Jason Burke in Bajaur, Pakistan. Photo Courtesy Jason Burke
With radical changes to the phenomenon of Islamic militancy in the past decade and the induction of hundreds of recruits globally, Jason Burke shares his findings, spanning over a decade, reflecting on what we’ve learnt after inglorious, if necessary, wars. In a new book, The 9/11 Wars, he focuses on ordinary people affected by the conflicts as well as on al-Qaeda as an “amorphous, dynamic and fragmented movement based more on personal relations and a shared world view than on formal membership of an organisation.” Here, Burke talks to the Herald about the Afghan endgame and the tenuous relations between Pakistan and the United States.
Q. You argue about the local versus the global and you’re cautious about the West’s policies when it comes to promoting democracy in the region. Has the lack of understanding been a failure on the part of policymakers or simply a political strategy of no engagement beyond a point?
A. There have been epic failures of policymaking during the 9/11 wars and the second failure has been of global thinking where human agencies have been written out. To understand this, look closely at how the West has viewed the Islamic world and then at how the Islamic world projects itself using the language of pan-Islamism. In the 1990s, the collapse of the major narrative of Communism and the Cold War led to the structuring of a new world order with radical Islamists. Take the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Pakistan which, since the last decade, has had enormous success in embedding its values in society but doesn’t get votes in an election. There is a need to understand why Pakistanis think the way they do to support the JI vision and how that thinking has emerged in the past decade: why they talk about veils, the role of Shariah within the legal system and other views such as why the US is the ‘bad guy’ and Jews are running the world. There is a religious component that is running the country, and that component is prevalent within the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] and PML–N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf as well. Pakistan has changed since I was living there in the early 1990s and in a sense the classic political system has a religious, conservative thread. In a city like Karachi, it’s the middle classes now that have emerged with greater mobility of thought than 10 years ago, when a family that owned a motorbike at the time, now has a Suzuki Mehran. But ‘Middle Pakistan’ is more anti-American and religiously conservative today. There’s a consolidation of a more religious, and a moderately Islamist thread with a socially conservative tilt towards the Middle East. What happened to other countries in the central Middle East has happened to Pakistan in the past decade. A polarisation of consciousness since 9/11 has paid a considerable role. On her return to Pakistan, I was travelling with Benazir Bhutto to Islamabad from Peshawar, when she said to me, “Pakistan has changed, Mr Burke.” When Bhutto bought oranges at a roadside stall in Peshawar, she said she wasn’t aware of the prices that had changed. What Bhutto didn’t get when she returned to Pakistan after 10 years was how much it had changed. She must have picked up vibes and with her foreign backers, she had an idea of the problems when she spoke of human rights policies and letting in UN inspectors to visit nuclear plants but she wasn’t on the ground long enough to find out.
Q. Who are the drivers of global Islam today?
A. With al-Qaeda on the fringes, its influence waning and its worldview largely rejected, today, the actual drivers of global Islam are the urban middle classes. In countries like Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda has discredited itself by resorting to violent militancy, not acceptable to local populations. But in Pakistan, take the example of why Lashkar-e-Taiba went to Mumbai, because it was losing its grip on the jihadi movement at home. The last 10 years have generated a new strand of militancy in the Islamic world and Pakistan is acting like a pressure cooker for these variations. What you saw pre-2001 in Pakistan was local sectarianism and international/regional militancy in Kashmir and a bit of involvement in Afghanistan. But since then, all of this has become much more mixed, with new strands such as the Pakistani Taliban, which makes the situation in Pakistan fragmented and these groups able to escape the security establishment. This is a microcosm of a larger picture. There is an extra chaotic galaxy of militant cells now operating in the country.
Q. Diplomatic relations between the US and Pakistan remain volatile, with Washington wanting Pakistan to clamp down on the Haqqani network. What’s the nature of this relationship and how sustainable is it?
A. Pakistan and America remain in a complex relationship. They are not by any means natural allies, though there is a strange assumption in the West that this isn’t the case. Nothing indicates they are natural allies in terms of shared history, religion, a shared project or identity except the Cold War alliance. From the Pakistani side, why would the US be a natural ally? It doesn’t work for both sides.
Q. What of the stability of this region in the long term with the Afghan endgame?
A. India becomes a superpower because it’s growing at eight per cent per year and Pakistan will have no choice but to go along with this development. There will come a point when the weight of development and money will have a regional impact even if it takes decades. The strategic thinking in Islamabad is that the Indians will come across the border but the focus in India is on getting rich and not righting the wrongs of Partition. And Kashmir doesn’t dominate the news everyday in India either. As the endgame in Afghanistan nears, if the nightmare scenario is of total collapse with the Taliban controlling the south and the east and retaking Kabul, then the optimistic scenario is that aid keeps coming in and the Afghan army gets its act together to ensure stability and there’s some kind of Taliban representation in the government. In reality what will probably happen is something in the middle with the Taliban installing their government in the south and east of the country and inevitably be limited to pockets in the north. But the Taliban have internal rifts, so a return to the nasty, unstable and violent conflict-like situation before the West turned up is perhaps not going to happen. If Pakistan is thinking intelligently at this point, they will want good relations with Iran and a stable and prosperous Afghanistan with which it could share cordial relations and trade routes into Central Asia and not as a base of militancy. Until Pakistan’s security establishment works out that funding militant proxies is about conflict, not much will change. And can that happen? It would need an internal sea-change but geopolitical game-changers are not impossible.
Q. In your book, even as you conclude, there is sympathy with those whose lives have been wrecked by the war on terror, wherever in the world: civilians, soldiers, even failed suicide bombers. As a reporter travelling through these regions, what has gripped you the most?
A. A woman in Baghdad in 2004 with two disabled children aged seven and nine who needed special care. She was well-educated and her husband had been killed by the Baathists. She had limited resources and I saw how desperate her situation was at the time; that situation multiplied many times. If you put down how many people have lost their lives: civilians, army persons, combatants, militants, in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the rest of the world, the quarter of a million people and with hundreds of thousands injured, disabled, bereaved — it’s a huge figure to contend with.
Q. Do you see change in the cycle of violence and terrorism?
A. I wrote this book keeping in mind what this decade will look like and that the world has certainly changed. Al-Qaeda’s message and ideology has failed and been rejected by many communities; the Arab revolts are without al-Qaeda’s intervention and are a call for democracy. Even after engaging in wars costing trillions, western democracies like the US are still standing. There are no winners, no victories but lots of losers. Each individual war story, of the injured, the bereaved, the disabled, stories told by a US soldier or a failed suicide bomber who never really understood what he was doing, is a tragedy.