Interview with Noam Chomsky on Pakistan elections

May 7, 2013

As a country which has spent almost half of its existence under some sort of direct military rule how do you see this first ever impending transition from one democratically-elected government to another?

Noam Chomsky: Well, you know more about the internal situation of Pakistan than I do! I mean I think it's good to see something like a democratic transition. Of course, there are plenty of qualifications to that but it is a big change from dictatorship. That's a positive sign. And I think there is some potential for introducing badly needed changes. There are very serious problems to deal with internally and in the country's international relations. So maybe, now some of them can be confronted.

Coming to election issues, what do you think, sitting afar and as an observer, are the basic issues that need to be handled by whoever is voted into power?

NC: Well, first of all, the internal issues. Pakistan is not a unified country. In large parts of the country, the state is regarded as a Punjabi state, not their (the people's) state. In fact, I think the last serious effort to deal with this was probably in the 1970s, when during the Bhutto regime some sort of arrangement of federalism was instituted for devolving power so that people feel the government is responding to them and not just some special interests focused on a particular region and class. Now that's a major problem.

Another problem is the confrontation with India. Pakistan just cannot survive if it continues to do so (continue this confrontation). Pakistan will never be able to match the Indian militarily and the effort to do so is taking an immense toll on the society. It's also extremely dangerous with all the weapons development. The two countries have already come close to nuclear confrontation twice and this could get worse. So dealing with the relationship with India is extremely important.

And that of course focuses right away on Kashmir. Some kind of settlement in Kashmir is crucial for both countries. It's also tearing India apart with horrible atrocities in the region which is controlled by Indian armed forces. This is feeding right back into society even in the domain of elementary civil rights. A good American friend of mine who has lived in India for many years, working as a journalist, was recently denied entry to the country because he wrote on Kashmir. This is a reflection of fractures within society. Pakistan, too, has to focus on the Lashkar [Lashkar-i-Taiba] and other similar groups and work towards some sort of sensible compromise on Kashmir.

And of course this goes beyond. There is Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan which will also be a very tricky issue in the coming years. Then there is a large part of Pakistan which is being torn apart from American drone attacks. The country is being invaded constantly by a terrorist superpower. Again, this is not a small problem.

Historically, several policy domains, including that of foreign policy towards the US and India, budget allocations etc, have been controlled by the Pakistani military, and the civil-military divide can be said to be the most fundamental fracture in Pakistan's body politic. Do you see this changing with recent elections, keeping in mind the military's deep penetration into Pakistan's political economy?

NC: Yes, the military has a huge role in the economy with big stakes and, as you say, it has constantly intervened to make sure that it keeps its hold on policy making. Well, I hope, and there seem to be some signs, that the military is taking a backseat, not really in the economy, but in some of the policy issues. If that can continue, which perhaps it will, this will be a positive development.

Maybe, something like what has happened recently in Turkey. In Turkey also, for a long time, the military was the decisive force but in the past 10 years they have backed off somewhat and the civilian government has gained more independence and autonomy even to shake up the military command. In fact, it even arrested several high-ranking officers [for interfering in governmental affairs]. [1] Maybe Pakistan can move in a similar direction. Similar problems are arising in Egypt too. The question is whether the military will release its grip which has been extremely strong for the past 60 years. So this is happening all over the region and particularly strikingly in Pakistan.

In the coming elections, all indications are that a coalition government will be formed. The party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is leading the polls with Imran Khan's (relatively) newly-emerged party not far behind. Do you think an impending coalition government will be sufficiently equipped to handle the myriad problems facing the country that you have just pointed out, such as civil-military imbalance, drone attacks, extremist violence etc.

NC: Well, we have a record for Nawaz Sharif but not the others. And judging by the record, it's pretty hard to be optimistic. His [Sharif's] previous governments were very corrupt and regressive in the policies pursued. But the very fact that there is popular participation can have impact. That's what leads to change, as it has just recently in North Africa (in Tunisia and Egypt). As far as change goes, significant change does not come from above, it comes through popular activism.

In the past month or so, statements from the US State Department and the American ambassador to Pakistan have indicated quite a few times that they have 'no favourites' in the upcoming elections. What is your take on that especially with the impending (formal) US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

NC: That could well be true. I do not think that US government has any particular interest in one or another element of an internal political confrontation. But it does have very definite interests in what it wants Pakistan to be doing. For example, it wants Pakistan to continue to permit aggressive and violent American actions on Pakistani territory. It wants Pakistan to be supportive of US goals in Afghanistan. The US also deeply cares about Pakistan's relationship with Iran. The US very much wants Pakistan to cut relations with Iran which they [Pakistan] are not doing. They are following a somewhat independent course in this regard, as are India, China and many other countries which are not strictly under the thumb of the US. That will be an important issue because Iran is such a major issue in American foreign policy. And this goes beyond as every year Pakistan has been providing military forces to protect dictatorships in the Gulf from their own populations (e.g. the Saudi Royal Guard and recently in Bahrain). That role has diminished but Pakistan is, and was considered to be, a part of the so-called 'peripheral system' which surrounded the Middle East oil dictatorships with non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran (under the Shah) and Pakistan. Israel was admitted into the club in 1967. One of the main purposes of this was to constrain and limit secular nationalism in the region which was considered a threat to the oil dictatorships.

As you might know, a nationalist insurgency has been going on in Balochistan for almost the past decade. How do you see it affected by the elections, especially as some nationalist parties have decided to take part in polls while others have decried those participating as having sold out to the military establishment?

NC: Balochistan, and to some extent Sindh too, has a general feeling that they are not part of the decision-making process in Pakistan and are ruled by a Punjabi dictatorship. There is a lot of exploitation of the rich resources [in Balochistan] which the locals are not gaining from. As long as this goes on, it is going to keep providing grounds for serious uprisings and insurgencies. This brings us back to the first question which is about developing a constructive from of federalism which will actually ensure participation from the various [smaller] provinces and not just, as they see it, robbing them.

It is now well-known that the Taliban's creation was facilitated by the CIA and the ISI as part of the 1980s anti-Soviet war. But the dynamics of the Taliban now appear to be very different and complex, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as they attack governments and mainstream parties. Some people say that foreign intelligence agencies are still behind the Taliban, while others consider this a denial of home-grown problems of extremism and intolerance. How do you view the Taliban in the context of Pakistan?

NC: I can understand the idea that there is a conspiracy. In fact, in much of the world there is a sense of an ultra-powerful CIA manipulating everything that happens, such as running the Arab Spring, running the Pakistani Taliban, etc. That is just nonsense. They [CIA] created a monster and now they are appalled by it. It has its roots in internal Pakistani affairs. It's a horrible development and phenomenon which goes back to radical Islamisation under Zia and taking away the long standing rights of people in the tribal areas (who were left largely alone). The Pashtuns in particular are kind of trapped. They've never accepted the Durand Line nor has any Afghan government historically accepted it. Travel from what is called Pakistan to Afghanistan has been made increasingly difficult and people are often labelled terrorists, even those who might be just visiting families. It is a border which makes absolutely no sense. It was imposed by the needs of British imperialism and all of these things are festering sores which have to be dealt with internally. These are not CIA manipulations.

Actually, US government policies are continuing to do exactly the same thing [produce terrorism]. Two days after the Boston marathon bombings, there was a drone strike in Yemen attacking a peaceful village, which killed a target who could very easily have been apprehended. But of course it is just easier to terrorise people. The drones are a terrorist weapon, they not only kill targets but also terrorise other people. That is what happens constantly in Waziristan. There happened to be a testimony in the Senate a week later by a young man who was living in the US but was originally from that village [in Yemen which was bombed]. And he testified that for years the 'jihadi' groups in Yemen had been trying to turn the villagers against the Americans and had failed. The villagers admired America. But this one terrorist strike has turned them into radical anti-Americans, which will only serve as a breeding ground for more terrorists.

There was a striking example of this in Pakistan when the US sent in Special Forces, to be honest, to kill Osama Bin Laden. He could easily have been apprehended and caught but their orders were to kill him. If you remember the way they did it, the way they tried to identify his [Osama's] position was through a fake vaccination campaign set up by the CIA in the city. It started in a poor area and then when they decided that Osama was in a different area, they cut it off in the middle and shifted [the vaccination campaign] to a richer area. Now, that is a violation of principles which go as far back as the Hippocratic Oath. Well, in the end they did kill their target but meanwhile it aroused fears all over Pakistan and even as far as Nigeria about what these Westerners are doing when they come in and start sticking needles in their arms. These are understandable fears but were exacerbated. Very soon, health workers were being abducted and several were murdered (in Pakistan). The UN even had to take out its whole anti-polio team. Pakistan is one of the last places in the world where polio still exists and the disease could have been totally wiped out from this planet like smallpox. But now, it means that, according to current estimates, there will be thousands of children in Pakistan at risk of contracting polio. As a health scientist at Columbia University, Les Roberts, pointed out, sooner or later people are going to be looking at a child in a wheelchair suffering from polio and will say 'the Americans did that to him'. So they continue policies which have similar effects i.e. organising the Taliban. This will come back to them too.