think it did, because the one thing that I and the other journalists named in his letter have in common is that we all dealt in analysis, not mere invective.
Oh, and I’m pretty sure I know where he was seeing my stuff. “Dawn”, the leading paper in Pakistan, has run this column for the last thirty years.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“He tried…Spring”; and “Terrorists…masses”)
19 January 2012
The Risk of Islamist Coups
By Gwynne Dyer
The eastern half of what used to be Pakistan narrowly escaped a military coup last month. Brigadier Masud Razzak, the spokesman of the Bangladeshi army, announced on Thursday (19 January) that “A band of fanatic officers has been trying to oust the politically established government. Their attempt has been foiled.”
They had “extreme religious views,” he said, and revealed that some of the sixteen conspirators, all of them current or former military officers, will soon appear before a military court. For a country with a dismal history of military coups, some of them very violent, it was a heartening outcome. But it was also a reminder of where the real danger lies in the subcontinent.
If the country called Pakistan that got its independence from Britain in 1947 were still a single state, it would be the fourth biggest nation on the planet, with over 300 million people. However, its two halves were separated by 1,500 km (1,000 mi.) of Indian territory, and had little in common apart from having Muslim majorities. That Pakistan only lasted 24 years, and broke apart amid much bloodshed in 1971.
Since then, the two successor states have taken different paths. Bangladesh has no major disputes with its giant Indian neighbour, and spends relatively little on its military. The part that is still called Pakistan, on the other side of India, has a huge territorial dispute with India over Kashmir, a history of wars with its neighbour, and very serious armed forces. It also has a history of coups. And Islamist fanatics in the officer corps. And nuclear weapons.
There are reasons to hope that the worst days are past in both countries. The military relinquished supreme power in Bangladesh twenty years ago, and the country is a functioning (but very turbulent) democracy. Pakistan also has a democratic government now – the army officially left power in 2001, although a general went on running the government until 2008 – but the army still overshadows it.
But it is not generals seizing power in Pakistan that worries foreign governments. It is the fear that middle-ranking Islamist fanatics in the army might stage a successful coup and get their hands on those nuclear weapons. They would be people quite similar in their beliefs to the officers whose coup has just been foiled in Bangladesh – but Bangladesh doesn’t have nuclear weapons.
A coup by Islamist officers in Bangladesh would be seen by most foreigners as deeply regrettable but mostly of only local interest. A coup by Islamist officers in Pakistan would unleash the Mother of All Panics.
An Indian strategist once told me, off the record, what he thought would happen about six hours after news of an Islamist coup in Pakistan reached the rest of the world. There would be a huge “traffic jam” over Kahuta and other major Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities as the Indian, Iranian, American and Israeli air forces all tried to keep the nuclear weapons out of the hands of the fanatics by destroying them.
It wouldn’t succeed, because Pakistan already has more than fifty nuclear weapons, and it keeps them dispersed precisely to thwart that kind of attack. The Israeli air force couldn’t really reach Pakistan (although Pakistan has missiles that could reach Israel). A few other details in the strategist’s scenario also ring false – but it is basically credible.
So how likely is an Islamist military coup in Pakistan? About as likely as it is in Bangladesh, which is to say unlikely, but not unimaginable. In this one thing, the two armies are alike – and quite different from those of most other Muslim countries.
In almost all other Muslim countries, the armies take great care to ensure that Islamist officers do not rise very high in rank: they may make captain, but they won’t make colonel. This is because the generals know that they can’t be trusted. The generals themselves are mostly faithful Muslims, but they must protect the integrity of the military institution they serve, and that means no Islamists in positions of real power.
Islamists, by definition, cannot give their full loyalty to the army or the state. Ultimately, they serve an imagined Islamic caliphate that would sweep away even the country they are supposed to serve. Their lesser loyalties are purely tactical and transitory. So the armies have never let them near real power – except in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In both cases, this anomaly was created by military dictators who made pragmatic alliances with religious extremists as part of their strategy for holding on to power. General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and General Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh allowed Islamists to be promoted into the higher ranks in their respective armies, and although they are now long gone that policy continues, especially in Pakistan.
All previous military interventions in politics in Pakistan have been done by the army as an institution, acting in obedience to its lawful commanders. That kind of thing would not radically change Pakistan’s policies towards the rest of the world. But if middle-ranking Islamist officers were to break the chain of command and seize power, like their comrades in Bangladesh intended to do, then all bets would be off.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“It wouldn’t…credible”); and (“In both…Pakistan”)