December 2, 2011 · 0 Comments
Phyllis Bennis interviewed by Chris Spannos:
Last weekend U.S. military forces in Afghanistan ordered a NATO air strike that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers and wounded more. The New York Times said that this incident “reflected a fundamental truth about American-Pakistani relations when it comes to securing the unruly border with Afghanistan: the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy that leaders of both countries say they share.” To take a closer look at this recent event and the deeper underlying issues at stake, NYTX Editor Chris Spannos interviewed Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has been a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and UN issues for many years. Her books include Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
Hello Phyllis and thank you for joining NYTX. First, can you comment on what you think the Times claim means, that “the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy” between the U.S. and Pakistan, but place this in the context of international law, which is too often not discussed in the Times or media more broadly?
The question of how the Times view the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is very much framed by the reality of the Afghanistan war. This is a war increasingly being waged in Pakistan, with Pakistan, against Pakistan—all at once. And of course, the framework of international law does not enter into that discussion. It is assumed that the war is simply what exists and that the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has to take into account the exigencies and the needs of that war.
If we take one step back and look at one of the most important aspects of the current crisis—which is not only about the immediate events of this weekend where 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in U.S. airstrikes on and near that Afghan border—but also the broader question of the drone strikes that have killed hundreds of Pakistanis—many of them civilians—without the permission of the Pakistani government, with the Pakistani government simply calling on the U.S. government to close down its drone operation in Pakistan.
This is viewed in the context of the power relationship—what power does Pakistan bring to bear to put pressure on the U.S. to stop the drone strikes? This issue is never taken up in the New York Times or anywhere else.
Do you mean Pakistan’s right as a sovereign nation within international law?
International law doesn’t come with its own enforcement capacity. Pakistan is so much weaker than the U.S.—economically, politically, militarily, despite its primitive nuclear weapons capacity, that its rights under international law—to sovereignty, control of its own borders, etc.—are routinely ignored.
We shouldn’t single out the Times here, none of the other mainstream media address the issue either—to look at the question of international law on the issue on drone strikes which are clearly in violation of a whole host of components of international humanitarian law—the laws of war—which prohibit attacks on civilian targets, prohibit war of aggression, which is waging an undeclared war. This is action that is unaccountable, unacknowledged. There is a whole host of violations which we simply do not hear anything about.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the Obama administration’s approach in Pakistan as “fight, talk, build.” What do you think this means in light of both, the U.S. drone war you mention, but also the extra-judicial assassination of Osama bin Laden?
It is the slogan that the U.S. works with to talk about how they are trying to do these seemingly and clearly contradictory things. They are trying to fight a war—which in this case means fighting a war against “Terrorism”—something that is a tactic, not a force you can go to war against.
It means that they are going to war against people. They are talking, or trying to talk, to parts of the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan and that is why they need the Pakistani government and military to bring the Taliban to the table. And to build, allegedly, both a region wide and internal domestic process of building the economy, rebuilding the society, so that war will not be necessary in the future.
Now of course none of this makes any sense.
You can’t go to war against a whole people and expect to engage them in a peace process at the same time. It doesn’t really work that way. So there is a problem with how these contradictions are taking shape.
What we are seeing right now is an escalation in the Afghanistan war. We are hearing about a “drawdown,” which is supposed to culminate in 2014—they don’t even say or claim that it will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Simply that the responsibility for security will be somehow turned over to the Afghans by 2014 with U.S. troops remaining, NATO troops remaining, with U.S. paid contractors remaining, and occupying the country.
But in that context we are being told by implication that this “drawdown” means fewer and fewer U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan and that the war itself will be “drawndown.”
In fact, what we are seeing is the opposite. We are seeing an escalation—escalation in casualties, both in Afghan civilians and Pakistani civilians, and especially what is visible in the United States, is an escalation in military casualties although the drones are designed to undercut that.
But we are not seeing a “drawingdown” of the war. We are seeing an escalation. And this recent attack is a rather dramatic escalation of the war being waged in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.
As to the bin Laden killing, U.S. agents killed him in Pakistan, apparently without even informing, let alone seeking cooperation from the government in Islamabad. Every action has causes and consequences, and in the context of the Afghan war, where the U.S. depends on Pakistan for logistical and political assistance, but treats the country and the people of Pakistan as completely expendable, all these actions are dangerous.
The al Qaeda leader was responsible for great suffering, I do not mourn his death. But the killing of bin Laden didn’t seem to have much impact on the already weakened capacity of al Qaeda—the U.S. admits it is made up of only a couple hundred fighters between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and U.S. intelligence reports indicate there are only two so-called “high value” al Qaeda leaders even left fighting.
In the midst of the Arab Spring, which directly rejects al Qaeda-style small-group violence in favor of mass-based, society-wide mobilization and non-violent protest to challenge dictatorship and corruption, does the killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden represent ultimate justice, or even an end to the “unfinished business” of 9/11?
Pakistan’s already weak and unpopular government is certainly paying a very high price as popular outrage continues to rise over the bin Laden killing and so many other U.S. violations of Pakistani sovereignty.
The U.S. strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan has created lots of animosity within both countries towards the U.S. How is the U.S. strategy affecting its broader goals of combating terrorism?
Well, you know, the goals keep changing. I don’t even know what this week’s goals are. At various times the goals are to keep the Taliban from coming back to power.
Sometimes the goal is about making sure that Al-Qaeda is defeated. But then they say that there is only “two high-value Al-Qaeda targets left.” So the notion that we are actually having 100,000 U.S. troops, and more than 100,000 U.S. paid mercenaries, and 50,000 NATO troops go after two guys doesn’t seem to work very well.
The question, “what is the goal of this war?” has to be taken very seriously and looked at very seriously. And we are not getting answers. In the New York Times and other parts of the mainstream media, we are not even getting the questions. Let alone the answers.
I think that what we are seeing is that this escalation is raising the level of anti-Americanism—because of outrage of these civilian deaths and the deaths of the military. That opposition to the U.S. presence in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan is spreading even more widely.
It is hard to imagine it could get any higher. Pakistan, in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center in the Muslim world, found that support for the U.S. was lower than in anywhere else in the world. It was something like 8% of Pakistanis have a positive view of the United States. That shouldn’t be surprising.
But if we are trying to diminish the hatred of the U.S. that sometimes, so tragically, takes a violent form we are doing exactly the opposite of what we need to do—which is to stop being represented by bombs and killing.
Pakistan responded to the U.S. attack by vowing to close off its supply routes to Afghanistan that NATO relies on and ordered the C.I.A. to vacate a base it has used to launch drone strikes. Some of this was discussed in a recent Times editorial. But what is missing from Times coverage is that Pakistan has also formally communicated, to the United Nations, its protest and condemnation of the NATO strike. What role should the UN be playing in all this?
Well there should be an obligation of the United Nations, as a whole, to investigate the possibility of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by anyone—any member state of the United Nations and certainly including the United States. That doesn’t happen because the history of U.S. domination of the United Nations doesn’t allow for the U.S. to be held accountable as other countries are and have been.
I think that one of the things that we are seeing here is that the U.S. is so focused on being able to rely on Pakistan as a conduit to get material into Afghanistan that the question of what it is doing in Pakistan is simply not being taken very seriously.
Right now, what is different after this recent attack over the weekend and the killing of Pakistani soldiers in such large numbers, is that the Pakistani military command itself is under greater pressure than ever before from the population, from the rank and file of the military, and from the civilian government to stop its alliance with the U.S. It still continues to get 1-2 billion dollars per year in military aid so it is unlikely to end its alliance anytime soon. But one consequence may be that they will make permanent, or at least long-term, the cutting off of access to the United States to both Pakistani bases and the border crossings to bring in material to fight the war in Afghanistan.
For the U.S., one of the things that means is that they are right now looking for alternative means of getting supplies into Afghanistan without being dependent on Pakistan. That means the routes that go through Europe and the rest of Central Asia, and in particular, it means shoring up the relationship with Uzbekistan.
Now Uzbekistan may well be the country, the government that carries out the most outrageous levels of torture of any government in the world. I know that is a hard position to hold. That’s got a lot of competition. But this is a government that is known to boil people alive. That is how they have dealt with their critics. And this is the government that the U.S. State Department is desperately trying to embrace as a new partner in making sure that supplies can get to the war in Afghanistan.
So this is one of the prices that we in the U.S. are paying. It is a new alliance with some of the worst human rights violators of the world just at a time when there are popular uprisings all around the world against governments who are the worst violators of human rights. Here we are shoring up some of the worst.
Thank you Phyllis.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has been a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and UN issues for many years. Chris Spannos is Editor of NYT eXaminer (NYTX).