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Having worked as a correspondent in Pakistan for the Christian Science Monitor since 2005, Montero also discusses why violent extremism has taken hold in Swat Valley -- for years a tranquil tourist destination -- and why President Pervez Musharraf’s policies have failed to stop it.
Charlotte Buchen: Can you tell us about the recent lawyer protests and what they have come to symbolize?
David Montero: The lawyers are protesting today against the fact that President Pervez Musharraf has sacked the chief justice. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, this is a movement that really threatens to remove Musharraf. It’s probably his biggest challenge right now.
I think the lawyers themselves and the public are surprised to see these very respectable men dressed in black suits and ties. Pakistan lawyers have always been a democratic body, a political body, but a quiet body. The legal community in Pakistan does not usually disagree with the government, especially with Musharraf, but he has pushed them too far. Musharraf rewrote Pakistan’s constitution to justify his dictatorship retroactively. He had fired people, but the sacking of the chief justice was the last straw, [Lawyers are] out on the streets saying, “We have to have something left that works in this country, and if the judiciary does not work then our country can’t work – democracy can’t work. And if we’re going to get Musharraf out, it has to begin with sanctifying the courts. This is one area that he can’t touch. They want the rule of law, not the rule of the dictator.
You interviewed Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer for the chief justice. What role has he played in the movement?
When the chief justice was put under house arrest, effectively muzzled, Ahsan became his mouthpiece and the mouthpiece for an entire movement that was engulfing Pakistan in protests. I met him in June 2007 when the movement was just gathering steam. I found him to be an incredibly articulate, passionate speaker. He was eventually arrested in November and put in solitary confinement. When he came out of solitary confinement, he was put under house arrest. I tried to catch up with him in December. He had been let out of his house for three days for a religious holiday. We were trying to meet with him, [but] he was arrested again. When he was let out of his house, naturally, he used the occasion to mouth off against the government. The government didn’t like that. They quickly locked him up again. He is one of only three lawyers who remain under house arrest in Pakistan.
Why have the rest been released and these three lawyers held?
About 5,000 lawyers were arrested in a nationwide dragnet throughout Pakistan. Imagine the operation that goes into arresting 5,000 people in Pakistan. Most of them were let out because they were lower level lawyers. Some of them were lawyers of the High Court, the Supreme Court. Three in particular were not let out –- the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Ahsan and another lawyer. Those three are still inside because they symbolize, coordinate and inspire this movement. By keeping them inside, the government can say, “Oh, we’ve let the lawyers out of jail. We’re not cracking down on anybody’s rights.” But they’re still silencing the main inspiration, and the movement has lost a bit of steam.
What has this done to Musharraf’s political standing?
The thing about Musharraf is he’s a general. He’s a military ruler. He’s not a strategist. He’s not a politician. He often makes moves that blow up in his face and that’s because he really doesn’t know how to run a government. He doesn’t know how to deal with a free media, so this did not work to his favor at all. Locking up the lawyers, sacking the chief justice was probably the worst thing Musharraf ever did. Now, he faces more vocal opposition, more widespread opposition than he ever has before. Had he tried to reach a bargain with the chief justice or talked to him behind closed doors, instead of making a public spectacle, maybe the issue would have gone away.
Where does Musharraf’s support remain?
Musharraf has very few supporters left on the streets, but he has the backing of very powerful families – and very powerful industrial families run Pakistan politics. The family backing him is the Chaudhrys. They’re an industrial family from Punjab, the heartland of the country, and they are his strategists, his voice in the political forum. They run his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League. But aside from them -- and they are very powerful and with connections throughout the country -- there aren’t many people who support Musharraf.
We’ve even seen retired generals, from the institution that nurtured him and supported him and became his vehicle coming out and saying, “Musharraf, you need to step aside because the army is an institution that cares more about itself than a man.” That’s a lesson Musharraf is only now learning.
Another force supporting Musharraf is the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency. It’s well known that in 2002 the ISI helped Musharraf rig elections such that his party came to power.
Musharraf claims he imposed a state of emergency because of Taliban forces in the North-West Frontier Provinces. How legitimate do you think that claim was?
The claim Musharraf used – that a state of emergency was necessary because militants were threatening democracy – is totally farcical. He declared emergency on November 3, 2007. His first act was not to go after the militants in the North-West Frontier Province. His first act was to suspend the constitution in Pakistan, to fire all the judges of the Supreme Court, to basically have himself reelected president. Then, he jailed 5,000 lawyers throughout the country. Only after a week did he finally send the army in to an area that had been spiraling out of control for months, if not years.
Musharraf’s claim that this is about saving democracy is ironic and hypocritical, because he arrested the very people who are the democratic core in Pakistan, the lawyers, the opposition. Most people in Pakistan are reading this as another trick that Musharraf has pulled on the Pakistani people and the West to say, “Oh, militancy was getting so bad I had to do something.” When, in fact, his main target was his democratic opposition.
After reporting about the crackdown on the lawyers, why did you go to Swat Valley?
I first went to Swat in May 2007. Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric in the valley, had begun to become a problem for the Pakistani government. All the newspapers were writing about him. Editorials were coming out in the press about him because he was preaching a very extremist version of Islam. He was telling parents over a pirated radio station that they should not send their girls to school. He was telling people in his town that they should not be vaccinated against polio because the vaccination was a conspiracy concocted by the West to make young men impotent -- outlandish things like this. I realized he was becoming a new face of the Pakistani Taliban -- an extremist, an incredibly ignorant and dogmatic thinker, but nonetheless someone with a huge following. He had a following of about 15,000 people at that time.
After I met with Fazlullah, I continued to follow his story as he became more and more of an extremist. He started taking over towns in Swat Valley. He started arresting people and flogging them in public. He started setting up his own checkpoints and created a parallel system of government in his area. It was clear that he was becoming a headache that the government was going to have to deal with. [The situation] was going to explode.
And then you went back.
I went back in December because the military had finally moved against him. They sent 20,000 troops, helicopter gun ships, heavy artillery, which showed how powerful Fazlullah had become. It was a big deal.
What about the region itself? Why had the Pakistani Taliban taken hold?
Swat Valley is a beautiful, scenic place that is only 100 miles from Islamabad. But it’s also very close to the border of Afghanistan. It’s high in the mountains of the North-West Frontier Province. It was once considered the crown jewel of Pakistan’s tourism industry. It’s where Pakistanis and international tourists went for a quiet weekend because there are beautiful lakes, rivers and mountains. Below the beautiful surface, though, it’s an area seething with problems. It’s poor. The government doesn’t function. The police are notoriously corrupt. There was a festering sense of outrage among the people. There were no jobs, and there was no justice.
Along came a young, very inspired Muslim cleric, who preached a message of righteous rebellion. We’re going to bring you God’s law on earth. Your problems are going be solved. Islam is going to give you the justice you’re now lacking. It was a message that appealed to a lot of people because he was filling a vacuum. Slowly, he began to gain a popular following because there were no alternatives. But there came a time when the people in Swat realized his message was more extreme than they were willing to stomach. He became more and more violent in his interpretation of Islam. But I think Swat is indicative of what’s happening in Pakistan at large. The reason that the Taliban are growing in popularity, to some extent, is because the state is not functioning. Justice is not working; the rule of law is not working. The state is actively collapsing into itself because it’s removing figures such as the chief justice. If the Taliban are growing in places like Swat and the North-West Frontier Province, it’s a result of political expediency, where the government cares more about staying in power than it does about building schools and roads and taking on other developments.
You’re possibly the only Western journalist to have met Fazlullah. Can you tell us what that meeting was like?
We drove up to Swat Valley, a 4-hour drive through very winding roads. We got to his madrassa, his religious school, which is a huge structure he’s been building on illegally occupied land. I was very surprised when he walked into the room. Like Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, Fazlullah never allowed himself to be photographed. He maintained strict secrecy. Yet, in walked this very young man, and I was immediately surprised that he wasn’t charismatic. I mean, without speaking the language, I could deduce that he was not an incredibly provocative or engaging speaker. He was a friendly host. He served us sugarcane juice and asked about our health. After maybe 30 minutes, he got up and we all left the madrassa I’ll never forget that as Fazlullah walked away, he was surrounded by a crowd of people touching his gown and placing their hand over their heads, as if blessing themselves. He disappeared down by the river, surrounded by this huge crowd.
What did you ask him during that interview?
I asked if he condoned violence. Was he a terrorist? At the time we met with Fazlullah, he had nine terrorism cases filed against him. A policeman told us that the government knew [Fazlullah] had connections to al Qaeda, to other Pakistani-based military groups. He said, “I’m preaching – preaching is not terrorism. I go on the radio, and I talk to people about the Koran and God. That’s not a crime. The government doesn’t like me because I’m trying to bring down the system of bureaucracy that the British set up in the 19th century. I want a system that is ours; I want Sharia law. Because the government sides with the United States and the West, they think that I’m a criminal. But they are really the criminals.”
I asked [Fazlullah] why he was against girls’ education. He said he was not but that God favors men because men have beards. That was his explanation. Girls can go to school, but only in certain conditions. We also asked him about Buddhism because Swat has an incredibly rich history of Buddhism. He said he was willing to talk to other religions, but they were expected to convert to Islam. “They should ultimately see that our religion is superior,” he told me.
Aren’t his militias claiming responsibilities for extreme acts of violence in the region, like beheadings?
He said they were not involved in violence voluntarily, which I’m sure is not true. Ultimately, it’s clear if you listen to his radio addresses that fighting against the Americans in Afghanistan is sanctioned [by him]. It’s the duty of the Muslim jihad. It’s the duty of Muslims. I think this is just a line he provides the people who ask him, so it’s seen that he is innocent of these crimes. Locals we spoke to believe that he was violent and that was borne out when his men began beheading people and killing policemen in Swat. [The area] became much more violent.
There’s also the tradition of a ruling royal family in this region. Can you tell us about that?
Swat Valley was founded 100 years ago by a royal family. The region was its own princely state, basically. People will tell you that they have a certain sense of nostalgia for that time. There was one ruler, who ruled justly. Justice was efficient because in the end, it came down to the decision of one man and his family. People had jobs. They worked for the royal family. Over the years, though, the system of government changed as that state became incorporated into Pakistan. The royal family continued to be a figurative family, but they didn’t rule with the same amount of power. Democracy was implemented.
People will also say in Swat that as the system transitioned, corruption and inefficiency grew. For them, that’s why people – who are nowadays experiencing widespread poverty and injustice – look to that time as a golden age, when they could rely on the ruler and he was fair.
Yes, the family still has a huge reputation for being a moderate voice in the valley, a family that people respect because they’re fair and just. The children of the royal family continue to be prominent politicians, in particular Asfandiar Amir Zeb, who was the minister of education in the North-West Frontier Province.
What were your first impressions of Asfandiar and how he was dealing with Islamic radicals trying to control the region?
I first went to Swat in May of 2007. I met Asfandiar right before I met Fazlullah. He told me that something had to be done about Fazlullah – it was crucial. If you go after him now, Asfandiar said, you’ll be able to catch him because he is not so strong. If you wait six months, Asfandair added, you will never be able to catch him because he’ll become so powerful and so entrenched that his followers will turn against you. That’s exactly what happened.
My initial thought when I met Asfandiar was that he is like a Kennedy of the Swat Valley. He was very regal in his bearing and very articulate, very worried about his town and rightfully so. His family had been the voice of moderation in Swat Valley for hundreds of years, and he was watching [the region] slowly fall to this extremist cleric. He was probably one of the most outspoken voices against Fazlullah. I spent only a few hours with him in May, but I went back to see him in December. I made a point of seeing him first. He was out campaigning and I noticed that he seemed to have a very heavy weight on his shoulders. I don’t know if it was because he realized things were really bad because the army was now in Swat or because his predictions about Fazlullah’s control had come true. We followed him around for a couple of days. When we were leaving, he said, “There’s a big rally coming up. You guys should stay.” I said, “OK, we’ll try, but we have to go to this other meeting.” Leaving, I shook hands with him and said, “I hope we’ll see you later.” That was the last time I’d ever see him.
Where were you when you heard that Asfandiar had been assassinated? And how did you react to the news?
I was in a hotel room in Lahore. Benazir Bhutto had just been assassinated that afternoon. I spent the whole day watching her death play out on television. I stayed up the entire night. I probably slept about two hours. I got up, showered and my cell phone rang. This was the afternoon of December 28. It was my journalist friend who had taken me to meet Fazlullah and Asfandiar. His voice was heavy, and he asked, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in Lahore.” He asked if everything was OK, and then he said, “Asfandiar was killed today in a roadside bombing.” I was shocked. “Oh, my God,” I said, “I can’t believe it.” He replied, “Yeah, I’m just in tears. I’ll call you later. I can’t talk right now.”
I hung up the phone. I was shocked that a guy who I had spent time with was dead. In the back of my mind, I replayed the last moments I spent with Asfandiar and wondered, “Did I see something? Was there an omen that something was going to happen to this guy?” No one I had ever interviewed in that way had been killed -- somebody who I had spent time with and who seemed like a voice of hope. When I left Pakistan, it started to sink in -- Asfandiar is gone, and the Taliban have won. They’ve killed this guy who was somebody that this area really needed.
How serious a threat are the Pakistani Taliban when it comes to destabilizing Pakistan and the region?
The Pakistani Taliban are very serious. They’ve become more of a threat than the Taliban in Afghanistan. American officials have just said they believe the Taliban in Afghanistan will not launch a spring offensive this year because all their energies are going to be focused in Pakistan. They have a hit list of federal ministers and of politicians in Pakistan who they want to kill. They want to destabilize the Pakistani state, and they realize that it’s a better target than Afghanistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If they kill Musharraf, he is more of an asset to the United States than President [Hamid] Karzai in Afghanistan. It is a very serious problem. They are totally shifting their focus to Pakistan, and they’re spreading. They detonated a suicide bomb recently in [Lahore], which is in the heartland of Pakistan, a city where people never imagined this kind of thing happening. It’s an indication that the problem is spreading from the Frontier Province, from the west and further east into Pakistan. That just shows how the government is not in control.
What is the Pakistan government doing about it at this point?
They are trying to contain the problem by sending troops into the area that is considered the base for these people. Historically, that has not worked. The army can’t fight these people on their own territory. It’s rough terrain. Their tactic is a military tactic and one that is not going to work. The problem is much deeper than that. There are no short-term solutions to this problem in Pakistan, which is what the government is trying to achieve. The solutions involve development, education and poverty eradication. Right now what the government is trying to do is stop up a little hole by sending in the army to kill a few militants, but that is spreading the problem even further.
Where does the United States come into this? What sort of intervention could be effective?
The U.S. administration is increasingly worried about Pakistan – again, more so than Afghanistan. They realize that Musharraf is not really in control of the Frontier Province. They are scrambling to come up with their own strategy [for control] and it’s a controversial strategy because they are pushing to send Special Forces into Pakistan’s tribal zone. That’s a solution that may work, but it will be incredibly unpopular with the Pakistani people.
Musharraf has already said he will not allow any foreign troops to come in and fight on Pakistani soil. But I think the Americans are convinced that this may be their last resort. They have given Musharraf free reign to eradicate the militants. They’ve given him money. They’ve given him weapons. One hundred thousand Pakistani troops are on the border with Afghanistan, but they have failed to stop this problem.
The Americans are beginning to think we’ve put our trust in the wrong person or that we’ve put our trust in only one person and we need to broaden our efforts. But more importantly, we might have to go in there ourselves. And I think if that happens we’re really going to see a very dangerous escalation in Pakistan. There’s going to be a huge backlash against Musharraf, against the United States. The United States risks falling into the same trap that the British fell into, that the Russians fell into, which is [the U.S. government is] gets bogged down in a guerilla war with Pashtun radicals, who have never lost a battle on their own soil. It is probably going to repeat what’s happened in Afghanistan and Iraq -- war against an enemy that hits and then retreats into the population.
Musharraf’s critics say he has helped fuel the extremism by courting extreme religious parties and then turning to the U.S. for help in stamping them out.
There are a lot of people in Pakistan -- analysts, strategists, critics -- who believe that Musharraf has very carefully calculated the growth of extremism because it makes him relevant to the United States. For example, when Musharraf came to power he had no natural allies in government, so he formed a very strange alliance with the religious parties in Pakistan. He formed a coalition government with them. He was the first president in the history of Pakistan to give the religious parties control of two provinces. He did that very strategically because he had nowhere else to turn and the religious parties had nowhere else to turn.
Without the problem of extremism, Musharraf is not as much of an asset to the U.S. government. A lot of people feel that since 9/11 – since [Musharraf] promised the United States government, “I am with you,” – he’s been pulling the wool over the eyes of the U.S. government by saying, “Yes, I’m going after these people.”
But he has made arrests and sent thousands of troops to the region.
Sure, he’s made arrests. The Pakistani government loves to say that they’ve lost hundreds of men fighting al Qaeda, which is true, but there are many other things that they could do. They could be putting people on trial. Pakistan has very rarely put al Qaeda suspects on trial. They kill people, which furthers the problem.
A lot of people are convinced that Musharraf has a dual policy. We have seen that he supports the militants and then fires back at them. In September 2006, he cut a truce deal with them. He gave back to the Taliban weapons and money and freed some of their soldiers in return for a truce. A lot of people thought this was a blatantly dangerous policy.
You’ve just described Musharraf as playing this dual role. How do his political opponents propose dealing with growing extremism?
Talk to members of the opposition on the ground in Pakistan – most will tell you that if a democratic government dedicated to fighting extremism were in place, the problem could be eradicated within months. The opposition is not proposing to send in the military to kill people, [rather,] to limit the space that extremists have in Pakistan. Right now, extremists have a great deal of space because their religious parties are favored by Musharraf’s government. Right now, the opposition has no voice in Pakistan; their parties have been systematically broken up by Musharraf’s government. They want to get their voice out. They want to make that voice very loud and to present an alternative to people, [to show] that Pakistan can be based on the rule of law, that if you have grievances, the Supreme Court and the lower court are going to answer them. The areas infiltrated by the Taliban are the most backward, underfunded, ill-educated parts of Pakistan. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there is this festering problem of extremism. The opposition wants to put in place plans to build roads and schools, to allow girls to go to school – long-term solutions that are based more on development than a military strike.
What do you think the likelihood is of U.S. troops going into Pakistan in the near future?
I think American troops may have to go into Pakistan’s tribal belt, but that has to be a short-term solution and the American government realizes that, too. They’ve recently announced they’re going to invest $750 million in Pakistan’s tribal belt, building schools, roads, installing water pumps and so on – a lot of the development aid that they’ve done in Afghanistan. [It] is a very good step; it’s the first time that the American government is doing this in Pakistan. But it may be coming too late.