New America Media
Editor's Note: Western analysts are mistaken in believing that Pakistan is falling into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. Mir told an audience in Berkeley, Calif. this week. Viji Sundaram is an editor at New America Media.
BERKELEY, Calif. – Pakistan’s arguably most celebrated investigative journalist and editor Hamid Mir said that it is understandable why “Western analysts” mistakenly think that Pakistan is falling into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, when only 2 percent of the country’s population inhabits the “red area” where the two groups are concentrated.
“When you are sitting in New York, or D.C., or San Francisco and reading the newspapers, you are justified in forming this opinion,” Mir told the gathering in the library of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday, taking a dig at the Western media. But he quickly noted that the West should not undermine the threat posed by that minority population of five million because “even 500 suicide bombers can create hell.”
Mir, 42, is best known as the only journalist to have interviewed Osama bin Laden, twice before the 9/11 attacks and once after.
He has put such major political figures as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the hot seat on Geo TV, Pakistan’s popular TV station, where Mir is executive editor. He is currently writing an authorized biography of Osama bin Laden.
The March 27 suicide bombing of a mosque in the restive Khyber region of Jamrud in Pakistan that claimed the lives of 58 people and injured around 160 more, proved that President Obama was wrong in calling that region a safe haven of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Mir said. Only 12 of the worshippers in the two-story mosque belonged to the Pakistani security force and the country’s intelligence agency.
That border region has also claimed the lives of several of his colleagues who were covering the war, said Mir. Many others have quit journalism, altogether.
“I’m able to share all this information with you due to the sacrifices of my cameraman and my guide,” Mir said.
He said the area is so dangerous because, unlike most of the rest of Pakistan, the government has no control over it.
Located between the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), is governed directly by the federal government through a special set of “draconian” laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations that were instituted by the British in 1890, according to Mir. Those laws deny basic human rights to the people of FATA and have prevented the region from partaking in the socio- economic development that the rest of Pakistan has experienced. “That area is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the world,” Mir said.
He said that no part of the $11 billion aid given by the Bush administration to Pakistan in the last seven years was spent in developing the FATA region, which has no roads, no hospitals and zero employment, save for those who work in the flourishing opium trade.
“So if an 18-year-old wants employment, he’ll go to the Taliban, and if an 80-year-old wants help, he too will go to the Taliban,” Mir said.
The tipping point at which the tribal people in those border regions turned against the United States came in 2003, when former President George W. Bush began pressuring Musharraf to begin military operations against them, Mir said. And when innocent children were killed in those operations, the Pashtuns were incensed.
“For a Pashtun, if somebody kills my child, I will take revenge,” Mir said. “So bad U.S. policy isolated that area and led to bloody suicide bombings.”
Mir asserted that the stepped-up drone (unmanned aircraft) attacks by the United States – 46 in the last eight months-- are claiming very few Taliban operatives.
“In the 11 drone attacks I covered, only two low-level Taliban men were killed,” he said. “But I saw dozens of women and children killed.”
According to Mir the “most important problem” the two countries face is that there is no proper border between them. The porous border, Mir said, is more than 1,250 miles long and has only two legal entry points. An estimated 13 million Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border and about the same number live in Afghanistan. All Taliban are Pashtuns.
Mir asserted that the Taliban-generated violence could only end:
* If a border were built between Pakistan and Afghanistan, just as the fencing a few years ago of the so-called “Line of Control” between India and Pakistan has helped control the violence in the India-controlled region of Kashmir.
* If India and Pakistan begin peace talks to solve the Kashmir dispute.
* If the FATA regions are governed like the rest of Pakistan.
* If some of the $1.5 billion per year in non-military aid for five years the Obama administration has promised Pakistan goes to those regions to build schools, hospitals and roads. “Girls should not be prevented from going to school,” he said.
Talking to the Taliban is “not a bad idea,” either, Mir added.
Asked in a private interview if he knew where bin Laden currently was, Mir laughed and said: “He’s wandering freely in those mountainous regions of Pakistan.”