Nine of us arrived in Islamabad very early Wednesday, at 3 a.m. It was a long flight, but our fatigue didn’t last long…We walked into the terminal to the waiting arms of a throng of welcomers, throwing rose petals, taking pictures and chanting.
Distrust of America is strong in Pakistan, but when the people learn that we are coming in solidarity — in support of a less-violent foreign policy and greater mutual understanding –- their hospitality reminds me of what first drew me to Palestine. When my seatmate on the flight to Islamabad from Abu Dhabi learned that our plan was to join populist leader Imran Khan on his peace convoy into South Waziristan, a smile immediately bloomed on his face and stretched from ear to ear.
Three stories from the first day
The men who greeted us at the airport had a special hope: They carried posters demanding the freedom of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani mother of three and American-trained neuroscientist who was sentenced in 2010 in a U.S. court to 86 years of solitary confinement. She is now being held in FMC Carswell, a federal prison for women with special medical needs in Ft. Worth, Tex. (also chillingly known as the “Hospital of Horrors”).
I have to confess that I had never heard of Aafia, so later, when I managed to get online using our small hotel’s fitful connection, I did a quick Google search to learn more. I found a number of articles in Western media that implicated her as a terrorist. Aafia was allegedly a “firebrand Islamist” who returned to Pakistan with her husband shortly after 9/11. After the two divorced, in part due to what her ex-husband calls her “extreme views,” Aafia supposedly married Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who later named her as an Al-Qaeda operative during his torture by waterboarding. (The allegations arrayed against her and the conflicting accounts given by a variety of sources are actually even more complicated than this simple summary. Google her name if you’re interested and you’ll find a trove of confusing articles.) A damning line-up of accusations, indeed.
After getting barely three hours of sleep and joining the 23 other Americans (and one Canadian) in our delegation for an orientation, I heard directly from Aafia’s older sister, Fowzia (a Harvard-trained neurologist). What we heard was a totally different description of events. (Visit http://www.aafiamovement.com.)
· Aafia’s family knew nothing of any second marriage. In fact, under Islamic law, says Fowzia, she couldn’t have gotten re-married so quickly after her divorce. (However, although not mentioned in the Western coverage I found, Aafia’s ex-husband, Amjad Khan, did almost immediately re-marry.) Fowzia believes it was Amjad – who had physically abused his wife – who named Aafia as a terrorist to the authorities. (This is possible; there are many stories of prisoners in Guantanamo who were fingered by other tribal members to settle a grudge or to earn a bounty payment.)
· When Aafia was first seized from the streets of Karachi by the Pakistani intelligence service (who later turned her over to U.S. authorities) in 2003, she was with her three children; two of them were not found until several years later (2008 and 2010) and one is still missing.
· When Aafia was finally charged in U.S. court, no mention was made of her alleged ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or the plan for a “mass casualty attack in the United States” she supposedly was carrying. Instead, Aafia’s conviction was based on an entirely separate allegation – that while detained by local forces for interrogation by the Americans, she leapt out from behind a curtain, grabbed an M4 rifle and fired on the team of visiting soldiers and FBI agents. They were unharmed, but she was shot twice in the abdomen and nearly died. It simply doesn’t make sense (to me at least) that the police would have detained her behind a mere curtain in the first place, or that the 100-pound, 4’11” woman was able to nab one of the soldier’s guns. And according to Fowzia, no fingerprints were found on the gun allegedly seized by Aafia, and forensic analysis could not prove it had even been fired.
· Aafia was not allowed to choose her own lawyer, despite her family’s willingness to pay. No family visits have been allowed since she was imprisoned.
It is a complex, bewildering story, and one could spend literally hours researching its twists and turns. However, even given the obvious (and understandable) bias of Aafia’s sister, Western media coverage has clearly not given it the detailed examination it deserves, given the level of outrage it has stirred among the Pakistani public. And it certainly calls into question whether basic principles of due process and proportionate punishment – vaunted principles upon which the United States was built – were even minimally followed. Is Aafia the victim of an elaborate conspiracy, the stuff of which movies are made? I don’t know, but it is a legitimate question.
“The ISI (intelligence service) runs Pakistan, and from what I have observed, the Pentagon and the CIA run the United States,” observed Fowzia. “We have tried to take our case to the U.S. government, but it doesn’t seem to matter who is president, Republican or Democrat.”
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Also in the afternoon, we were granted an “audience” with Richard Hoagland, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. consulate in Islamabad. The meeting opened with a briefing on the dangers of our intent to travel to South Waziristan as part of Imran Khan’s convoy to protest American drone attacks. (According to his staff, there have been some “credible threats” against the convoy.) Then he took our questions.
Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy (middle) delivers to Richard Hoagland a petition with more than 3,000 signatures calling for an end to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan
A sampling of his remarks:
· The inflammatory movie trailer insulting the Muslim prophet Mohammed, which triggered riots across the Islamic world, was “a sea-changer here.“ Anti-Americanism already existed, but the posting of the video accelerated it a great deal.
· Protests should be through legal forums, however, he cautioned in a veiled warning about the upcoming march to Waziristan. The anti-Mohammed clip and other such incidents in the past have shown that mass street protests often turn violent. (My comment: Yet…appeals to international forums so rarely produce enforceable action! The Palestinians have been trying this for years.) Nonetheless, Hoagland assured us the U.S. government had taken no action with Pakistani officials to stop us from going on the convoy, and he was “quite confident” we would not be targeted while we are on our journey. (Funny side note: We interpreted him as saying there would be no drone strikes, period. Hoagland wrote after seeing some of our articles and was quick to correct us. He was sure WE would not be targeted — but he wasn’t saying drones wouldn’t strike at all! Still, clearly when we are present, the U.S. feels constrained….Maybe Americans and other internationals should accompany farmers in Waziristan, as they do in Palestine?)
· Since the drone program targeting terrorists in Pakistan began in 2004, civilian casualties have been limited to the “double digits,” Hoagland insisted. And since 2008, when a different, more sophisticated technology was employed, there have been “hardly any, if at all. Extreme care is taken before a decision to strike is made, and I am not just a parrot of my government.”
However, a recent analysis conducted by the Stanford and NYU schools of law contradicts Hoagland, estimating the number of civilian deaths at 474-881, including 176 children. The number of drone strikes has only increased in number and scope since Barack Obama took office. When President Bush left the White House in January 2009, the U.S. had carried out 45-52 drone strikes, depending on which organization’s estimates are cited. (The U.S. government makes no effort of its own to document the civilians killed by its drones — or to offer reparation payments, for that matter.) Since then, President Obama has ordered more than five times that number: 292 in just over three and a half years. The increase is due, in part, to Obama’s introduction of “signature strikes,” in which “suspicious patterns” of activity, rather than specific individuals, are targeted.
Hoagland claimed he knows of no instances of drones hitting the same target twice in close succession, thereby targeting rescue workers, despite the repeated cases documented in the Stanford report. He agreed, however, that a thorough investigation of these claims and a public statement of U.S. findings would “improve transparency.”
· When asked if the government of Pakistan was complicit in aiding and abetting the drone strikes in its own country, Hoagland said he “couldn’t answer.” Just days before our meeting, a report appeared in the Wall Street Journal claiming that for the last four years, Pakistan has gradually withdrawn its overt cooperation with U.S. drone strikes, as they have become increasingly unpopular among the residents here. In the early days of the Afghan war, according to the report, lists of specific individuals to be targeted by U.S. drones were faxed to the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service) and approved by both sides. By last year, however, the fax merely outlined the boundaries of the airspace the drones would use, and the ISI would simply send a confirmation of receipt. After the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory, the ISI stopped responding at all. However, since Pakistani airspace continues to be cleared to avoid midair collisions, the U.S. has acted on the belief that this implies continuing approval – an assumption that is increasingly being challenged. Pakistani politicians like Imran Khan are calling on their government to explicitly demand a halt.
Many of the delegation participants responded warmly to Hoagland’s concluding comment: “I welcome your visit. I always try to make the moral choice, but I know that no matter how thin you slice the bologna, there are always two sides to every issue.“
Others, however, remained unimpressed – me among them. Persons in his office are paid to “talk a good game,” saying little of real substance, while sounding otherwise. As one of my fellow delegates commented, this is what “banality of evil” looks like. It is so very easy to say just the right thing to calm ruffled feathers, while denying any personal responsibility or knowledge.
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The first day concluded with a visit of a few of us to an Islamabad home where several women from a variety of development groups and “left-leaning” political parties shared a homemade Pakistani dinner, fresh lemonade (with gin!, making my jet-lagged head spin), a feisty political debate and music.
Four of those left-leaning (and inevitably, small) political parties were set to announce their unification, a move they hoped would build their influence. I was surprised to learn that despite his courageous stand against drones, the women in room did not hold Imran Khan and his PTI party in high regard. It turns out that one U.S. publication I read was correct when it compared him to Ron Paul: Khan may be on the ethical side of the issue of war, but is “center-right” when it comes to economic issues — such as the destructive effects of the policies demanded of Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund. (The women added that they view Khan’s upcoming march to Waziristan as driven more by self-promotion than a compassion for the people. However, the need for self-promotion comes along with politics, in my opinion, and Khan’s decision to take his campaign to Waziristan requires real courage. He is the only Pakistani leader – political or otherwise – who has done so.)
Another spirited debate ignited over the issue of drones itself. A musician who joined the gathering to entertain us (I must confess I have blanked on his name!) raised the question, “If the drone attacks are halted, how will we stop the extremists?” He is not alone in this viewpoint, and it cannot be denied that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are brutal and widely feared. However, a recent Pew survey showed only 17% of Pakistanis favor the U.S. conducting drone strikes in conjunction with their government against leaders of extremist organizations. (A demand for approval of the Pakistani government is universal, however, as is disapproval of “collateral damage.”) As one of our delegation members observed, “violence only begets more violence.” And when one Taliban operative is “taken out,” another is quick to take his place.
What was remarkable about the evening was that very diverse points of view were aired and addressed in such an open and constructive manner. At the end, when we were ready to disappear into the night, we drew together around the singer’s guitar. What did we sing? Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” – a song for all cultures.
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. jah!