Monday, March 15, 2010

Who cares about the people?

On the long flight eastward the other day, I got around to watching the February Frontline show "Behind Taliban Lines." Journalist Najibullah Quraishi managed to embed with a small northern Taliban unit that was trying to blow up U.S. supply trucks on the route from Tajikistan to Kabul. Quraishi's accomplishment (and daring) in getting to film these guys is admirable; the resulting film is pretty prosaic -- lots of "hurry up and wait" punctuated by bad luck and recriminations, just like real life.

This particular Taliban unit is loyal to an enduring northern warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the U.S. once funded against the Russians; they certainly consider themselves allied and indebted to "Arabs" and al Qaeda. (Other Taliban groups in the south of the country not may be so in sync with "the Arabs" according to Pakistani sources.)

Quraishi explained in a PBS interview:

They would keep saying, "We will join in the Afghan government if the foreign forces leave Afghanistan." This was their message. All of them were saying the same. And I asked why. They said, "When Russia was in Afghanistan, all Afghan people jihad against Russia." There was at that time only one non-believer country [Russia]. "Now," they were saying, "there are 42 non-believer countries with hundred thousands of soldiers. So this is now our duty to fight against it."

In the same interview Quraishi reports:

One thing which I saw with them, they never, ever harm local people.

One day I asked one of the elders from a village, I said, "Why you guys supporting them?" They said, "Because they really care about civilians, about local people. And NATO, government and American, they don't care. They just put a bomb on civilians, they don't care and they just killing everyone." And I think this is the point [behind] the people's support for them. Even their operation, they didn't remove the bomb, because of civilians. So I think that's why local people support them.

This much hyped Frontline segment came along with an add-on I had not expected: a warning about the dreadful failures of public Pakistani education. The U.S. journalist David Montero has reported from Pakistan for several years. I was surprised by his slant: he indicts the Pakistani education ministry with failing that nation's children using criticism from upper middle class Westernized Pakistanis and implying corruption and apathy from officials. None of that was too surprising.

But Montero also interviewed at least one leader from the religious madrassa school sector which is flourishing among the poor while the secular government schools collapse. This mullah has a simplistic explanation for why people prefer to send their children to the religious schools.

Montero treats this religious and nationalist assertion as if it were self-evident nonsense. But what if the mullah's perspective is simply ordinary common sense among Pakistanis who aren't Westernized? I imagine it is.

U.S. allies among the Pakistani elite are not going to combat the influence of this kind of thinking so long as ordinary people have experiential reason to think the West treats Pakistani life as cheap (drone attacks) and their country of 166 million people as just a staging area for its war on Afghanistan.

It's time to get the U.S. out of the Middle World.

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