In early 2010, I was engaged in an interesting discussion with a cab driver on the bustling streets of Karachi, Pakistan. Like any good cabbie, he was in tune with the pulse of the city, and could articulate the general mood and climate of the area. We talked at length about U.S.-Pakistan relations, but one statement he made in particular will stick with me perhaps forever: “We have a 9/11 every other day,” he said.
Still trying to process the immense tragedy of last Tuesday’s attack at the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, Pakistan – which killed at least 145 (most of them children) – the world is left with many questions. How could such cruelty be taken out on innocent kids? Why was this particular school targeted? How will Pakistani authorities respond? And for the United States, what does this do in terms of our delicate yet intricate relationship with the South Asian nation? Unfortunately, if you tuned into our cable news coverage of the incident, you might get a segment or two about the ‘rise of radical Islam’, or the slightly less offensive discussion of how Pakistanis will now understand the true impact of terrorism. What you won’t see is a nuanced analysis of the many depths of this problem or how we – yes we – contributed to the unstable environment that allowed such terrorist groups to thrive.
When the twin towers fell, and thousands of Americans lost their lives on that awful September morning in 2001, our nation forever transformed in a multitude of ways. But we were not alone. In Pakistan, a country that did not perpetrate the attacks, reality soon enough changed on the ground. As the U.S. embarked on a mission to find Osama bin Laden and eliminate terrorism, we engaged in two wars: first Afghanistan, and later Iraq. While there has been eventual dialogue about the lack of WMDs and false information that misled us into Iraq in ’03, there has been very little attention paid to the many areas in which we had covert actions taking place – like Pakistan.
When the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan kicked into full gear, Pakistan gave American forces and officials access to many of its routes in order to bring supplies, weapons and more into Afghanistan. We relied heavily on their cooperation to not only utilize those routes, but also to conduct clandestine activities. As our efforts increased and the militants dispersed, many spilled over into the tribal regions of Pakistan, and eventually, elsewhere in the country. Prior to 9/11, there was just one suicide bombing anywhere in Pakistan – just one. And now in the years since, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have been killed from terrorist attacks that have become a regular occurrence. To deny the fact that much of the volatility in Pakistan with regards to terrorism is a direct result of our war in the region is ignorant at best.
One of the least reported and least discussed tools of warfare has been our extensive use of unmanned aerial planes, aka drones. This secret program began while George W. Bush was in office, but was exponentially increased once President Obama took the helm in ‘09. While flying drones with the push of some buttons from the comfort of Nevada or elsewhere stateside greatly reduced the threat of danger for our soldiers, it didn’t eliminate innocent casualties on the ground. The exact number of civilian deaths is actually difficult to determine because neither the military nor our government will release such figures. Some independent organizations estimate it’s in the hundreds and others say it’s in the thousands. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, only 12% of victims of our drone strikes in Pakistan could be identified as militants. Just 12%.
When I was there in 2010, the front pages of major newspapers and nightly newscasts carried headlines like Drones Kill 12 Children Playing Outside. Commonly and casually referred to as ‘collateral damage’, the deaths of countless civilians – many of them young kids and women – led to a sharp rise in anti-U.S. sentiment among the population. On its face, the Pakistani military said it did not and does not support the drone program, but behind-the-scenes, it provided many of the launching pads and secret locations whereby our drones could take off. In fact, U.S. forces and Pakistani forces even reiterated many of the same talking points. As a result, terrorists often target the Pakistani military, and as we saw last week, they even target their children.
Aside from independent journalists like Jeremy Scahill and a few others, there has been little to no substantive reporting of our drone program, and the effects that it has in actually fueling more extremists. When the use of drones in Pakistan skyrocketed, so too did the rise in suicide bombings and chaos, even in major cities. Militants were easily able to utilize rising anti-American sentiment and prey on unstable folks to join their cause. In a country where there is tremendous poverty and high unemployment, and where the government spends most of its money on beefing up its military, terrorist groups were able to recruit easily much like a gang recruits from the most vulnerable in society. Meanwhile, the rest of the population blamed America for the rise in terrorist attacks, as well as the deaths of its soldiers.
Last week’s horror at the army school shocked Pakistanis and the entire world for that matter. While they have been dealing with hundreds and hundreds of suicide bombings since 9/11, there has never been an atrocity on the level of what we saw at this school. Many of the precious kids were the children of those in the military; in fact, the school was targeted for that very reason, to send a message to the Pakistani military.
Following the calamity of this massacre, Pakistani forces launched airstrikes at militants in the Khyber and North Waziristan areas. Much like the U.S., Pakistan responds to terror attacks and terror threats with a strong show of force. But just like the U.S., Pakistan must ask itself whether the airstrikes are quelling militants or actually creating more? When innocents are killed in the process of eliminating extremists, does the surrounding community readily side with the ones dropping bombs? Or do we need an alternative solution?
The problem of terrorism is so convoluted, complex and difficult to understand, let alone to eliminate. Nearly 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died post-9/11. And many, many more souls have been taken around the world in this ongoing conflict. There has been so much death and destruction over the last 13+ years, and yet, terrorism has no signs of disappearing as the heartbreaking attack in Pakistan last week proves. But the worst mistake we as Americans can do is to dumb down the conversation and act as if this simply falls under the guise of a ‘rise in radical Islam’. Let’s not forget, the biggest victims of terrorism are Muslims themselves. And let’s remember that we absolutely have contributed to, if not caused, the destabilization of an environment to the extent that extremism has now spread in the absence of order.
Like most battles throughout history, the true underlying cause is either territory or resources. As the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as permanent enemies or permanent friends – just mutual interests. For a long time both the U.S. and Pakistan had a mutual interest of defeating militants in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But now that American forces are leaving, and now that extremists have immersed themselves in practically every corner of the country, Pakistan must face the harsh reality of how it proceeds forward.
In coverage of the aftermath of the school attack, one parent was seen crying and yelling simultaneously. That parent was angry at both the Taliban and the military who he said didn’t do enough to protect his child. The U.S. cannot abandon Pakistan, and Pakistan cannot continue to conduct itself in a manner that ignores the very real challenges facing its people.
They deserve better, and we deserve a more informed and intelligent assessment of what our government does in our name.
There will be many tough choices ahead for Pakistanis, but let’s hope decisions are made in the interest of their future. It is, after all, those average citizens that are simply sick and tired of a 9/11 happening every other day.
Nida Khan is a freelance journalist, follow her on twitter @NidaKhanNY