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Shahan Mufti on Pakistan's Taliban Insurgency

With bombings in Lahore and Peshawar, Pakistan's Taliban insurgency seems to be getting more dire by the moment. Passport spoke with GlobalPost correspondent Shahan Mufti about the gravity of the threat, the disillusionment with Obama, and Islamabad's new green and red zones. Here's the audio.



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[Editor's note: the following is a transcript of the call with Shahan Mufti]


Passport: Good morning and welcome everybody. Its May 29, I’m David Case, the editor of GlobalPost Passport calling from the GlobalPost newsroom in Boston. Our topic today is the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. This is a subject that seems to get evermore pressing by the moment. Over the past week, we’ve seen deadly bombings in Peshawar and Lahore. The Taliban appears to be trying to sow panic in the civilian population, urging urban citizens to get out of town before they launch more and perhaps even bigger attacks. Meanwhile, Taliban forces control an increasingly large swath of northwestern Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. By some estimates, 2.4 million people have fled the fighting in what aid workers are calling one of the biggest exoduses since the Rwandan genocide.


With us to discuss this is Shahan Mufti. Shahan covers Pakistan for GlobalPost. A Pakistani-American, Shahan has visited the country many times. He’s been a resident since 2007. In addition to GlobalPost, he has reported for The Nation, The Columbia Journalism Review, CNN, Fox, BBC and NPR. Born to Pakistani parents in a small town in Ohio, he was a Fulbright scholar in India. He has a master’s degree in journalism from NYU and a bachelor’s degree in international policy from Middlebury. He also wrote one of GlobalPost’s most viewed stories on Pakistan’s black market for stolen US military computers and gear.


Before we begin, I have a few announcements. First, remember that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. Regarding the format: in keeping with Passport’s mission of maximizing audience participation, we have compiled questions from our members via email and integrated them into a Q and A. I will lead the Q and A for about twenty minutes; afterwards, we can open up the lines to questions. The call will end after thirty minutes. If you have a question, please email me at davidcase(at)globalpost(dot)com and I’ll try to integrate those questions as well. All of your phones are now muted, later I will explain how to un-mute your phones. Please remember that Shahan is calling from Pakistan, so there will be a slight delay and perhaps some interference in the line, especially if more than one person tries to speak at a time.


I’ll explain how we’re going to call on people this time around. We have a number of people on the line today who are not Passport members, I’d like to welcome them as well and encourage them to visit forward slash Passport to read about the service, which we think is fairly unique in the world of journalism.


So, just to begin with Shahan, we had a little bit of trouble with the line this morning. Shahan, you are still there, aren’t you?


Mufti: Yeah, I’m here.


Passport: Great, I’m glad to hear that. Tell us, what’s the mood there in Islamabad today?


Mufti: It’s been tense. A lot more tense than I’ve seen it recently. They’ve cornered off what they call the Red Zone now, so I think its (indecipherable) and Kabul, Islamabad is now split into a Green and Red Zone. And I couldn’t go into the Red Zone, I had to show my press pass to actually get in there, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to go there. Yeah, the Taliban have issued threats on the city and there have been two bombings in the past two days in different big cities, so it is a little tense today.


Passport: Give us the lay of the land. What is it like in the area where the Pakistani troops and the Taliban are currently battling?


Mufti: Where they have been battling, in the tribal areas, is a very different landscape than where they are battling now, in the northern areas. The tribal areas, a large part of the tribal areas, is actually pretty arid territory, not vegetated heavily and its pretty deserted, some of it. It’s thinly populated. The valley that the army is now engaging the Taliban in in the north, the Swat Valley, is pretty green actually. Its known as the Switzerland of Pakistan. I’ve been up there, it’s a beautiful valley with rivers and people go up there for a skiing vacation, it actually has Pakistan’s only serious ski slope as well. Its beautiful valley, but in the last three or four years, its turned into a war zone.


Passport: Ok, and why is this area of strategic interest to the United States?


Mufti: Well, to the United States, obviously, the Swat Valley is an extension of the Taliban presence in the tribal areas of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan. And the United States has long said that the tribal areas is where the Afghan resistance is rooting from against NATO forces. This is an extension into Pakistan’s north. This is strategic area for Pakistan as well, immensely, because many are moving up into the northern areas, which are contested between India and Pakistan and towards Kashmir. So this is very fast moving into territory, which is very heavy strategic interest to Pakistan.


Passport: Now talk about the plight of the people fleeing the fighting. Where do they go and what awaits them when they arrive there?


Mufti: Well that is really is the big story right now, at least here domestically as well, is what I’m seeing. I just arrived in the country two days ago again, and I haven’t been up to these refugee camps, but I did cover a similar situation last year, a few months ago actually, when the refugees started fleeing the tribal areas where there was fighting towards the west. And it’s pretty dire. Pakistan has a long history of hosting refugees, external refugees. After the Afghan crisis, there were some three to five, six million Afghan refugees came and as a result for refugees there’s a historic and very long presence in Pakistan, so for the authorities, it’s nothing new. I think that the scale of this is something the United Nations has called one of the biggest internal migrations in history, so it’s obviously on a huge scale. So, the basic facilities are there, just not in the right amount. And people are obviously not living in great conditions; they never are in those refugee camps.


Passport: Now, you have fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in the Swat Valley, what about the people who’ve left? To the extent that you can generalize, what are the sympathies of these people? Are they pro-Taliban? Are they hoping the government will clean out their neighborhoods for them?


Mufti: Well, I think that’s it. I think that when you talk to them, their basic concern really is, especially those in the refugee camps, their basic concern is to get back home as soon as they can. Its not a great condition to live in and none of them are really enjoying it, and obviously most of these people are civilians and the militant guerillas are really fighting and embedding themselves in large, peaceful civilian populations. They really want to get back. And that’s what you find out from most of them, that they’re not necessarily pro-Taliban, but they’re not too happy about what the government is doing and what the army is doing. So its hard to understand, it would be immensely hard to understand being caught in that situation between the fighting and firing is coming from, where the attacks are coming from. There is no real ideological connection to the Taliban, but there is the ethnic identification with the Pashtun and the Pakistan army does carry this heavy Punjabi, you know, badge. So people view it as a Punjabi force, which is a major ethnic group in Pakistan.


Passport: From our vantage point here in the US, the conflict sounds very ominous. We know that Pakistan is a nuclear power, then we hear that the conflict is about seventy miles from the capitol… that’s about the distance between Washington and Baltimore. On top of that, we hear about bombings taking in place in major cities, like this week in Peshawar and Lahore. How dangerous is the situation?


Mufti: Yeah, it is the distance between Washington and Baltimore, but I think a better comparison might be that this is the distance between Washington and Morrisville, Virginia. Or some other place in Virginia. Because that, I think, is really a better comparison, because these territories that the Taliban are occupying, even the Swat and Malakand and these bigger cities, that were never occupied before, but these are still small towns, underdeveloped, most of what the Taliban are controlling right now are back countries, Swat, like I said, was a tourist resort and is of some importance, but this is not… if you were to compare Washington and Baltimore, that would be Peshawar and Islamabad, and Peshawar is still a large city and free from the Taliban, but there’s definitely a threat there. This threat is being blown up in Washington, a little bit… more than what it is, and in Pakistan as well. And then we talk about suicide bombings, obviously, and that’s a classic modern guerilla tactic, and I think that every country that faces this is having huge problems controlling it. So you’re right. Major cities like Peshawar and Lahore are vulnerable right now. And Islamabad and Karachi, which are tense right now. And its going to be a test for the government, and police forces, and the army.


Passport: Do you have a sense of where the conflict might go next?


Mufti: Well, obviously we’ve seen the Taliban expand from the tribal areas, they’ve now moved into what where the historical… from the autonomous tribal areas to the areas that were once autonomous. So we still see them operating in formerly autonomous regions. The only next step they can take is to move into Peshawar, which is a major Pashtun city. They have a presence on all sides, even though they’re heavily engaged, I don’t see that happening immediately. But then there’s also the question of whether the Taliban will bleed over in the Punjab, which is ethnically not their territory, this is non-Pashtun territory, in the Punjab, and when we see things like the bombing in Lahore a few days ago, then we have a Punjabi group. A non-Pashtun group that is identifying with the Taliban, who are supposedly, according to intelligence reports, were involved with this bombing. So we’re really starting to see the Taliban move into the plains of the Punjab, which is not their home territory at all, which, I guess, is the next step they can take, but they haven’t made any… it doesn’t seem like they’re headed in that direction any time soon. I mean, they are, they have a trajectory, but it doesn’t seem likely that the Punjab will go soon.


Passport: The commander of Pakistan’s army recently said that the Taliban poses an existential threat. And Secretary of State Clinton actually used the same words. Is this an existential threat? And if it isn’t, why would he say such a thing?


Mufti: Well I think they are. The Pakistani government is taking about an existential threat, the army is, the State Department is… from my vantage, here on the ground, I think this is an unfair classification, I don’t think this is true. Obviously, the Pakistani army has its own reasons, it is one of the biggest clients of American arms in the world, I think the second or third largest client. The Pakistani government is a very shaky government, which is extremely unpopular. The President is one of the most unpopular presidents this country has seen, and having this treat really solidifies having support from abroad, in Washington. And then, yeah, the State Department has also said these things, I think everybody has a reason to exaggerate this threat more than it is right now, but like I said, from where I am looking at this right now, this is far from an existential threat. Although this is a huge problem the Pakistani army and the government are facing. And the Americans are facing. But whether the Pakistan state is about to fall, I’m not too sure.


Passport: To what extent do the Pakistani people you talk to see this as an American war versus one spearheaded by Islamabad?


Mufti: That is really the question of the last few years now and this debate has been going on in Pakistan. I was at the mosque today for Friday prayers in the afternoon. This is my neighborhood mosque. I live in a not an up-scale neighborhood, but a well-off neighborhood of Islamabad, on the outskirts. And this mosque usually only talks about spirituality and those easy things. But, today actually, the sermon was about this war. And the imam, the leader at the mosque, was really railing against what he called “an American war.” And his solution was for, as he said, the Muslims in Pakistan to pull out of the American agenda and decide what is good for the Muslim world and stop killing their own people. This debate has been on going. Granted, most people in my neighborhood would not go to the mosque, but this is still a widespread view. That Pakistan is embroiled in an American war right now. That this is a spillover from the American invasion of Afghanistan, and that if the Americans were to leave Afghanistan, that things would start settling down. It’s being debated right now in Pakistan. You can read it in the columns, in the teahouses, its everywhere. But, yeah, a lot of people still view this as an American war and that is unlikely to change as long as there are such civilian casualties on both sides inside of Pakistan.


Passport: Shahan, how has US policy toward Pakistan changed since President Obama took office? Is there any evidence that the US is deploying the so-called “smart power” that we heard about?


Mufti: I was in the US right before, during the election campaign, then I came here when President Obama was elected. I covered that from here. There was that moment, right when he got elected, where all across the board, from the mosques to the marketplaces, there was this sense that things are going to change between Pakistan and the United States. Unfortunately, from the Pakistani view, things have not, and that’s been forgotten. That moment’s passed. That moment of hope for change has passed in Pakistan. And there has been this Af-Pak concept that the Obama administration has introduced and all of that, but in many ways, the administration has been harder on Pakistan than the Bush administration. Because it coddled the Musharaf administration for many years. As far as this “smart power” that you talk about, I think the Obama administration is still working something out and they haven’t clearly defined what their strategy is and how its different from what the previous administration was trying.


Passport: Do you have a sense of what experts are saying they should be doing that they’re not doing now?


Mufti: Experts in Washington? Or experts here?


Passport: You choose.


Mufti: Ok, well I know that the view from here in Pakistan, the strategic planners that I speak to here, which include army personnel, is that there needs to be a reasonable approach between Af-Pak, (which is the exact antithesis of regional approach, Af-Pak really limits the problem to a few hundred square miles of central Asia.) A regional approach says that all the regional players in the Afghan conflict need to be invited into this in order to solve this. And I think the Pakistan strategic planners would say is missing. Is that India needs to get involved. Pakistan would love to see India get involved in this whole thing… China, Iran, I mean, all the players around Afghanistan. That all these people need to be brought in, and that way, Pakistan would see its interest being served through some resolution of the conflict. Because Af-Pak now is putting the heavy burden on Pakistan, which Pakistani experts say is not working.

Passport: You were just in New York, you appeared on Bill Moyer’s Journal. There’s a lot of talk on that show about Pakistan’s urban middle class. You sense is that this middle class doesn’t support the Taliban and that this massive middle class is a much stronger force than the Taliban themselves. But there are a lot of reports now of civilian casualties… is this alienating the middle class?

Mufti: Well, yeah. It works in both ways. I think that the mass popular opinion has never been so squarely behind the government and the military against the militancy as it is now. I have seen this in the two years that I’ve covered this now from Pakistan. Public opinion seems to be squarely behind it. But with these bombings, with this huge refugee problem, and the civilian casualties… well, the civilian casualties really have been saved by the refugee problem, ironically enough, but yeah, all of this has its affect. And I think this is a threshold for how far this can go. How many suicide bombs there can be in the cities, how long the refugees can sit out in the blazing sun, its about 110 degrees in some places now, so there really is a threshold of how far this can go and how quickly the army can wrap up its operation. But it is having its affect on the middle class, but the middle class right now is supporting the government more and the army more than it ever has before, for sure.


Passport: But then again, according to a pew study from late 2008, support for the US is pretty low in Pakistan, it said something like less than 20 percent have a favorable view of the US.


Mufti: Oh yeah. I think when you’re talking about support for the US and their campaign in Afghanistan that there are very few Pakistanis who will clearly see, or who share a view with the Americans about what’s going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If there’s no support for the Taliban, I think there’s even less support for American policy in the region, for sure.


Passport: Let’s assume, just for the moment, that worst happens and Pakistan actually becomes a failed state. If that does happen, how does that change, or how should it change American policy?


Mufti: Well, I think we really need to flesh out the failed state concept at some point and maybe we can do that during the question and answer. But, I mean, there are many scenarios. There could be a military coup in Pakistan, which would no new news, that would be, like, the fifth time. There could be an Islamic revolution in Pakistan, there’s another option. There could be balkanization of Pakistan, you could actually see the states splitting apart across ethnic lines. I mean, it’s really unclear. I’m unclear about what the failed state concept is. And according to how these failed state, or whatever, changes happen in Pakistan, if we just say that Pakistan is going to go through some major changes, and it might, but I think it really depends on the nature of change and that will define what the US policy has to be. But I think the United States needs to be at least the planners, and should be aware of what might happen in Pakistan in the next could years, months.


Passport: Before we have the question and answer session, I want to ask one last question. I want to sort of go back to square one…


Mufti: Sure.


Passport: …and ask you, what does the Taliban want? Do they want autonomy? Do they want their own version of sharia? Or are they interested in taking over Pakistan and possibly get access to the country’s nuclear weapons?


Mufti: Yeah, this is a tricky question. We know about the Taliban what we know about them. We know that they haven’t really expressed a desire to take over Islamabad and rule over the country. That’s something that they have not expressed in any serious way. They have shown that they want their own rule, they are sort of a secessionist movement, they’re Pashtun so far, this is a purely Pastun movement so far, this might change. But they’re an ethnic movement, and they have shown signs of secessionism in that they want their own version of law applied in their territory, they didn’t want anything to do with Pakistani Sharia law or sharia courts, they wanted their own law. So, there is this element of breaking away or being autonomous in the state and like I said, they’re operated in autonomous territory so far. As far as the country’s nuclear weapons, they’ve never shown any interest in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and it seems very unlikely. So far their most deadly weapon has been suicide bombers, which as you know, a lot of guerilla movements have been using that. So that’s the deadliest that they’ve shown, plus the huge bombs, but as far as the nuclear arsenal, I don’t see that eventuality any time in the near future.


Passport: We’ll take some questions now. What I’d like you to do if you do have a question, is open up your line after I’m finished by pressing *6 and then I’m going to ask my colleague Rick Bryne, who’s actually on the line, to call on people. He can see that your line is open. So at this point if you can press *6, we’ll call on you by the last four digits of your phone number. Hopefully that will work. This is an experiment.


Caller 1: The question is about Saudi Arabia and its involvement in feeding Taliban resources or personnel or otherwise. Any thoughts? Clues?


Mufti: Well, I think Saudi Arabia is really the unspoken part of this whole dynamic. Its amazing how often the Saudis are in this country, they’ve flown Saudi intelligence chiefs and supplies into the country in the middle of the night and it goes back. Saudis are deeply interested in what’s going on in Pakistan. As far as whether they’re funding this militancy, I don’t think the Saudi government has any interest in destabilizing the Pakistani army or the state right now. I don’t see that. The Saudis are deeply involved, though, they have their horse in the race with Nawaz Sharif who is a recently returned former Prime Minister who is s huge power player in the country right now and who has his own conservative and sometimes Islamist tendencies. So I think the Saudis are involved, at a political level, definitely, and in shaping things in Pakistan the way they want to see them happen. But as far as them funding the Taliban in Pakistan, I don’t think. I think the Taliban have different revenue streams right now, which we can talk about as well.


Passport: Why don’t you talk about that? What are the Taliban’s revenue streams right now, Shahan?


Mufti: Well, the Taliban (indecipherable) again, the border is poorish, and there is a drug trade, that really has funded the Taliban in Afghanistan for decades now. For over a decade. Those funds are spilling over into the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban… there is a drug trade, but they seem more desperate than the Afghani Taliban, there’s a huge kidnapping industry that’s happening right now that’s operating in Peshawar, we’ve seen high-level ambassadors, aid workers getting kidnapped, but often these things are resolved with huge amounts of money. So they have their own revenue stream. They seem to be funded. Obviously Pakistani intelligence and security are pointing fingers at Afghanistan and India, but then we’re getting into regional blame games. But the Pakistani intelligence establishment is blaming Afghanistan and India, but everyone is blaming them for funding them. But they’re strong. They have their own independent revenue stream as well.


Caller 2: Yes, hello, I’d like to know what you think the Americans could do to create a sense of common cause with the Pakistanis against the Taliban and what is your opinion as to why we’re not seen as having a common cause with Pakistan against the Taliban?


Mufti: That’s a good question. I think there are two levels to this. I think at one level, there’s obviously a war for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. Somehow the Pakistani people the civilian population, needs to be convinced that the American aim in the region are in line with the Pakistanis. But there is the other level, which is the Pakistani strategic planning. And the strategic planners in Pakistan, by which I mean the government, high levels of the army and intelligence. I think these are two different projects. I think that once the strategic planners have been won over, the hearts and minds should be easy. But like I said, this is not… this is generally what you would call a moderate Islamic society, has been for years, it was the first Islamic constitutional democracy, there is a real democratic society in Pakistan, always has been. But I think what really needs to happen first, which hasn’t happened yet, is find the strategic planners at the highest level, in Washington and in Pakistan, Islamabad, finding a common cause, finding some sort of common vision for the region. Obviously throwing money at Pakistan does not work. And it hasn’t worked for eighty years, and I don’t think throwing more money at this establishment is going to work, because what is the price of regional security? What does Pakistan have to give up for the dream of having a friendly government in Afghanistan? Or even a satellite state in Afghanistan? What is the price of accepting Indian superiority in the region? These are things that need to be discussed, things that need to be on the table. And I don’t see that happening much. Just talk of war policy and things like that. Pakistan seems to be half on board and then not.


Caller 2: Is there anyone in the US government who might be thinking along these lines that you’ve just described? Or is there any sense that the Obama administration understands this?


Mufti: I think, you know what? Joe Biden. It was amazing to see him on the ticket because he was the most knowledgeable person in congress, on the vice presidential ticket, and he ends up in office. What I’m surprised about is Joe Biden is nowhere to be seen. I guess he’s fulfilling the role of an inactive vice president in some ways, which is sad because I think he does have a really deep understanding of the region. John Kerry is one that has taken an interest recently, and he was in Pakistan, he was part of the Foreign Relations Committee. But Holbrooke so far, I don’t think, has not been able to articulate a clear vision. He doesn’t have experience in the region, but we are in a test drive phase. But the Obama administration is going to need to find some sort of out-of-the-box thinking, obviously because this is an unusual conflict.


Caller 3: Hi, this is David Phillips, and I’m just building on a follow-up to a previous question. The notion of regional cooperation, regional influence… can you hear me?


Mufti: Yeah, yeah, go on.


Caller 3: Regional influence from the other players, China, India and Iran. How do you reconcile that? I mean, that was probably one of the most important things you said on the call, in my opinion. But how do you reconcile that with the fact that Pakistan has something like sixty nuclear warheads, most of which are pointed at India, and what are the other relationships, corresponding relationships between Pakistan and China and Pakistan and Iran?


Mufti: Yeah, this is exactly what I was talking about. China is one of Pakistan’s prime military suppliers as well, along with the United States. But it’s a different sort of military supply. China is building military supplies with Pakistan, so they’re joint cooperation. Its like they have actual programs where they’re working together. They’re building fighter jets. They have seventeen. Iran and Pakistan just signed a gas pipeline agreement this week, which is probably one of the most important gas pipeline agreements that has been signed in the past couple years in central Asia, which might become a reality in the next four years or so. So this is what’s going on in the region. Pakistan is really reaching out to China and Iran because it sees India’s relationship with the United States deepening. But that doesn’t preclude a grand diplomatic gesture, which the United States has done in the past in the region. And which I think really will help solve this Afghanistan issue pretty quickly is to bring all the players around to the table. They’re not going to like each other, obviously, for their own historic reasons, not all of them, but that doesn’t preclude bringing them to the table, and getting them to recognize each other’s interests, if not fulfilling them, but at least getting them talking. That’s something that hasn’t been tried in this Afghanistan war yet. And that’s something that the Obama administration has the human capitol to do and capability. And right now, the moral stance to do it.


Passport: To follow up on David’s question, what about India? Prime Minister Singh has a strong mandate having been reelected. Is there any hope that India could come to the table as well?


Mufti: India is going to be tricky. Obviously, not everybody is going to be jumping for joy at this suggestion of a regional mood summit. But India obviously needs things from the United States, the United States obviously needs things from India, and India is looking strongly at a few council teams that may be a chip that can be used to get them to the table, India, obviously just signed this nuclear deal which is going through, so there are relationships here to be exploited, used, whatever you want to call it. Pakistan obviously needs the United States in many ways, Pakistan needs India in some ways. There was recently an article in a major magazine about how close India and Pakistan had gotten on moving forward on the Kashmir issue, which has been pretty much dead for sixty years, I mean, not dead, but pretty much stalled for sixty years. So there is a desire between India and Pakistan as well to get over these regional differences, but its complicated, obviously, by this war in Afghanistan, by Pakistan’s involvement in India, by India’s involvement in Afghanistan, so its complicated, but we can’t preclude that diplomacy can’t have an affect on changing these things.


Passport: Ok, I think we’re going to have to wrap it at that, please keep following the news at GlobalPost and at GlobalPost Passport, we’ll be following this issue very closely. Thank you very much Shahan for joining us today and thanks everyone for listening.