Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
At 5am on 30 October, three Hellfire missiles slammed into a madrassa or religious seminary in Bajaur, a tribal agency on Pakistan’s north-western border with Afghanistan. Eighty young men were killed, all but three under the age of 20. It was the single worst act of violence in Pakistan anyone could remember, certainly since the September 11 attacks on America.
As the body count started to mount, so did the outrage, and not only in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Over the next week mass funerals evolved into mass protests, with demonstrators denouncing President-General Pervez Musharraf, his military regime and, above all, their ‘strategic alliance’ in the US-led ‘war on terror’ – a war that translates easily here as a western crusade against Islam.
Addressing a mass rally in Peshawar on 3 November, the Islamist opposition leader, Fazlur Rahman, gave voice to the aspiration of thousands. ‘American and Nato forces cannot prolong the occupation and will leave Afghanistan soon,’ he said. He was also clear about who was behind the carnage at the madrassa.
‘Both the United States and the Musharraf government are responsible for what happened at Bajaur. Even if the operation had been carried out by the local (Pakistani) forces, the order would have been given by the US. That is why both are culprits in the case.’
But the culprits were unapologetic. The White House praised Musharraf’s ‘determination’ in fighting ‘terrorism’. And Pakistan’s supreme leader averred that all the slain were Taliban militants. ‘They were doing military training. Anyone who says these were innocent religious students is telling lies,’ he told a security seminar on 31 October.
To give weight to his words security men invited journalists in Islamabad to view a grainy, infrared video of ‘militants training in the planting of explosives or suicide bombings’, allegedly at the very madrassa. One official said the seminary had been frequented by Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command to Osama bin Laden. The statement was amplified loudly on US media.
To Pakistanis it was so much wind and piss, and not only because sightings of al Zawahiri are ‘a dime a dozen’ in tribal areas, admit American military analysts. Rather the conviction here is that the attack on the madrassa was either directly executed by unmanned US Predator drones that monitor the Pakistan-Afghan border or indirectly by Pakistani helicopters at Washington’s command. There is also near consensus over US motives: to prevent a peace agreement being signed between the Pakistan army and pro-Taliban tribesmen in Bajaur.
Bajaur is one of many thorns in Pakistan-Nato relations. Adjacent to Afghanistan’s restive Kunar province, it is an entry point and haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas fighting Nato forces. The head of the madrassa was a young cleric, Maulana Liaquat Ali, who, in October 2001, raised 10,000 volunteers to fight alongside Taliban resisting the USled invasion of Afghanistan. Liaquat Ali was killed in the missile strike.
But he was also increasingly marginal to Bajaur politics, and had been ever since the disastrous expedition into Afghanistan in 2001, say locals. In fact, at the time of the missile attack he was negotiating his amnesty with the Pakistan army in exchange for pledges not to give succour or sanctuary to foreign fighters, including the Taliban.
‘The evening before the attack Liaquat had been preparing a jirga (tribal council) for the signing ceremony with the government,’ says Pakistan analyst Rahimullah Yousefzai. ‘Why would the Pakistan army authorise an operation that destroys the Pakistan government’s main political strategy in the tribal areas?’ The answer, he suggests, is because the US had called time on the strategy.
The Bajaur agreement was modelled on one signed on 5 September between the government and pro-Taliban tribesmen in North Waziristan, another tribal agency on the Pakistan-Afghan border. During his recent trips to the US and London, Musharraf had sold this deal as a ‘holistic solution’ to the threat posed to his regime and Afghanistan by a resurgent Taliban and Talibanisation. These could only be defeated by ‘dialogue and development’ in addition to military force, he said.
George Bush and Tony Blair lauded the ‘courage’ of the Pakistani leader. Wiser diplomats kept their counsel. They knew ‘holism’ was not born of new political thinking but of defeat.
In 2002, US and Nato forces in Afghanistan presented the Pakistan leader with irrefutable proof that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were finding refuge in the tribal areas. With extreme reluctance – and for the first time in Pakistan’s history – Musharraf sent 80,000 soldiers into ‘autonomous’ agencies such as Bajaur and Waziristan. Four years on, 700 soldiers had been killed, many had deserted and at least six senior officers had been court martialled for refusing to wage war on their own tribesmen. The numbers of civilians killed and displaced in the conflict was even greater.
And the tribes had become radicalised. Power and leadership shifted from the traditional, progovernment elders or maliks to younger clerics or mullahs forged by successive jihads in Afghanistan, bonded in ethnic solidarity with the Taliban and inspired by the debased ‘Islamist’ visions of al-Qaeda.
These clerics and the madrassa students that follow them became the defenders of the tribal areas against the army incursions and acquired the political legitimacy born of resistance. They called themselves the Pakistan Taliban because that is precisely who they are, says Rahimullah Yousefzai.
‘They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and see them as their allies. If you ask them “Who is your leader?” they would say the Afghan Taliban emir Mullah Mohammed Omar. They also fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan’. Nor are their political visions different from their Afghan cousins, he adds. ‘They are Islamist, anti-western and want an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. They believe the system of government and justice that operated under the Taliban in Afghanistan is the purest form of Islamic rule’.
The 5 September agreement reflects their political power, Yousefzai says. In return for verbal pledges by the Pakistan Taliban to end attacks on pro-government tribesmen and prevent infiltration into Afghanistan, the government agreed to free Taliban prisoners, remove checkpoints and return confiscated weaponry. And while the army has fulfilled every one of its commitments, the Pakistan Taliban has observed theirs mostly in the breach. Since the agreement was initialled, at least four tribesmen have been killed by the Taliban, supposedly as ‘American spies’. And Nato monitors have registered a 300 per cent hike in cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan. There is only one area where the agreement appears to be holding, says Pakistani analyst Ismail Khan. ‘It’s the clause which says you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Since 5 September, there have been no (Taliban) attacks on government installations and the security forces have not carried out any ground and air offensives [against the militants].’
Always today, never tomorrow
It was that détente the attack in Bajaur was intended to destroy, say observers, regardless of whether it was undertaken first hand by Nato forces or second hand by its Pakistani proxies. For if there is one sure consequence of the strike, it is that there will be no more peace agreements signed between the government and pro-Taliban tribesmen. A second consequence – one that Nato and its allies seem unable to grasp – is that it will certainly rally more tribesmen behind the Taliban, and especially the poor, the young and the disenfranchised. The third consequence is that there will be revenge, against Nato in Afghanistan and the army in Pakistan.
There is another way to deal with Talibanisation, say civil NGOs and Pakistan’s main secular parties. This calls for education, re-construction and massive investment in areas where over 60 per cent of families live in poverty, 75 per cent have no access to clean drinking water and just 17 per cent of men and one per cent of women are literate. Pakistan’s military regime, like its British precursor, has preferred historically to keep the tribal areas ‘separate’ from rather than integrated into the rest of the country. As for Nato and other western powers that have the resources for such a transformation, ‘they lack the patience,’ says Khan. ‘They want results immediately – always today, never tomorrow’.
The legacy of that approach can be seen in the tribal areas and, beyond their porous borders, in Afghanistan. Its fruit includes the ruins of Bajaur on the one side and the retrograde emirates of the Taliban on the other.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced