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NPR’s Inskeep: Many Pakistanis Feel ‘Deeply Insecure’ Over Future

June 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After Osama bin Laden's death, NPR's Steve Inskeep returned to Pakistan, a country he's been covering for nearly a decade. He found that many there are losing confidence in the future and wondering if the country can be truly independent when it gets billions in U.S. aid. Margaret Warner speaks with the Morning Edition co-host.
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GWEN IFILL: And now to Pakistan.

Several new bombings shook the peace there again today, including the first suicide bomb attack in the capital, Islamabad. At least one person died and three others were wounded. There were also attacks in the tribal areas, killing three soldiers, and in Quetta. No group has claimed responsibility, but the Pakistani Taliban have vowed to avenge Osama bin Laden’s killing.

Margaret Warner gets an eyewitness account of the fraying situation on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, deeper strains have developed between supposed allies the United States and Pakistan.

NPR “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep just returned from a two-week trip there. He’s reported often from Pakistan and is the author of a forthcoming book, “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.”

And, Steve, welcome back to the program.

STEVE INSKEEP, National Public Radio: Glad to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you went there to assess Pakistan after Osama bin Laden found there and killed there. What did you find?

STEVE INSKEEP: I wanted to go because this was the end of the story for Americans, this 10-Year, almost 10-year search for this man, and trying to avenge, if that’s the word, the crimes of 9/11.

But we felt that it might be a beginning for Pakistan, this deeply troubled country. And we quickly found that it was true. And we quickly entered, I don’t want to say an alternate reality, but a place where people are perceiving the world very differently.

One the first things we did was simply go out on the street and ask people about the death of bin Laden. And we found a lot of people who didn’t believe that he was dead, or, if he was dead, he certainly wasn’t killed, they said, the way the Americans said. That seems to be the case with almost half of Pakistanis.

And I think that’s symbolic. That kind of conspiratorial thinking is symbolic of the moment that people are in. They are deeply insecure. They’re deeply uncertain about the world and what the future holds.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, did you find them — did you that the bin Laden — finding bin Laden in Pakistan, did it prompt soul-searching, or were they defensive about it?

STEVE INSKEEP: I think both of those phrases would apply. People in the military are profoundly defensive. People in the intelligence agency, the ISI, are defensive. It was a great embarrassment. “We should have found him,” as a security official was telling me. They acknowledge that much.

At the same time, they were offended by the fact that the United States didn’t inform Pakistan what they were doing. It was a showing of profound distrust. On the streets, there’s a variety of reactions and, among the politicians, a variety of reactions.

One of the most interesting to me was a willingness to criticize and question the power of Pakistan’s army, which plays a huge role in national life, takes up a huge part of the national budget…

MARGARET WARNER: Budget.

STEVE INSKEEP: … and a huge part of the national image. And people are beginning to ask in a sharper way than they have at some other times about whether that’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you went up to a town right at the edge of the tribal region. What did you find there and elsewhere about how their fight, the one that the U.S. really cares about, against terrorists and militants in their midst is going?

STEVE INSKEEP: They are learning the same lessons that the United States learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is that, no matter how large your army, no matter how smart your army, no matter how well-armed they are, an insurgency is extraordinarily difficult to fight.

The town that you refer to is a town in the center of a district or county, so to speak, called Charsadda, where, basically, a paramilitary base was bombed, two bombs. One bomb, a number of people are killed. There’s injured. People are rushing to the scene, and another bomb goes off. And this is in an area that was cleared by the army a couple of years ago.

And what’s happening in area after area all across these tribal zones and the nearby areas along the border with Afghanistan is that troops move in. Thousands of troops move in. They drive back the Taliban or other associated groups, but that groups filter back in again, and the troops can never leave.

And even though they have 140,000 soldiers there, they are running out of soldiers to go everywhere that they need to go.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back to the public and when you talked about the suspicion and the conspiracy theories.

What is the state — I mean, you went to a — you went to a college where I think you said some of the students were on U.S. scholarships. And, yet, you found a lot of suspicion and resentment. Tell us about that. And what is at the root of it?

STEVE INSKEEP: It is the discussion in Pakistan: Are we really an independent country? Are we just doing what the United States tells us to do?

And, yes, on this college, where there were USAID-partially funded scholarships — they got money from elsewhere to round out the scholarships — where there is a new building, a science building, that was paid for in part by the USAID, where students are appreciative of that aid, they are still wondering about, what is the bargain for their country? There’s a lot more money being spent on the military.

And people are wondering what is it that the country is being asked to do in response, in — in return for this aid, and is it worth it? Because they also see news stories about American drone strikes killing people. Now, the Pakistani military has indicated they actually think these drone strikes are pretty effective.

I think the government is being more than a little hypocritical about this in their criticism. But there is a lot of angst on the street and anger on the street and concern about civilians being killed.

MARGARET WARNER: And, as you said in a couple of your pieces, a lot of suspicion about U.S. motives here.

STEVE INSKEEP: Yes.

And when you begin laying out the theories, they make perfect sense to a lot of Pakistanis, and make no sense to Americans. People — there was actually a newspaper article while I was there written by a serving member of the military, under his own name, stating that the United States was behind a recent militant attack on a naval base in Karachi, that it was some kind of plot to bring down Pakistan, and that the long-term goal was to destabilize this country to the point where it would be acceptable to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

It sounds crazy to Americans, but it doesn’t sound crazy to a lot of Pakistanis. And even people who would acknowledge that, OK, that’s not a real theory, there’s no evidence of that, they are still concerned about America’s motives in a broader way. Why is the United States being involved in the way that it is in this country?

MARGARET WARNER: And then, going even deeper into this alternate reality that you found in one of our supposed allies in this region, you got some incredible comments from thoughtful people about the national psyche right now, I mean, words like despair, anxiety, depression.

What was that all about?

STEVE INSKEEP: That is a conversation that’s been going on for a long time in Pakistan.

And, as Mosharraf Zaidi, one of the people you may be referring to, a writer, journalist and development expert in Pakistan, was saying, this is a profoundly difficult time. It is an insurgency that has gone on for years. Things have been blowing up all over that country for years. And it is extremely difficult for people. And they’re not getting answers.

You don’t necessarily know who commits a murder in that country. You don’t really know, necessarily, who commits a bombing. You don’t trust your government. You don’t get answers from your government. You don’t know who to turn to, and so you make up stuff. And that’s part of the problem, he says.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, you have been reporting from there since 2002 off and on.

STEVE INSKEEP: Mm-hmm. 

MARGARET WARNER: Does it feel to you like a country that’s really losing confidence in its own future?

STEVE INSKEEP: I think that there’s always a degree of that in Pakistan.

This country had a strange beginning at the time when British India was made independent and it was divided into two countries. The country in some ways has never quite gotten over that beginning. There is always a struggle over national identity: What are we doing here? What is our purpose?

There’s been an effort to fill that gap with religion, which has led to all kinds of other political problems, as you know very well, Margaret. But, at the same time, there is an incredible resilience to people. I have done a lot of reporting in the city of Karachi, which has been incredibly violent for many years before Americans were really ever paying attention there, an incredible number of bombings, of killings, of other kinds of violence, religious violence and many other kinds of violence.

And, yet, every day, people get up again. Millions of people get up again, and go to work. And, on some level, the city functions. And, so, even though we’re talking about a deeply troubled country at a deeply troubled time, I’m often inspired by the people that I meet there.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Inskeep of NPR, thank you so much.

STEVE INSKEEP: Glad to do it.